Decolonising the university: between hope and necessity

By Gaya Raddadi

Calls for decolonisation are appearing all over the globe, in different forms. But what does ‘decolonisation’ mean? Each definition is rooted in the specificity of the contexts it is applied to, and in the aims it wishes to achieve. In my research on decolonising universities I propose  to consider it as the recognition of the historicity of processes of knowledge creation and reproduction.

By historicity I mean the lived experiences of people that make up the university space: students, educators, staff, academics – past, present, and future. These experiences do not happen in a vacuum; they are not a-historical nor a-political. Every day individuals walking the halls of universities carry their own historicities and are confronted with that of others, as well as the institution’s. Our historicities define our research interests and our own positionalities vis à vis what we study. In a similar manner, they define the curriculum presented by our professors, the mode in which they teach and the topics they present to us.

On a much larger scale, the interactions between all these historicities in the academy, across space and time, is what makes up the processes of knowledge creation and reproduction. “Knowledge is power”, and universities are the primary locus of such power. Therefore, it seems crucial for us to pose key questions about the historicity. knowledge creation processes: Which knowledge is created? Whose power does this sustain? By whom? For whom?

Naturally, these questions appear as monumental, and are all qualified differently depending on the geographical context they are applied to. In my research I found .it helpful to consider the university as two separate units of study, according to its functions: as a theoretical space with a focus on the curriculum and pedagogy, and as a physical space, where students, educators, and staff move within the historical space of the university. This is a way to both problematise the university, as well as to identify practices of resistance and decolonisation in practice.

 University as a theoretical space

Universities are primarily institutions where knowledge is created, shared, and reproduced. This knowledge ultimately has a real impact on the world through several routes: policy, socialisation, economic structures, etc. It is this real impact makes decolonisation so urgent.

The first example of colonial influence within the university is the systemic erasure of non-dominant discourses, first from the academy at large and, later, from the mainstream. At the heart of this lies the idea that theory and knowledge is produced solely in the West, and it rests upon the contexts outside of the West to apply it. Despite these experiences being defined by its particular geohistorical location, it is deemed universal.

An example of this is the theorisation of the state, a fundamental unit of the discipline of international relations. Despite the singularity of circumstances in Europe which lead to this definition, statehood is a widely used concept and often assumed as a-temporal and unproblematic. Upon this rest infantilisation and normative judgments such as notions of state fragility, failed states, etc. whenever the norm is not followed, and the justification for interventions in war-ridden zones.

Similar to the ways in which non-Western experiences are excluded from the mainstream realm of theorisation, so are non-male perspectives. Heidi Safia Mirza uses the concept of “epistemic violence”, to theorise the difficulty of non-dominant narratives to occupy a historical space within academia. As an example, she brings forth the experience of Indian suffragettes who are often erased from the history of suffragette movements, or only perceived as racialised, or even doubled as “exotic”, and sexualised.

The process of decolonisation within the theoretical space of the university has the primary aim of challenging, questioning, and replacing the dominant systems of knowledge used for oppression. Primary among these goals, is the basic level of challenging mainstream authors as a normal practice. The exercise of cultural reflexivity and the embracement of “other(ed)” systems of knowledge can be practiced as a more deliberate approach This means engaging with a plurality of experiences grounded in the context in which knowledge would be operating and generating a dialogue with the affected communities which are mostly indigenous ones. Ultimately, when approaching issues of gender and race, it is important to prioritise truth rather than comfort, as the erasure of violent experiences only benefits the oppressor, not the oppressed.

University as a physical space

The historical experience of students, educators, and staff as bodies that operate within the physical space of universities is that non-white non-male bodies were not present on university campuses until the last century – apart from being an object of study. Even once included, more covert methods of marginalisation are still in place via processes of Othering: the creation of an us vs. them mentality to set the “good” dominant group apart from its opposition.

Historically, Othering has had the effect of excluding women and ethnicised individuals from academia. Nevertheless, the inclusion of these groups has considerably picked up, particularly for women. Women, in fact, now constitute almost 42% of academic staff in the world. A closer look at the data, however, uncovers continued marginalisation. Women are still present in lower numbers than the dominant male group, with significant variations in non-Western contexts, e.g., only 24% of tertiary education academic staff is female in Sub-Saharan Africa). Furthermore, even in contexts where female percentage of academic staff is higher, there are significantly fewer women holding senior faculty positions than men. When women do indeed reach senior faculty positions, they earn less than men. The representation and earning gap become even wider when considering ethnicised women.

Where they are indeed part of the institution, women and ethnicised individuals within the institution are often considered “exotic tokens” to showcase the university’s diversity; they suddenly also become natural experts on their identity issue-area and are subject to intellectual casting. They are also subject to a rigid control of their lived spatiality: their physical appearances, their tone of voice, etc.

The processes of decolonisation in practice and culture of the university as an institution of knowledge to overcome systems of oppression can be numerous. First, I would suggest that a distinction is needed between anti- racism/anti-sexism and multiculturalism and inclusion: active hiring agendas to include representation are good, as they subvert the idea that white/male knowledge is considered superior and universal, and that scholars of colour solely focus on issues of race and identities while women only focus on gender issues. Therefore, it is important that an active engagement in creating inclusive, anti-racist, anti-sexist spaces is taken alongside “diversity and inclusion” agendas. In this context, it would be important too that different stakeholders are involved in developing these safe spaces. Diversity and inclusion councils or commissions often consist of institutional agents, faculty, senior administrators, etc., and, as a result, the lived experiences of those affected by the institutions’ racialised/oppressive social order slip through the cracks of the dominant institutional perspective.

Gaya Raddadi is a researcher and Master student in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute of Geneva (IHEID). Her research interests and expertise revolve around security issues, transnational terrorism, state-building, and decolonisation, with a particular focus on West and North Africa. Alongside her academic commitments, she devotes her time to the advocacy of anti-racist, and feminist goals.

Image: Jer Clarke under a Creative Commons Licence on Flickr

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.