Towards an Anti-Racist Curriculum

By Dr Karen Campbell on behalf of GCU’s Anti-Racist Curriculum Group

A blackboard with 'racism' written in chalk and half erased by a board rubber.

This post highlights the pressing need for universities to tackle widespread systemic racial inequalities and outcomes in higher education. Tackling Racism at GCU is a whole-institution approach to change which encourages conversations about race and promotes building a racially diverse and inclusive learning and teaching environment. Part of these conversations focus on our curriculum which is a key structural enabler. The work of GCU’s Anti-Racist Curriculum Group is explained in this context.

Calling out racism in higher education  

GCU recently joined universities across Scotland pledging its support to Advance HE’s Declaration on Anti-Racism. Principal Professor Pamela Gillies CBE FRSE is a signatory to the project’s declaration, which states:

“Racism exists on our campuses and in our society. Call it what it is and reject it in all its forms. We stand united against racism. Call it racism, challenge racist behaviour, change racist structures”.​

Universities serve to perpetuate institutional racism, a fact recognised in a recent report by Universities UK  which shines a stark light on the racial inequalities that exist in the higher education sector across the UK. The report calls on universities to improve racial literacy among senior leaders, staff and students and issued a set of recommendations for institutions to implement including ‘training developed from an anti-racist perspective’.

Calling out and rejecting racial harassment and microaggressions on campus is, of course, only one aspect of the challenge of tackling institutional racism. Recognising and addressing widespread systemic racial inequalities in higher education outcomes is another. Calls for universities to accelerate efforts to remove the BAME* attainment gap are, therefore, justified and urgent. Senior leaders have a crucial role in leading a whole-institution approach to change, by opening up conversations about race and building a racially diverse and inclusive environment. Part of these conversations need also to focus on our curricula which is a key structural enabler.

A whole institution, strategic approach

As part of its mission as the University for the Common Good, GCU is taking a proactive, whole institution approach to prioritise the tackling of racism and racial inequalities. After a strategic discussion at our People Committee, a sub-committee of University Court, a Tackling Racism Group was established to develop recommendations for the University. The Committee and our Executive Board approved a set of 9 recommendations for the University to implement including ‘decolonising’ the curriculum,  and the University’s new Strategy for Learning 2030 has an explicit commitment towards “diversifying, co-creating and decolonisingour curricula with our learners to ensure they are anti-racist, socially just, inclusive of global academia, research and society.”

The plan for Curriculum Enhancement – an iterative approach

An Anti-Racist Curriculum Operational Group has been established. The group takes a specific Learning and Teaching focus and is mindful of existing published GCU policy, strategy and guidance to enable GCU teaching staff to understand where this work fits within existing frameworks for curriculum and assessment design. Additionally, the group defines ‘curriculum’ in the widest sense to include not only the taught curriculum, but also the co- and extra-curricular environments and the student experience both on and off campus.

“The Anti-Racist Curriculum is more than a rethink of what we teach, how we teach, who we read, what we read about, and why we prepare our students to be anti-racist. Approaching the curriculum in the widest sense is important, as it allows our students to have a transformative experience, through the way they interact, learn, and then take those lessons forward into the world benefiting everyone. In line with Strategy 2030, embracing and valuing diversity of voices and narratives within the curricula, will help broaden experiences for all staff and students and promote agency”.

Dr. Shiv Shanmugam, Chair of GCU’s Anti-Racist Curriculum Operational Group

What does an Anti-Racist Curriculum look like? 

Work to achieve an anti-racist curriculum involves identifying systems, structures and relationships that are characterised as being unrepresentative, inaccessible, and privileged in nature. It involves challenging assumptions, through broadening our intellectual awareness to include a wider range of perspectives. It is different to ‘integration’ of cultures into the dominant (White Western) culture, and it is different to the token inclusion of the intellectual achievements of cultures other than the dominant (White Western) culture. 

