Decolonising the Curriculum: revolutionary project to empower BAME students inspires chain reaction of events

A revolutionary, student-led research project at Kent Law School has empowered Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students to begin ‘decolonising’ their curriculum; it has also inspired a chain reaction of events across the University.

Earlier this year, student members of the Decolonising the Curriculum Project (DtCP) led café-style focus groups with their peers to research and write a Manifesto for enhancing inclusivity, identity and academic performance at Kent. Underpinned by values of social justice and collaboration, their aim was to critically explore perceptions of the BAME attainment gap, to identify barriers to learning and to explore the broader student experience both in and beyond the classroom.

DtCP students launched their Manifesto in March to a packed-out audience of Kent students, academics, professional services staff and senior leaders (including Professor April McMahon, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education).

Commenting after the launch, one attendee said:

“I learned that black students at Kent would specifically like more explicit mention of the differences and challenges they face compared to white people so that these can be addressed more directly. I feel that, in the past, this is something that the university has tried to shy away from because it is too controversial to be explicit and yet, this is what is needed.”

Another attendee said:

“I learned how we can all promote a sense of belonging, even through simple things like learning how to pronounce unfamiliar names.”

Feedback from the launch helped inform a strategy document that was later prepared for the University’s Executive Group, outlining how key points from the Manifesto could be implemented at Kent.

The project, the first of its kind to be established in a UK law school, was initiated by Kent Law School Senior Lecturer Dr Suhraiya Jivraj and supported by Dave Thomas, Student Success Project Manager from the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences and Sheree Palmer, Student Success Project Officer from the Law School.

Dr Jivraj said: ‘The aim has been to empower BAME students to develop academic capital, become co-producers of knowledge and stronger stakeholders in their own education within the Law School. As one of relatively few teachers of colour, I am uniquely placed to engage with BAME undergraduate students in thinking about issues of race, religion and identity in relation to the curriculum. The fact that this is a student-led project is crucial – it enables them to be “assets” rather than to see themselves represented as quantitative data in University diversity reports which fail to capture the nuance and complexity of their lived realities.’

Student members of the DtCP comprise a mix of law and non-law students, some of whom had studied Critical Race Theory and Decolonial Theory with Dr Jivraj. The team spoke to more than 100 students across the University for their research. Focus group sessions addressed specific issues faced by international students of colour, Muslim women, Muslim men, black men, disabled students as well as issues faced more generally by all students.

When asked about the barriers to inclusivity that they faced, one focus group participant said:

“I do not want to speak up in class because I do not want to be that one brown kid who talks. It feels like seminar leaders are more social with students that look like them.”

Another said:

“Everyone looks at me because of my hijab and has expectations. I don’t want to talk, not because you’re not going to listen to what I have to say, you’re just going to see what I have on my head.”

DtCP students were recognised for their work in making an ‘outstanding contribution to equality, diversity and inclusivity’ at the 2019 Kent Student Awards in June. Trophies and certificates were awarded to the committee of 17 students (including focus group leaders): Ahmed Memon, Joy Olugboyega, Anthony Otobo-Martins, Mekke Orie, Jasmyn Sargeant and Lisa Shoko (all from the Law School) and to Wahida Ahmed (School of European Culture and Languages), Hezhan Kader (School of Psychology), and Abdul Khan (School of Physical Sciences).

The project was originally established by Dr Jivraj as a project for students taking a module on Race, Religion and Law (now Race, Sexuality and Gender Justice). But interest spread quickly amongst Kent students and staff as a result of a successful launch event in October 2018 that featured a keynote address by Dr Jason Arday (University of Roehampton) on BAME mental health and attainment in Higher Education. To help build on this enthusiasm, Dr Jivraj established a DtCP email list, set up reading groups and made resources available via Moodle.

Dr Arday described the project as “sector leading” and has invited Dr Jivraj and the DtCP team to collate their research findings into a Palgrave Macmillan E-Pivot book that he will supervise as series editor. The team began writing the book at a retreat, organised by Dave Thomas, at Kent’s Medway campus in June. The book will be available late 2019/early 2020.

