The importance of addressing institutionalism, racism and white privilege is not new to DMU, and unlike many other HEIs, DMU recognised that decolonising the curriculum was not enough to address the long historical impact of colonialism and the deep-rooted structural disparities this has brought. That is not to say addressing the degree awarding gap is not necessary but it recognised this alone could not overturn the significant barriers faced by students of colour.
DMU was bolder and bigger in its thinking and acknowledged that in order to make significant impactful changes the ‘whole’ institution would need to be overhauled to ensure there was no racial disparity within the institution, in the makeup of its staff, in teaching practices, in the experience the students receive or the choices it makes as an educator.
Accordingly, in September 2019, DMU launched its transformational project called Decolonising DMU which, at its heart, addresses the entrenched inequalities prevalent in higher education institutions. Only by addressing these does DMU believe it can truly deliver an anti-racist university that is fully inclusive and socially progressive.
Why is addressing inequalities so important at DMU?
Compared to the rest of the sector, DMU has significantly higher proportions of students from ethnic minorities, currently 54%. It also has a high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, students aged 21 and above and one in five DMU students also declare a disability. DMU is also geographically located within the very diverse city of Leicester so it matters that the diverse needs of both students and staff are addressed and that all feel empowered to reach their potential. Critical to this is to ensure DMU is a socially inclusive university, which aims to level the playing field for staff and students through a process of transformation linked to strategy and meaningful action.
So how is DMU doing this?
Decolonising DMU is a whole institution approach which aims to work towards addressing structural inequality at DMU. This approach is unique in HE as it recognises that in order to address institutional racism and discrimination all university processes, procedures and practices need to be scrutinised. It also recognises that the process of decolonising must engage staff and students from across the institution.
Decolonising DMU engages through five discrete workstreams which enables a holistic approach covering institution, staff, students, library and research. Each of these workstreams provide a range of activities which offer a variety of routes to engagement for both staff and students. The benefits of this approach are that all levels of the institution are involved and empowered by having discussions about what Decolonising DMU looks like within different contexts. This means staff and students may influence the direction of Decolonising DMU.
Including staff and students
Decolonising DMU has established a Community of Practice for staff to contribute and share a body of inclusive practices to learn from each other. The Kimberlin sessions, held through the library, offer staff and students the opportunity to share, listen and reflect on issues such as racism, representation, belonging, language and the lived experience of People of Colour within higher education. These sessions are also a call to action for changes in practice and culture within the institution.
Through the employment of DMU students within the project, an active forum ensuring a strong student voice has been created. Unapologetically BAME has been driven by students of colour and provides opportunities for debate, discussion and influencing institutional change. The project has provided an opportunity for connection with students of colour from an institution in the USA.
DMU Library and Learning Services are working towards decolonising the collection, seeking to diversify the range of materials and research available to staff and students. Reading lists are a key part of decolonising the curriculum and the library collection. As part of ongoing work to encourage staff to decolonise reading lists, a workshop has been developed offering tools to help in identifying bias in reading lists and guidance to assist in broadening their scope.
It was clear from conversations with staff that knowledge and understanding varied greatly. A toolkit has been developed to address gaps in staff knowledge about how decolonising might apply to individual working practices. This provides an opportunity to showcase the good practice many staff were already employing. A series of podcasts are also under development to complement the toolkit.
The move from focusing on degree awarding to a holistic, complete institutional approach has been challenging.
Defining and clearly communicating what is meant by ‘decolonising’ has been a personal and professional journey. Initially a slippery concept, the meaning has grown organically through project research, experience, articulation and discussion. Drawing upon layers of academic literature, the decolonising higher education movement and the sharing of the lived experiences of colleagues and students of colour, a confidence in the concept and its communication has evolved.
An approach which allows staff to jump on and join the journey through a variety of touch points has been beneficial to the project and the institution. This enables different groups of staff and students to engage in meaningful dialogue around the issues of decolonising. This afforded space for reflection and generated changes in personal and professional practices. The feedback from the majority of staff to date has been very positive. The project is underpinned by a programme of research and evaluation activity which will measure the impact of the project on the institution over time.
The importance of Decolonising DMU has been amplified by the inequalities brought back into stark focus by Black Lives Matter and exacerbated by Covid-19. This has been reflected in the increase in participation and breadth of reach of Decolonising DMU. The essential nature and need for this work has sparked demand for a greater desire to actively engage with the project and make a difference.
What could you do? Are you up for the challenge?
Dr Hardeep Basra is an Academic Developer and BAME Co-Chair.
Kaye Towlson is Library and Learning Services workstream lead for Decolonising DMU and Academic Team Manager (Information Literacy).
Dr Melanie Crofts is Staff workstream lead for Decolonising DMU and a Senior Lecturer in Law.
Advance HE's Race Equality Charter is open now for intentions to submit in February 2021. The deadline to apply is 17 December 2020. Find out how to apply
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This year's virtual Governance Conference, Transforming Governance for a new normal, will take place on 20 November 2020. It will focus on the first full academic year of higher education delivery during a global pandemic as well as how governance enables institutions to move forward embedding inclusivity in all that they do, in order to be truly fit for the future. Find out more about the Governance Conference 2020.