Why it is time to turn the decolonial lens onto the institutional structures of Higher Education

by Lata Narayanaswamy

Through the ‘colonial encounter’, existing power relations and imbalances have been shaped in ways that are geographically and temporally uneven yet politically enduring. Unsettling these tendencies through a more critical reflection on how the colonial encounter underpins these perceptions is key to the application of the ‘decolonial’ lens. Calls to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum are getting louder, and rightly so. Whilst this is a start, it does not, in my view, go far enough. There is a need, I would argue, for us to turn the decolonial lens onto the institutional structures and processes that shape the function and delivery of research and teaching in Higher Education (HE).

The hegemony of language

As academics, we have a huge amount of freedom and opportunity to disseminate ideas and knowledge. But we seldom interrogate language in the way it is employed, utilised and practiced. More often than not, English is the dominant operational tool of academic research and teaching. As Pigg (1992) said so many years ago, to associate oneself with the language of development – English – is to associate oneself with being ‘developed’. As someone suggested at a recent event I attended, we need a common language and if English is ‘it’, then where is the value in unsettling this, and anyway, what would we replace this with? The question of what language we use is not, however, value neutral. An education in English, as Faust and Nagar (2001) suggest in relation to the Indian context, is coveted for the advantages it bestows, including a perceived relationship with both unity and modernity.  But they point out, rightly, that such views underestimate the ways in which the hegemony of English also reinscribes and even exacerbates class, religious and socio-economic divides, creating more polarised and fractured commons.

Critiques of English hegemony emanating from postcolonial contexts are perhaps not altogether surprising. And we of course expect English to be the primary language of teaching and research in the UK, Canada, the US and Australia (even though there are indigenous languages under-represented in all these places). But I have lost count of the number of collaborations bringing together colleagues from Germany, Netherlands, France, Denmark, Norway or other non-English speaking Western countries that are still conducted exclusively in English. There is no pressure or imperative on myself as an English-speaker to learn any other language nor do these colleagues seem even to question its use.

In development studies we are also very good at using ‘jargon’ and acronyms – ‘good governance’, PRSPs, SAPs, GAD, WID, VFM – I could go on. We then combine this ‘insider’ knowledge with an academic, professionalised English-language style that can be very alienating. We need to think more dynamically about the types of exclusions these practices embed and the power imbalances they uphold.

Universalisation of Western frameworks

I have also found in my research the tendency for dominant frameworks to be proliferated and ultimately reproduced by transnational elites in a range of contexts, raising questions about whether it’s enough if a research idea ‘comes’ from the Global South. Privileging views of, and engagement with, Global South colleagues is undoubtedly important given the global imbalance of power in knowledge systems. And whilst there is a ring of truth to the charge that social science curricula tend to be full of ‘dead white men’, there is a danger that we simply essentialise all ‘white’ men (who are not all the same) and replace them with white women or brown/black men or women (who are also all not the same). This is lazy; we need to move beyond thinking its enough to simply change the race, gender or status of the messenger, and instead raise more fundamental questions about the constitution and relative power of different messages.

The structural power of HE

Where, how, and by whom is the message formed? The model of HE in which we function is underpinned by a perception that we are uniquely open to new ideas and ‘the necessity of tolerance for dissenting frameworks of knowledge’ (Lal, 2005: 57), embodied in principles such as academic freedom that we rightly defend. But we also need to acknowledge that HE is inherently hierarchical and professionalised. As researchers, we cast ourselves as ‘experts’. Questions of power and intersectionality may be bolted on, but we are nonetheless encouraged to identify ‘problems’ and, with a little effort and the ‘right’ research, these problems may be ‘solved’ through a ‘technocratic’ solution. What we need is instead to see both research processes and outcomes, including any potential ‘impacts’, as overtly political and interpretive processes. And of course, we mustn’t forget to at least mention the pressure for all of our ‘learning’ to be captured in high-impact, peer-reviewed publications. These are most frequently subscription-only, managed and run by for-profit publishing companies and also in English and usually siloed by sub-discipline, making interdisciplinary work harder.

Decolonial ethics?

What effect does the structural power in/of HE have on ethics? Existing HE practice invites us to consider ethics only once questions are already formulated and researchers are set to move ‘into the field’, which is a fundamentally extractive approach. We start from the principle of doing no harm, or avoiding ‘contamination’ of data. Feminist/intersectional/qualitative research principles have unpicked notions of ‘objectivity’, but they are still embedded in mainstream HE ethics judgments. For funding applications we are required to detail a wide range of ‘activities’ that we are doing, but only the bit labelled the ‘field study’ is subject to ethical scrutiny. So the decision about which stakeholders I invite to my follow-up workshop or ‘impact’ activity is not subject to ethical scrutiny by a panel or anyone else, despite the fact that these are clearly decisions that have fundamental, deeply ethical dimensions. What about the ethics of doing the research in the first place? Focusing not just on how we gather data, but how we make choices about what to study, how we treat those we work with and whether, given questions of power, WE should do the research in the first place. What claims to ‘expertise’ am I making and what is the legitimacy of the processes through which HE validates my claim? Whose claims to knowledge or expertise are invisibilised as a result?

We need to move towards a ‘decolonial’ ethics. We should ask critical questions of the voices, views and ideas we seek out, as well as how we gather and then choose to codify and then represent them and the claims to ‘expertise’ these ultimately represent. We need to reflect on the mechanisms or codes through which we ‘know’ the world, and how these are shaped by interconnected lifeworlds, outwardly interacting, creating continuities and discontinuities and new forms of knowledge. We need to ask whose ideas are being validated and whose ideas hidden as a result of the structural power of HE knowledge systems. And we should start by asking whether we are even the right person to be asking the question in the first place.

Lata Narayanaswamy is lecturer in International Development at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.

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