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Democracy, Diversity and Decolonisation: Staff-student partnerships in a reading list review

08 Jan 2020 | Dave Thomas Dave Thomas is Student Success Project Manager, PhD researcher and BAME Staff Network Co-Chair at the University of Kent. In this blog, he explains the importance of decolonising the curriculum to ensure diversity of opinion and democratic thought.

What is generally understood as knowledge in the universities of our world represents a very small proportion of the global treasury of knowledge…Higher education institutions today exclude many of the diverse knowledge systems in the world, including those of Indigenous peoples and excluded racial groups, and those excluded on the basis of gender, class or sexuality.”

Hall and Tandon 2017

Surprisingly, there is a paucity in research illuminating the unchallenged epistemological and ontological underpinnings of the reading lists of higher education (HE) study programs from a cultural, sociological or political perspective. This provided impetus for my conception and creation of what I call a “reading list review” at the University of Kent.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) consist of hyper-diverse student cohorts who are not positively represented on current reading lists. Western perceptions advance a notion that students are learning in ‘post-racial’ HEIs, where reading lists are colour-blind, meritocratic, liberal physical and online resources. Arguably, these perceptions have little appreciation for approaches to knowing and knowledge production from the global South. Such misconceptions are problematic. Professor Heidi Mirza challenges these perceptions in stating, “by adopting ‘colour-blind’ and ‘complacent’ bureaucratic approaches, universities can claim to be doing something, while really doing nothing at all to change the status quo” (Mirza 2018: 7). The reading list review is one of many strategies can be employed to challenge the status quo.

A reading list review is a process whereby staff and students engage in a collaborative, power-sharing relationship to explore the extent to which the contents, concepts and context of a program’s reading lists are representative of diverse knowledge systems, then actively make recommendations towards redress. The process includes a desk-based review of the reading lists, as well as focus groups with staff and students, in order to gain nuanced understandings of their perceptions.

I use the term ‘diverse’ in a similar manner to Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon (2017) to represent an ecosystem inclusive and equally representative of traditionally excluded groups such as racialised groups, Indigenous peoples, those generally excluded on the basis of gender, class or sexuality, as well as their White counterparts.

Following a superfluity of research that highlights the statistical significance of race in shaping attainment in HE (Broecke and Nicholls 2007; Singh 2011; Richardson 2015; Mountford-Zimdars et al. 2015) and the Office for Students’ directives to “eliminate the unexplained gap in degree outcomes (1sts or 2:1s) between white students and black students by 2024-25, and to eliminate the absolute gap (the gap caused by both structural and unexplained factors) by 2030-31” (OfS 2018), a review of the perspectives presented within the curriculum via the reading lists becomes imperative.

Due to its understanding of racism as a socially pervasive, permanent feature of modern social formations, Critical Race Theory is used as an analytical framework to guide the reading list review.

Initial findings reveal that reading lists are comprised of inherently White, European, male authors, indicating an ‘apartheid of knowledge’ that produces epistemic inequality. Expectations and perceptions surrounding the reading lists also suggests that there are divergent views between staff and students in relation to its meaning, form and function.

Arguably, reading lists are a compass that students may utilise to traverse their academic terrain. Therefore, the primary objectives of the review are to investigate the extent to which its demographic composition impact on students’ interest and engagement with the curriculum, and to demonstrate the extent to which pedagogic interventions can be operationalised through reading lists in order to gain an understanding of student and teaching staff’s perceptions and expectations.

Several academics have critiqued the methodology employed in reviewing the reading lists, highlighting a lack of rigor. A reading list review should not be perceived as a myopic approach to improving body count through identity politics, but rather, as a catalyst for more sustainable institutional conversation and strategy to redress structural inequalities and realise transformational change (Thomas 2020 forthcoming).


The aim of creating distance in relation to the Eurocentric tradition is to open analytical spaces for realities that… have been ignored or made invisible, that is, deemed non-existent by the Eurocentric critical tradition… keeping distance does not mean discarding… Eurocentric critical tradition and throwing it into the dustbin of history… It means including it in a much broader landscape of epistemological and political possibilities."

De Sousa Santos 2014: 44

Ten key considerations in conducting a reading list review

Today, programs within a range of faculties across the University of Kent have embarked on reviewing their reading lists. While checklists and toolkits have become a feature of approaches to decolonise the curriculum, to date, there has been an absence of a methodology to guide a reading list review. It is with this in mind that I propose 10 key considerations in conducting a reading list review, similar to those presented in Thomas, Arday and Adewumi (2020 forthcoming):

    1. Be reflexive in establishing what you are intending to do. Engage with paradigms, discourses and theories relating to epistemology, ontology and pedagogy in HE in order to identify your contextual strengths, challenges, opportunities and threats
    2. Become conversant with contemporary local and national legislation, policies, agendas and practices concerning equality, diversity and inclusivity. For example, the Equality Act 2010 and the Public Sector Equality Duty, Higher Education and Research Act 2017, local EDI Strategy and Equality Impact Analysis
    3. Establish appropriate theories, methodologies and conceptual frameworks to guide your research, with consideration to your axes of enquiry
    4. Develop a proposal. This should include data collection, reporting, management and analysis strategies as well as methods of evaluation
    5. Seek ethical approval
    6. Explore funding sources in order to resource the project
    7. Assemble an intersectionally diverse project team. This will enable you to achieve breadth in positionality and engage key stakeholders (eg students, faculty and professional staff)
    8. Conduct the research (Equality Impact Analysis, desk-based research, focus groups, questionnaires and one-to-one interviews)
    9. Analyse the raw data using a QuantCrit approach. This is important, as data are neither objective nor colour-blind
    10. Complete an evaluation report with recommendations to effect and sustain transformational change


EDI Conference 2020: Courageous conversations and adventurous approaches: Creative thinking in tackling inequality is a three-day conference from 17-19 March 2020 in Edinburgh. Find out more and book your place now.


Broecke, S. and Nicholls, T. (2007) Ethnicity and degree attainment. :1–24.

Hall, B.L. and Tandon, R. (2017) Decolonization of knowledge, epistemicide. Research for All 1:6–19

Mountford-Zimdars, A. et al. (2015) Causes of Differences in Student Outcomes. Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)

OfS (2018) A New Approach to Regulating Access and Participation in English Higher Education Consultation Outcomes

Richardson, J.T.E. (2015) The under-attainment of ethnic minority students in UK higher education: what we know and what we don't know. Journal of Further and Higher Education

Singh, G. (2011) A synthesis of research evidence. Black and minority ethnic (BME) students’ participation in higher education: improving retention and success. :1–73.

De Sousa Santos, B. (2014) Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide. London and New York: Routledge.

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