The project’s impact is already extending across the UK; Dr Jivraj is contributing to a BARC (Building the Anti-Racist Classroom) workshop at Leeds Becket University hosted by Professor Shirley Ann Tate and has received invitations to speak about the initiative from law schools at Brunel, Birmingham, Bristol, East Anglia, Liverpool and Middlesex.

Dr Jivraj has secured a £2,726 SLSA grant together with a grant of more than £3,000 from Kent’s Faculty Research Fund, to devise an innovative toolkit that will support other UK law schools keen to embrace and reflect BAME diversity in their own curricula.

Overall, the Project has been supported by two Teaching Enhancement Small Support Awards totalling more than £5,700 with additional funding provided by: the Law School’s Centre for Sexuality Race & Gender Justice (SeRGJ); Race Equality Champion at Kent David Nightingale; UNISON & UCU Kent; Worldfest; and Master of Keynes Chloe Gallien.

Chain reaction of events

An increasing number of initiatives have sprung (and continue to spring) from the project including:

  • A dedicated DtCP website set up by students
  • A masterclass for students with Professor Gurminder Bahmbra (the first Professor of Decolonial Studies in the UK and co-editor of Decolonising the University
  • A new podcast series, created by students, called Stripping the White Walls (and which features one episode with Professor Bahmbra)
  • A BARC workshop held at Kent in May
  • An interview with DtCP student Joy Olugboyega included as part of a Universities UK (UUK) report on #closingthegap
  • A presentation of the manifesto to Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS, by DtCP students at a joint SOAS/UUK event in June on ‘The BAME Attainment Gap: learning from the student experience’
  • A Countercurrents blog post by Dave Thomas and Dr Jivraj addressing the UUK report – in it, they argue that “institutional racism is a problem” and say the report “seems to be oblivious to the societal and structural factors that perpetuate racial inequality”
  • The establishment of a new Kaleidoscope Network at Kent for staff and students who support the principles of race equality. It is co-chaired by Chloe Gallien and Sheree Palmer and hosted by Dr Jivraj in the SeRGJ It is run by a cross university working group that also includes: Barbara Adewumi, Patricia Baker, Becky Lamyman, Ahmed Memon, Melissa Mulhall (Assistant Director, Student Engagement and Experience), and Dr Kathleen Quinlan (Director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at Kent)
  • The establishment of a BAME Network for Staff of Colour at Kent, with an inaugural meeting held in May
  • An invitation from Mr Speaker, The Rt Hon Jon Bercow MP to a reception at the House of Commons to celebrate the Miranda Brawn Diversity Leadership Foundation’s Summer Party on Wednesday 12 June
  • New training for teaching staff in cultural competency as part of Kent’s PGCHE This will be led by Dr Quinlan and supported by Dr Jivraj and Dave Thomas. The training will incorporate perspectives from decolonial and critical race theories
  • An invitation from Melissa Mulhall for the DtCP team to contribute to a Kent working group on Welcome, Induction and Transition (WIT) with the aim of implementing student suggestions for the 2020/21 academic year. (Kent Law School will be piloting the introduction of student suggestion in Welcome Week 2019 with events such as a one-hour talk by a BAME student on ‘surviving and succeeding’ at law school – the aim is to increase BAME students’ sense of belonging)
  • A training Masterclass with Dr Michelle Grue (US) on ‘Diversifying the Curriculum’ in September. This will be a practical workshop for staff, supported by Kent’s Social Sciences Faculty Internationalisation Fund
  • A conference, planned for Spring 2020 at Kent, that will focus on “whiteness and empowering colleagues promoting BME inclusion”. This event will be supported by the Kaleidoscope Network together with BME staff from Canterbury Christ Church University

Dr Jivraj (pictured left above with Baroness Valerie Amos and DtCP students) is the co-ordinator of the Decolonising Sexualities Network and is co-editor of Decolonizing Sexualities: Transnational Perspectives, Critical Interventions with Dr Sandeep Bakshi and Dr Silvia Posocco (CounterPress, 2016) – a book which can be downloaded on a ‘pay what you can basis’ on the Counterpress website.