When the Empire Strikes Back: Decolonise the University – Queen Mary

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Student mobilization around decolonisation movements at university is becoming increasingly widespread. From the #rhodesmustfall campaign in 2015 to Decolonise Keele Network writing an open letter to their university listing their demands, the call for decolonisation is vehement. In the next few articles I’ll be exploring the Decolonise movement, the people involved, and what they plan on doing next.

For this article, I spoke to Decolonise QMUL President Yasmin and committee member Maroua about why they joined the movement and whether it’s even possible to decolonise the university.

Where did you first hear about decolonising and the post-colonial movement and why did you join?

Yasmin: I didn’t know much about it until university. I’d heard about Rhodes Must Fall but I only engaged with it on a superficial level. I then came to university and I saw the posters for Decolonise QMUL and went to a panel event on the importance of decolonising with academics of colour. Decolonise gave me the language to explain something I always knew but struggled to explain, like the injustice of the empire.

Maroua: I made the decision to join the society as a committee member because I was so tired of hearing false narratives about people’s culture or that there was one way of living a certain life and also even personally I have the privilege of getting away with looking European or being considered okay enough even though I am not, so when people have learned where I am from (North Africa, Algeria) all of a sudden they have these stereotypes of me that they never had before. It’s almost as if they forget who I am and my interests and reduce me to my identity. So the paradox of wanting to be more in touch with my culture but also not wanting to be reduced to it really drove my personal choice to join the society.

Do you feel your studies relate to the decolonise movement?

Yasmin: I’m fortunate because, as a law and politics student, I get to study modules to do with colonisation. Not so much the law part but for politics, I’ve studied modules such as “Africa in International Politics” and “Colonialism, Capitalism and Development”. These are amazing courses where I have been able to engage with reading such as Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”. We should have more modules like these in the first year. They’re second and third-year modules, all are also optional.

Maroua: I heard about the decolonise society from a lecturer in one of my first year politics modules and I remember thinking it was so different, so refreshing from what was currently out there in terms of the society. I felt like they were brave almost, as they were challenging the current curriculum and narratives that’s been imposed.

Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

Do you think it’s possible to decolonise the university?

Yasmin: That’s a really tough question because the colonial structures are so entrenched in the university. Applying the work of Fanon here,  it is almost impossible to imagine true decolonisation of the university without creating a radically new institution. We also had a great lecture on this topic and epistemic freedom by Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni during Black History Month. In this lecture, we explored how we can move towards decolonisation by rethinking “thinking”. We need to problematise things such as how Europe created the moral universe of the African by reading the work of African thinkers on this. We should also be questioning the way disciplines have been formed and taught, such as philosophy. Ultimately, we’re not sure if decolonise is the best term for us to use and if it’s even possible to decolonise the university. However, the decolonise movement brings people together and makes us question the institution. It allows us to build a network so even if we don’t fit under decolonisation, we are still getting a lot from the movement, even if it is impossible.

Do you think decolonise movements are becoming more popular now?

Yasmin: Students are very mobilised right now and it’s not just decolonisation, it’s a good time to be a student activist. Even looking towards Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto talking about teaching the injustices of Empire, we are seeing those steps and its important to get people engaged from a young age.

I’ll be talking to more students from Decolonise QMUL and Decolonise groups from other universities for this series! You can keep up with Decolonise QMUL on their twitter for future events (https://twitter.com/DecoloniseQMUL). I’ve also included a list of resources if you’re interested in finding out more about the student Decolonise movement.


  1. Decolonising the University book, available here: http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=1004145 
  2. KEELE DECOLONISING THE CURRICULUM NETWORK: https://www.keele.ac.uk/equalitydiversity/equalityawards/raceequalitycharter/keeledecolonisingthecurriculumnetwork/#keele-manifesto-for-decolonising-the-curriculum 

Rhodes Must Fall Oxford: https://rmfoxford.wordpress.com/

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