UP hosts webinar on decolonising universities in the time of COVID-19

Posted on September 25, 2020

The Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria (UP) recently hosted a panel discussion that assessed the impact of COVID-19 on the broader decolonial project. The conversation focused on five key change markers: positionality, intersectionality, fair representation, diversified pedagogical practices, and progress towards reducing inequalities.

The session was attended by about 100 people from across the continent and within the UK, with much of the discussion building on the Universities South Africa (USAf) seminar that was held earlier in the month.

The panel compromised academics from both UP and international institutions: Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UP; Professor ’Funmi Olonisakin, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Internationalisation at King’s College, London; Extraordinary Professor at UP Professor Kiven James Kewir of the African Leadership Centre in Nairobi and the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon; as well as two students in the Political Sciences Department, Adam Louw and David Kabwa, who serves as president of UP’s Student Representative Council. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fault lines in our society,” said Political Science lecturer at UP Dr Sithembile Mbete, who was the session’s moderator. One of these rifts is global inequality, and the stark differences between race, class and gender, and between regions and societies that have been reinforced. But the pandemic has also created an opportunity for institutions of higher learning to re-envisage a society that is just and equitable for all. “Universities and academics have an important role to play in society,” said Prof Olonisakin. “Often, they simply replicate the injustices present in society. Yet for the decolonial project to advance, universities have to reassess their societal role and address rather than replicate these injustices.”

This means universities will have to re-evaluate the social contract they have with society at large and question the true needs of society. Changing the curricula, for instance, will give impetus to the decolonial project. There is an undeniable need for syllabi to contextualise minority voices. But since the decolonial agenda involves more than racial equity, Prof Olonisakin asked the following: “Why are there so few black, specifically female, professors and academics? Creating difference is not one of substance alone – it’s one of degree… it is the practical and lasting result of our efforts towards decolonisation that matters.”

“What does decolonisation, specifically a decolonised university, look like?” is the question that Prof Kupe explored. Given the colonial structure of the academy and the need to fund the process of decolonisation, the relationship between universities, the state and broader society will need to change. “The University of Pretoria is a public institution, and approximately two-thirds of its funding comes from the state,” Prof Kupe noted. The COVID-19 era has revealed just how important funding is, especially within a “strangled economy”, and universities will need to adapt their business model accordingly. As a start, Prof Kupe suggested creating a research agenda that centres on the practical lived experience of those in the global south.

For Prof Kewir, decolonising universities requires a systemic response. While many new leaders are emerging from institutions of higher learning around the continent, there is a need to nurture these leaders to make transformation a reality. In addition, Prof Kewir discussed the inherent Eurocentrism of current curricula and suggested that graduates of such curricula act as “bridges between the neo-liberal colonisers and formerly colonised people”.

With a diverse curricula, students and staff will be better equipped to transform the institutional cultures of their universities. For example, King’s College has completely redesigned its cultural competency programme in consultation with the student body. “The decolonisation of universities has to be done through bottom-up engagement rather than imposed from the top,” noted Prof Olonisakin.

For Kabwa, when students are asked what decolonisation looks like, the answer manifests in student-led protests such as the #fallist movements, reaffirming the view that “education should be relevant to those who are accessing it”. What the decolonial project should specifically look at, he remarked, is something that is receptive of a polyphonic understanding of suppressed narratives. While the #fallist movements demanded immediate action, the project as a whole is a continuous movement of change – one that is not only responsive to but also inclusive of the next generations of students. 

Adam Louw argued that “the centrality of justice is a myopic process in the decolonial agenda”. For Louw, the onus is on universities to broadly conceive concrete procedures to decolonialise education that is sensitised to society at large. Likewise, he called for the institutional decision-making processes to be transparent so that executive bodies could be held to account for the pace of transformation.

- Author Austin Pinkerton and Francois Gilles de Pelichy

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