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Race, the curriculum and leadership

30 Nov 2020 | Professor Paul Miller, PhD Professor Paul Miller has joined Advance HE as new strategic adviser for race, culture and leadership to initiate our renewed focus for addressing racial inequality. Here, Professor Miller shares his thoughts on creating diversity in the curriculum and the role leaders in HE can play to address systemic race iniquities.

How do we make sure that HE leaders don’t blame the external environment for their issues with race?

What can leaders do to address the system within their institution, and in relation to their role as civic institutions also change the systems outside; for example, institutions train people to become law-makers; politicians; professionals?

What could we do to address issues of curriculum, for example?

Within the last decade, there have been sustained debates within the UK’s higher education sector about the lack of diversity in the curriculum consumed by students. To a large extent, these debates have been fuelled by students and sustained by students and academics of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) heritage, as well as by sector bodies such as Advance HE. Students have been arguing for more content that (i) re-balances and countenances dominant knowledge discourses, and (ii) recognises and normalises their unique ethnic, cultural, and other social ascriptions. These are two important things. First, students want to be provided with a body of knowledge that resonates with them, their stories, their histories – essentially, a body of knowledge, with which they can ‘connect’ both ‘then’ and ‘now’. Second, students want to feel they ‘belong’ in an education system, and in educational institutions, and the curriculum is the singular most important artefact in their achievement of this sense of ‘belonging’.

Despite debates and much ‘good intent’ however, change in this area has moved and is moving at a slow pace. From my experience, this is largely due to four things: (i) many academics lack the understanding of what it is involved, and what it means to decolonise and inclusivise their curriculum (ii) many academics lack the interest and skills to decolonise and inclusivise the curriculum (iii) university leaders and academics avoid talking about ‘race’ and racism for fear they may get it wrong (iv) university leaders avoid taking action because ‘race’ is not a priority among a range of competing priorities. This is not to say that individual academics in some universities have not attempted to address this issue in the ways they can, however these are the few and not the many.  

What can leaders do?

Education is the seed and flower of development. Accordingly, the content of education should seek to equip and liberate all who receive this content, equally. Furthermore, since education is the seed and flower of development, leaders are the fertilisers. Put differently, tackling the drive, steer and freedom to inclusivise a curriculum must come from leaders, who through their words, deeds and personal commitment fuel, and sometimes lead and/or mandate change in this area. It is true, universities are operating in a wider neo-liberal context where market competition and survival are twin end games. However, it is also true that university leaders are enormously powerful individuals, both within and outside their institutions, and an easy way to demonstrate their civic mindedness is to start with a curriculum suitable for all who study in their institutions. Except for specific professional programmes that has prescribed content, universities have remarkable flexibility over what is taught. Further, even professional programmes have some space for the imagination to accommodate the interests of those delivering and consuming the programmes.

There is no ‘magic wand’ solution to deeply embedded problems of ‘race’ inequity in society and in educational institutions. Nevertheless, for the debates that have outlasted the past decade not to be a feature of succeeding decades, university leaders are encouraged to exercise the Triple Activism of: Pedagogic Activism, Regulatory Activism and Emancipatory Activism.

In terms of pedagogic activism, they need to look at what is taught (content, concepts), and how this is taught (design, pedagogy) and work with and support academics to ensure knowledge forms and artefacts much more closely reflect all students, and that no student is left behind in how content is designed and delivered.

In terms of regulatory activism, they need to examine existing policies to ensure tensions and anomalies are cleared up, and where necessary to rewrite or develop new policies that free the imagination of academics to liberate the curriculum for all learners. Although institutions are very much governed by policies, it is important these are not viewed and used as ‘shackles’ but rather as tools for social transformation.

In terms of emancipatory activism, this is simply the impelling fire in the belly of a leader that makes them want to, and do change systems, policies and pedagogies to provide students with the best educational experience and outcomes possible – as determined by students themselves. This type of activism is at the heart of a leader’s own agency, and despite environmental constraints and/or hazards, will scaffold the leader to working within, or around these hazards into finding ways that liberate their students/the curriculum.  


Paul Miller, PhD, is Professor of Educational Leadership & Social Justice and President of the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration & Management. He is also Principal Consultant & Director of consulting firm, Educational Equity Services. A former University administrator, and Principal Fellow, he has researched and published extensively on ‘racism and educational leadership’ and is well respected among his peers locally and internationally. His research has been assisting the UK government in Anti-racism policy development.



Miller, P. Hill-Berry, N., Hylton-Fraser., Powell, S. (2019). Social Justice Work as Activism: The Work of Education Professionals in England and Jamaica, International Studies in Educational Administration, 47(1), 3-18.

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