The logic of the bottom line
Amidst the contemporary neoliberal university apparatus, where everything from buildings to reading lists are subject to the rule of efficiency in the name of supposed efficacy, it is my experience (as both student and staff) that university libraries consider themselves to be bastions of all too unfortunately decaying practices within HE: creating safe, ‘neutral’ spaces, a love of knowledge for its own sake, and challenging the status quo. Recent nationwide campaigns to ‘decolonise the curriculum’, and tackle the ‘BAME attainment gap’ have been eagerly taken up by university libraries, who increasingly celebrate a wider array of authors, and seek to diversify reading lists. Within institutions deeply implicated in the violent legacy of colonialism, such initiatives appear to be highly enlightened. I argue that such developments are only ostensibly progressive, and, in fact, do not serve to challenge the rising tide of the neoliberalisation of HE, but, instead, only serve to further, albeit unwittingly, facilitate it.
There is undoubtedly a critical need to redress centuries of a Eurocentric whitewashing of knowledge, diversify curricula, and for paradigmatic shifts in the dissemination of knowledge. Many vocal proponents of decolonisation, both staff and students alike, are important voices. Nonetheless, the way in which decolonisation and redressing attainment gaps are presented in the neoliberal UK HE context is problematic. The widespread take up of this agenda by those senior within HE institutions appears to be one of a marketing campaign: ‘sure, we can chuck a bit of bell hooks into a reading list, a bit of Audre Lorde here, and some Huey P. Newton there (actually, probably not Huey P. Newton – he’s a bit too black!) if doing so means we can attract a more diverse body to fill our coffers’. Pardon my cynicism, but I find it highly unlikely that a predominantly white, middle to upper class group of senior level administrators are aghast at the lack of (radical or otherwise) BAME voices on the reading lists of their institutions. What they are overwhelmingly concerned with, however, is the bottom line.
University librarians may retort and argue that whilst senior management teams are, of course, concerned with the profitability of their institutions, it is in the ‘trenches’ that truly progressive, even perhaps subversive, moves can be made. It could be argued that diversifying reading lists, and giving a wider demographic of students access to different epistemologies is a way to change the university, and society at large, right from the library (e)shelves. This, I argue is praiseworthily hopeful, but also naïve, for it does not challenge the underlying logic of the market, to which universities (and, of course, their libraries), are subject.
Given how HE institutions repeatedly stress the importance of critical thinking, the markedly uncritical uptake and dissemination of all-encompassing taglines associated with decolonising the curriculum, and addressing the BAME attainment gap, is alarming. Such broad strokes reduce the critical potential of discussions concerning class, intersectionality, and, of course, the neoliberal landscape within which such taglines appear. According to data collected by the Department for Work and Pensions between 2015 – 2018, amongst the British Asian Indian community 42% of households have a weekly income of £1000+. Amongst British Asian Pakistani and Bangladeshi households, only 20% of households have a comparable weekly income. It’s thus fair to assume that their social and cultural capital will differ. When speaking about the BAME student experience, how helpful is it to compare Mr Patel, who studied at Eton and went onto The University of Oxford, with Ms Begum, who went to a local comprehensive in Bradford and is at a post-92 HE institution?
At this point the reader may interject and exclaim that the problems of social inequality outlined above are precisely why we need a decolonisation agenda. This is understandable. What remains problematic, however, is the current uncritical dissemination of the grounds upon which the agenda is based. These grounds, concerned as they are with access and completion rates of BAME students are instrumental, and all too insidiously tied to a neoliberal logic of capital, and the bottom line. Try as we might, I cannot stress enough how we cannot begin to even fathom what a genuinely decolonised HE curricula would look or feel like, for we have never known one, let alone a truly decolonised society.
What is to be done?
The above notwithstanding, we do not need to resign ourselves. It’s just that the university is not the apropos forum for decolonisation to take place – it is too implicated in the legacy and logic of colonialism. As Audre Lorde (1984) famously remarked: ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. For those truly concerned with decolonisation, I recommend Kehinde Andrews’ Back to Black: Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, or Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s Decolonization is not a metaphor, both of which unsettle the status quo, and are hardly likely to be championed amongst the offices of the nation’s VC’s, or, for that matter, within library meetings. Indeed, it’s those hierarchical structures that they take aim at.
Real decolonisation would involve us, those BAME and otherwise, to lose a number of Eurocentric and liberal privileges. But we don’t want that, do we? Instead we only want to put a few BAME authors on a reading list, bring in and retain a bunch of BAME students, whilst we rejoice in our righteousness and can have our rainbow cake and eat it, don’t we?
About the Author
Sunny Dhillon is a Learning Advisor at the University of Leeds Library.