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“Decolonising work requires sincerity, commitment to discomfort and challenge and room for both growth and accountability”

21 Mar 2021 | Advance HE In support of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (21 March) we spoke to Mia Liyanage, associate researcher for the Anti-Racist Curriculum Project in Scotland.
Anti-Racism Curriculum Project logos

Mia Liyanage is associate researcher for the Anti-Racist Curriculum (ARC) Project. The ARC Project is a new collaborative research project, funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and in collaboration with QAA Scotland, that aims to understand and support the development of an anti-racist curriculum for universities and colleges across Scotland.

Mia is the author of Miseducation: decolonising curricula, culture and pedagogy in UK universities and recently completed a Masters degree at the University of Oxford.

Mia has held a variety of access roles and was previously Co-Chair of Common Ground Oxford, a student movement challenging systemic racism and classism and advocating for decolonisation. She is committed to tackling educational inequality and now works as London Programme Officer at CoachBright, a social mobility organisation dedicated to educational equity for disadvantaged young people. 

We asked Mia why she got involved with the ARC Project.

What interested you about this project?

The potential of this project is huge - it’s ambitious, broad, and has many of the elements of best practice that I identified through my experience as an activist and the research I conducted for Miseducation: decolonising curricula, culture and pedagogy in UK universities.

The ARC Project takes a holistic approach - it understands that curricula impact and are impacted by so many things, and seeks to learn from those across HE who can provide insight. With so many institutions involved across Scotland, I believe that the project’s outputs will be collective, accessible, and impactful. The ARC project - and, indeed, the entire Tackling Racism on Campus Project - takes a principled look at the issue and is committed to genuine solutions, rather than the tokenism that can too often hinder EDI work.

I was also interested in this project because one of the enemies of solidarity is isolation; therefore, I consider any project that seeks to bring pockets of decolonising and anti-racist work together to be vital. I’ve seen how little decolonisation advocates often know about their counterparts’ work. If that awareness was greater, work would probably advance much faster and the burden on advocates and activists lessened. Most of all, I never tire of this work, and this project is an opportunity to immerse myself in facilitating the development of anti-racist curricula.

What would you like to gain from your involvement? 

My involvement in decolonisation work in general began as a university student of colour, compelled by my narrow curricula to ask questions about what my institution truly valued. I didn’t know what that compulsion would lead me to, but I believed then - as I do now - that our universities can only gain from teaching, learning and curricula that take into account more perspectives and are more self-aware than the ones we have now.

Since then, my passion for decolonising work has only grown, so this project is a rich opportunity to learn from the people who advocate for and practice it. It’s also a chance to develop my skills in conducting anti-racist work - from research, to communicating with stakeholders, to understanding how institutions work and how best to make an impact that aligns with my values. I’m also excited to work with Scottish institutions for the first time!

What has surprised you so far?

I have been genuinely surprised to find that the policies, viewpoints and truths about race and coloniality that my colleagues and I in student activism have spent years trying to advance, but that have been routinely dismissed as “too radical” or “divisive,” are actually being championed and delivered by Advance HE, and many others across the higher education sector. Decolonising work requires sincerity, commitment to discomfort and challenge and room for both growth and accountability. It’s been a revelation to see the proof that this approach does work, and is valued.

Can you reflect on the differences between your student involvement and now academic involvement in anti-racist work?

Truly, the biggest difference between the two spheres has simply been the extent to which anti-racist outputs are facilitated, valued and compensated in every sense by the sector at large. I somehow expected to find conversations in this academic space more developed or far-reaching than the ones I had had in the student space, but I’ve found my insights and contributions from the latter valuable in the former (at least, I hope so!). Indeed, in many cases, student work is able to be more expansive and boundary-pushing than some academic work. The real difference is that, for the most part, student labour on these issues is casualised, uncompensated, and either ignored or opposed by the institutions that student activists are trying to influence. Student movements are often dismissed as destructive, but their members give up their time and invest their effort precisely because they care about their places of study and want to see them improve.

I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by the extent to which my perspectives, identity and experiences are viewed as useful and valuable in the academic anti-racist space; this was not always the case as a student activist. In this way, the student and academic spheres have been wonderfully similar. Conducting decolonising work with Advance HE has been hugely empowering thus far as a result! But it’s also been validating to reflect back on the work my colleagues in student activism continue to do and exciting to see its echoes in the work I do now. One of the things I’m most passionate about is building bridges between the two spaces - students advocating for decolonisation deserve recognition, and anti-racist practitioners deserve the energy and ideas that student thought can bring. There’s little more powerful than the community shared values can foster.

Mia features in episode 1 of Decolonising Identity, a new podcast exploring identity, race and higher education as part of Advance HE’s focus on tackling structural race inequality in higher education.

In Episode 1 ‘What’s in a name’? Mia joins Khadija Mohammed (Advance HE Senior Fellow and Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Social Science at the University of West Scotland) and Professor Binna Kandola OBE, (Business Psychologist, Senior Partner and co-founder Pearn Kandola) to discuss how people of colour are categorised in the UK, along with its history and implications.

Find out more about the Anti-Racist Curriculum (ARC) Project

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