What is this team here to achieve? 

The Anti-Racist Curriculum Group believes that Tackling Racism, and addressing racism within the curriculum is the shared responsibility of every university and every teacher. At the university level, this is reformed through the structures, processes and policies we create. But university curricula will not simply ‘decolonise’ themselves through normal institutional curriculum design review and programme approval processes.  All aspects of the curriculum: formal, informal and hidden – must be interrogated through the critical lens of race.

Change requires everyone who teaches within a university to contribute by taking ownership of the issue and committing to change through choosing to make modifications and adjustments which cumulatively will result in a more enlightened and inclusive curriculum landscape. To serve this purpose, this group’s role then is threefold to:

  • Increase awareness to make sure everyone in the GCU community is aware of the detrimental impact of racism in educational settings. The Group seeks to shine a light on the issues, and share examples of good practice from institutional research as well as the wider literature and evidence;
  • Develop Ideas for change to tackle racism one action at a time, through a commitment to small actions. The Group seeks to be creative in how we enable each staff member to contribute on the micro-level;
  • Support for development  to curate and develop resources, host delivered learning events, and  scaffold and support other curriculum development activities. Through institutional structures, the Group aims to support GCU staff who teach to take Anti-Racist action.

Students as partners

Valuing diversity of voices and ensuring BAME students and staff see themselves reflected in the curriculum, not as an exception but a central and valued part of it, is central to the work of the Ant-Racist Curriculum Group.  The Group has student representation and the views of GCU’s wider student body will be sought throughout the programme of activity.

It is important for education and educational content to reflect all cultures and experiences, GCU taking a step to develop an anti-racist curriculum is progress towards acknowledging the multiple cultures on campus and allowing their experiences to be part of the learning culture”.

Tabitha Nyariki, GCU Students’ Association Vice President, School of Health and Life Sciences 

Next steps

The anti-racist curriculum development should be viewed as a continual process (not a one-off) that will enrich and transform everybody’s lives and that which underpins wider aspects of enhancing student experience within GCU. The Anti-Racist Curriculum Operational Group has worked to develop a cross-institution programme of work up to the end of Trimester B, 2022-23 that aims to:

  • Create awareness and enhance knowledge of racism, anti-racism, anti-racist curriculum and other related concepts for staff and students;
  • Focus on personal transformation and transforming relationships through action work packages;
  • Transform structures, systems and processes; 
  • Finalise and communicate new structures, systems and processes to all stakeholders.

How to get involved

A social media campaign is planned to raise awareness of the Anti-Racist Curriculum among staff and students at GCU. A bank of anti-racist curriculum staff resources is under development and will be available for GCU staff and students on the institutional learning and teaching Sharepoint hub. Further blogs and articles will be disseminated as work progresses and a series of webinars to which all GCU staff and students will be invited is planned. The work of the Anti-Racist Curriculum Group will be launched in Trimester B with a webinar for the GCU community that will include a guest speaker. Details will follow via Caledonian Connected and SharePoint.

The work of the Anti-Racist Curriculum Operational Group is just one example of GCU’s commitment to encourage conversations about race and build a racially diverse and inclusive learning and teaching environment. It will be interesting to see how similar energies are sparking off across the HE sector to tackle institutional racism in UK universities. 

*Note on terminology

The term ‘BAME’ is widely used across the sector. However, the Anti-Racist Curriculum Working Group acknowledges the limitations of the term and widespread frustration at the reductionism of the acronym itself. The decision to use this term is not intended to suggest that people of colour are a homogenous group. Race terminology continues to be a contentious and fast-moving issue when discussing Anti-Racist Curricula and further study and reflection in this area is encouraged. There is no definitive answer nor perfect term to use. Language very much matters in developing inclusive curricula and is an important discussion to have. However, continued forward progress is of equal importance. Therefore, it is suggested that the terminology debate should not hinder, but rather complement and embody the wider work at hand.

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