UK higher education must be decolonised, students warn

The Canary

UK universities are “a product of colonialism” and action is still needed to challenge “racist structures” in institutions, students have warned.

In a plan setting out its priorities for the future, the National Union of Students says that some parts of UK higher education “have propagated systems that assure white privilege” and that the system must be “decolonised”.

Universities have recognised there is a need to dismantle these systems, the union said, but more needs to be done to create a “truly liberated education”.

Start your day with The Canary News Digest

Fresh and fearless; get excellent independent journalism from The Canary, delivered straight to your inbox every morning.




The call comes at a time of a number of campaigns. Some have focused on calling for individual universities to examine whether courses are too dominated by a small group of perspectives, typically white and male, and should include a broader range of voices and writers – sometimes known as “decolonising the curriculum”.

Others focus on wider issues, such as the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which was calling for institutions in Oxford and South Africa to remove statues of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes.

The NUS’s manifesto says it will work to “break down the barriers to succeeding in education and society”.

In a section entitled “decolonising our education”, it says: “Our educational structures and institutions are a product of colonialism: some have directly profited from this, while others have propagated systems that assure white privilege.

“This is reflected in the racist barriers and structures students face, with the attainment gap the most striking symptom of race inequity.

“Thanks to NUS campaigning, the sector recognises it has a responsibility to dismantle these systems.

“However, there remains the need for a vision of a truly liberated education, one that can thrive free from isolated attachment to western narratives.

“NUS will support activists working across the UK, to understand, identify, and actively challenge the racist structures in our colleges and universities.

“We will ensure that these groups can collaborate and speak together about the future of our education.”

A number of institutions have been taking action to review curriculums and practices.

For example, a joint report published by the NUS and vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK (UUK) in May this year, looking at attainment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students, noted that SOAS, University of London, has established an action plan outlining the institution’s “commitments to address the need for decolonisation within the school”.

The NUS’s 10-point manifesto focuses on three areas overall. As well as “breaking down the barriers to succeeding in education and society”, these are “building a movement to transform education” and “breaking down the barriers to accessing education and taking part in society”.

Cecil Rhodes statue
File picture of a statue mounted on Oriel college, Oxford building of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes (Steve Parsons/PA)

The 18-page plan also covers issues such as funding; accessible and affordable housing and transport; health care and fair access to education.

Zamzam Ibrahim, NUS national president, said: “While our external environment is somewhat turbulent, and continues to be uncertain, we’ve still been able to launch a priority campaign focused on delivering a sustainable, accessible, life-long, funded solution to our broken education system and our biggest ever annual voter registration campaign for young people, that’s already showing results.

“While our plan contains ambitions beyond our year, it is founded in the reforms that members have told us they want, and the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s students.

“We’ll be looking to work with our members and students more closely in coming months as we launch other initiatives that support the delivery of our 10-point plan.”

A UUK spokesperson said: “Many institutions have taken on board the need to have a more inclusive curriculum.

“Our work suggests several universities are reviewing their curriculums as well as conducting liberation or decolonisation activities in co-ordination with students’ unions and individuals.

“Many are at the early phase and have not been rolled out across entire institutions.”

Since you're here ...

We know you don't need a lecture. You wouldn't be here if you didn't care.
Now, more than ever, we need your help to challenge the rightwing press and hold power to account. Please help us survive and thrive.

The Canary Support
  • Show Comments
    1. “The 18-page plan also covers issues such as funding; accessible and affordable housing and transport; health care and fair access to education.”

      Eighteen pages? That requires orders of magnitude more attention span than the ‘Twitter’ generation can muster. Was the task of authorship passed as a baton from one to another every three minutes? It doesn’t matter whether the overall ‘plan’ coheres because the only people likely to be attracted to read it will have attention deficit too.

      “However, there remains the need for a vision of a truly liberated education, one that can thrive free from isolated attachment to western narratives.”

      That anyone could express ideas in such impenetrable manner is clear proof of deficiencies in the educational system.

      “Some have focused on calling for individual universities to examine whether courses are too dominated by a small group of perspectives, typically white and male, and should include a broader range of voices and writers – sometimes known as “decolonising the curriculum”.

      One supposes courses in English literature and in some other of the less demanding humanities can easily be adjusted to accommodate ‘decolonising’ (whatever that may be) the curriculum. One awaits with interest how disciplines such as mathematics, the quantitative sciences, and Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy, ought be ‘decolonised’.

      Presumably, integration of values across disciplines shall mean carrying forward the idea of protecting sensitive souls from shocking revelations through forewarning via ‘trigger words’ and availability of ‘safe spaces’ for those whose delicate dispositions cannot cope with unpalatable ideas. How might this apply to teaching mathematics? At first year level should Cantor’s demonstration that the continuum of numbers (nowadays known as ‘real’) far exceeds in number of elements that of rational numbers be preceded by a reassuring preamble? Later on, might it be that Godel’s incompleteness theorems are just too devastating to be mentioned? They could be taken to suggest that there are self-evident politically correct (PC) statements which can neither be proven nor disproved by deduction from PC axioms.

      Taking the matter further, should not accepted tenets in all disciplines be re-evaluated on the basis of the PC moral propriety of their originators with respect to all views they ever expressed? For instance, if Newton held unacceptable opinions about people born beyond the confines of mainland Britain, or regarded the intellects of women with disdain, ought not his mechanics and infinitesimal calculus be rejected? That was a rhetorical question because every clear thinking individual in possession of ‘woke’ insight knows the answer to be ‘yes’.

    Leave a Reply

    Join the conversation

    Please read our comment moderation policy here.