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Education in a Global World: Decolonising the Curriculum

An open letter to the University of Aberdeen.

By Anonymous

A view of King's Chapel from the front through tree branches.
Image Courtesy of @libellule789 at Pixabay

The University of Aberdeen has put a lot of emphasis in recent years on decolonising the curriculum.

This is a good thing; we are not disparaging such efforts as they are necessary and frankly, long overdue. It’s important to make sure that every student feels welcome and like the teaching in their degree is not limited to the West and the Global North. The University prides itself on how diverse it is and that should be reflected in the curriculum. However, the overall efforts by the university seem to be having trouble filtering down into our teaching.

Yes, departments are consulting their class representatives and university societies on whether they perceive the curriculum to reflect a more global world, but is this taken on board?

Every year the university asks for class feedback forms, but students haven’t seen any action taken. For example, two of the English courses feature the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which is considered a highly offensive and racist book. In other departments, most starting references for essays and reports have European or American authors; most studies referenced in lectures are from the Global North. It is understood by the wider student population that sometimes these papers and studies are the best resources for understanding a concept, but when it starts to become every study, every paper, this is where the problem makes an appearance. One cannot truly say a curriculum is decolonised if it does not include differing perspectives from around the world.

An experience that stands out was when I wrote a paper in which I used a reference from a Korean author studying the phenomenon of water conservation in Malaysia. The reference paper was fantastic and offered a new perspective on the way that people in Malaysia and Korea think about water conservation when they are travelling, and how that differs from a study done in the United States and Australia. There should have been no problem with using this paper as a resource and I didn’t get marked down for using it. However, I was told that this paper was an interesting choice for a source.

Interesting. Now normally I would think nothing of this. The paper was interesting. I was interested in it and other people naturally would be as well. However, the other sources by European authors were described as ‘compelling’ and ‘well-selected.’ To be clear, I don’t think the marker meant anything with their word choice and I am not accusing them of anything, but this experience does reflect the wider situation and the biases that still exist in our curriculum.

In the study of international relations, these issues become prevalent when trying to research different cultures and the politics of other countries. When studying international relations this term I, the second of these authors was thinking of looking into Thailand’s minimum wage, which rises with inflation and therefore reduces the possibility of a cost-of-living crisis, in order to compare that to the UK.

All of my sources and academic papers were in English, but because I didn’t speak Thai, I was told to not even consider this topic.

This response is very disparaging on its own, and as it is an international relations course, limiting oneself to countries where English is the first language doesn’t allow students to explore politics in the global world.

Finally, in the medical courses at the university, there are some aspects which would not be deemed part of a decolonised and inclusive curriculum. Decolonisation is not integrated much into the teaching and often resources are given to students to consider in their own time instead of addressed in the classroom.

There is not much emphasis placed on understanding differences between different demographics of people in the medical field. Furthermore, the models used are not completely accurate to what medical students would encounter in a job beyond university. It is important that everyone is included when it comes to modelling in the medical field because students will not be confined to a limited scope when they move beyond university.

Lastly, exam questions have often assigned stereotypes to particular ethnic groups. This is troublesome because it perpetuates ideas about these ethnic groups in the medical field. It is important to address these problems and to decolonise the curriculum as much as possible so that students feel welcome in their own degree and medical assistance for non-Caucasian ethnic groups actually caters to them.

Diversifying the curriculum gives students the chance to learn in a global world. We all have different backgrounds and experiences which are key to building our knowledge and skills on analysis of different cultures. Decolonising the curriculum means being open to this and allowing students to learn by exploring. After isn’t that the whole point of university in the first place? Sure, employability is important, but the underlying reason that further education even exists is to broaden minds beyond what they have learned to accept. The whole point of postsecondary education is learning through exploration. It is impossible to do that when the scope of where students can explore is limited to a narrow lens.

Decolonising the curriculum needs to be incorporated every step of the way, and not just in regard to resource and reference selection. It is important that we as a university consider differing perspectives and attribute them the same respect as we would a perspective from the West or Global North. We are a university with over 130 nationalities. It is time that we take active steps to make sure that this is reflected in the teaching.

The University of Aberdeen is working towards a decolonised curriculum and that is crucial now that we live in a globalised world.

However, there needs to be a further conscious effort by everyone to make sure that this comes to fruition.


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