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Decolonising the Curriculum at UK Universities Is About Inclusion, Not Exclusion

It’s been over a week now since Telegraph published a misleading article accusing Cambridge student, Lola Olufemi, of forcing the University to “drop white authors”.

As you may have seen, a portrait of Lola illustrated the front-page of the 25th October issue, which lacked detail and evidence.

Following a large-scale media backlash, the newspaper then published a correction, stating the information was false.

What Lola, who is also women’s officer at Cambridge University Students’ Union, had actually done was to take part in a campaign aiming to broaden the University’s English syllabus by adding more BME authors, creating diversity and challenging institutional racism. Not to replace all white authors.

However, thanks to that one misleading headline, Lola became a target of racist and sexist abuse online.

Students, media channels, and other Twitter users flocked to support Lola, expressing anger regarding Telegraph’s article and the response it garnered.

Lola also received enormous support from the University itself, with nearly 100 members of Cambridge academic staff conveying their solidarity with her in an official statement, and condemning Telegraph’s publication as ‘deliberately misleading and racially inflammatory’.

Lola was one of several students involved in the initial movement to encourage the inclusion of BME authors in the Cambridge English curriculum, not the exclusion of others.

An open letter summarising the campaign was signed by 100 students and sent to the head of the English faculty. It explicitly read: “This is not a call for the exclusion of white men from reading lists, needless to say: it is a call to re-centre the lives of other marginalised writers who have been silenced by the canon.”

This is not the first time students have attempted to start conversations about diversifying university reading lists.

‘Why is my curriculum white?’ is a movement that started at UCL in 2014, before being picked up by other UK universities. Students began the campaign in an attempt to challenge the Eurocentric view of the world in the university programme and include non-white voices in academic discourse.

At Oxford University, the #RhodesMustFall campaign called for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, following a similar campaign at the University of Cape Town, directed against another statue commemorating Rhodes on the university campus, which serves as a symbol of British colonisation. One of the campaign’s aims is to challenge “the highly selective narrative of traditional academia – which frames the West as sole producers of universal knowledge”.

In turn, SOAS university announced their ‘Decolonising SOAS’ campaign as part of its Educational Priorities agenda for 2016/2017. The campaign focuses on increasing diversity on campus and within the university programme, through strengthening the position of thinkers from Global South in the curriculum and promoting a more critical view of white philosophers.

As changes to university programmes are slowly picking up speed, there is still a long way to diversifying reading lists.

Marie Rodet, senior lecturer in the history of Africa at SOAS told Guardian: “Until recently, the empire was never put into question. It is finally time that movements like ‘Rhodes must fall’ get to the UK, and there is a bit more self-reflection on those issues.”

You can follow Lola on Twitter here @CUSUWO

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