In 2016, NUS posted an article to their website called “Why is my curriculum white?”, addressing an online movement to make university curriculums more inclusive.
That academic year, only 59.7% of black, minority, and ethnic students (BME) graduated with a first or a 2:1, compared with 73.5% of white students according to Universities UK. The next year, Cambridge University student Lola Olufemi spoke up about the issue, only to receive racist and sexist abuse online after a Telegraph article claimed that she was “(forcing) Cambridge to drop white authors”.
What does it mean to want a “decolonised curriculum”? Priyamvada Gopal, writer for The Guardian, argues that “decolonising the curriculum is, first of all, the acceptance that education... needs to enable self-understanding. This is particularly important to people not used to seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of conventional learning- whether women, gay people, disabled people, the working classes, or ethnic minorities.”
For many, the lack of representation within the university syllabus causes BME students to underachieve. In 2019, Open University named decolonising curriculums one of the most important ways that higher education can be improved.
Certain institutions appear to be making steps in the right direction. Universities such as Swansea, Cambridge and Birmingham claim to be making steps towards making their reading lists more inclusive. However, many argue that universities still have a long way to go in terms of diversity. As of 2017, only 9.6% of professorial posts in the UK were made up of BME staff- Equality, Welfare and Diversity officer Jack Green believes that hiring more people of colour would improve education for everyone.
“Diversifying the curriculum would not only be beneficial to Black and Minority Ethnic students but also give a broader education to other students.” Green argued. “There needs to be adequate representation in the curriculum to reflect the student population, however, to fully diversify the curriculum we must also actively seek BME members of staff into teaching roles.”
Green is not alone in valuing a more diverse education for Newcastle University students. Chris Wilkinson, NUSU’s Racial Equality Officer, stated: “The decolonisation of the curriculum is an absolutely necessary step towards meaningful conversation and representation in our society. Being able to study how things actually are and were is so important for many reasons, not least because an entire generation of students is ready to become genuinely self-aware.”
The Courier approached Newcastle University’s Head of Literature, Helen Freshwater, for information on how the school is diversifying the course. While less than 53% of undergraduate literature modules contain BME authors, Freshwater asserts that diversity and inclusion are “at the heart” of the work done at SELLL.
“The modules which don’t include BAME writers focus on earlier historical periods.” She explained. “Many of these modules seek to address the gaps and silences in English literature from earlier periods... modules such as the third-year option, “Other Renaissances: Gender, Race and Sexuality in Early Modern Culture”, are centrally concerned with these issues despite not including any writing by BAME authors.”
According to Professor Kate Chedgzoy, Newcastle’s Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, English Literature is not the only subject that is facing changes. “The entire History curriculum is being reviewed, and decolonisation is an important part of that.” She explained. “This links with other curriculum diversification initiatives in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology.
“Working to make both the content of the curriculum and the ways in which we teach and learn more diverse, equal and inclusive is a key goal for many people across the university.”