Illustration by René Lapoutre

Decolonising the UG

Students are paving the way

Illustration by René Lapoutre
Decolonisation is an uncomfortable, complex and ongoing process, students say. But while the university is increasingly discussing diversity and inclusion, it shies away from confronting its colonial roots.
17 May om 10:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 17 May 2023
om 11:01 uur.
May 17 at 10:51 AM.
Last modified on May 17, 2023
at 11:01 AM.
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Door Lotta Stokke

17 May om 10:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 17 May 2023
om 11:01 uur.
Avatar photo

By Lotta Stokke

May 17 at 10:51 AM.
Last modified on May 17, 2023
at 11:01 AM.
Avatar photo

Lotta Stokke

Some might think we’re there already. 

Some might think that the university has taken so many steps to promote diversity and inclusivity on its grounds already, that it’s done its job. 

But, says Isabelle Atala Heusing (24), students still feel uncomfortable in the learning environment. The student of media studies and president of the African and Caribbean Student Association (ACSA) often hears stories of people making outdated or stereotyping remarks. 

‘I’m the only black person in my course. And I’ve heard some weird things’, agrees history student Bahati Nyahunzvi (20), who is the secretary of Black Ladies of Groningen (BLOG). ‘One lecturer said the N-word.’

It discourages students from speaking up. ‘I feel it’s really just pointless when nobody actually cares to engage with what I say’, Isabelle says. ‘In the classroom, harmful comments by both students and lecturers often go unaddressed and are acknowledged as “opinions”, while our remarks are dismissed as the radical point of view.’

White male voices

But who decides which perspectives are legitimate or radical? ‘Why is a canon neutral when it’s dominated by white male voices, but partial if you have feminist or postcolonial scholars in there?’, questions Alina Achenbach (27), an international relations PhD student and member of Decolonize Groningen. ‘Like, is white positionality not a form of positionality?’

Is white positionality not a form of positionality?

All over the UG, students are confronting the Eurocentric biases of the academic world and calling for the UG to decolonise, spearheading various initiatives. There was the ACSA symposium on decoloniality on May 13. There were the students protesting the US-centred views of teaching at the Faculty of Science and Engineering in UKrant last week. And then there’s the project by five students from the University College (UCG), who are creating a course syllabus with the goal of ‘decolonising across disciplines’. 

They, too, were bothered by having mainly scholars from the Global North on the reading lists, UCG student Johanne Hobel (22) explains. ‘Of course, there are individual lecturers who do really important work, but there really aren’t that many courses at the UG that focus on decoloniality. So we wanted to change something.’

Negative connotations

There are some initiatives, like the Decolonize Hub of the Arts Faculty. However, there appears to be little institutional support for them. The Teaching Academy Groningen (TAG), for example, has a community of practice for inclusion and diversity, but eschews the term ‘decolonising the curriculum’. 

It carries negative connotations, says Jan Riezebos, TAG’s academic leader and professor of educational innovation at the Faculty of Economics and Business. ‘“Inclusive education” says much more that we should embrace each other instead. And if you want to encourage lecturers to explore their own material and develop themselves, a positive formulation is much more effective.’

But what does decolonisation at the university actually mean? And how does it differ from diversity and inclusion efforts?


Eurocentric values and ideologies permeate the fabric of our educational system, limiting what counts as knowledge and how universities teach it, says Charvi (23), a member of the Groningen Feminist Network (GFN). This is reflected not only in curricula that marginalise minority scholars, but also in the way research is done. ‘Much of our understanding of the world is guided by Western frameworks that prioritise objectivity and universality’, the UG student says. ‘These are often given legitimacy over alternative forms of knowledge production. And I feel that there is a hesitancy to move beyond this at the UG.’

Decolonisation doesn’t just mean questioning knowledge. It’s a material practice

Charvi views decolonisation as a philosophy or movement that wants to undo colonial thought and structures. Decolonising the UG then refers to taking action to redress power imbalances, to decentering Eurocentric values and teaching students to think critically about knowledge. This includes addressing classroom structures, curricula, and research, she says, but also student admission and staff recruitment procedures.

Students also highlight the importance of addressing the UG’s colonial past in this process. ‘Decolonisation doesn’t just mean questioning knowledge, which is important, but I think what people forget is that it’s a material practice’, explains Alina. ‘It’s important to confront the material implications of UG scholars’ involvement in the slave trade – think of how institutions in the Netherlands, including universities, have benefitted from the flow of profits from colony to metropole.’

Decolonisation cannot be reduced to promoting diversity and inclusion, the students say. As Bahati points out, ‘colonialism in and of itself is a very big problem. So if you bunch it with other things, you risk trivialising it’. 


‘The word “decolonise” could be antagonising to some, but it’s also meant to reflect that our whole knowledge system as a university is built on colonial roots’, says arts professor Iva Pesa, who is also a founding member of the Decolonize Hub.

Decolonisation is a process that will be messy

‘It’s not an easy step-by-step process. It’s a process that will be messy’, says Isabelle. 

‘And colonialism itself wasn’t all fun and dandy’, adds psychology student and ACSA educational coordinator Irma Mboua (22). ‘It was messy. It was horrible. So we can’t expect this to be any less of a challenge.’

So where to start? While some measures, such as supporting alternative research methods, hiring a diverse staff, or removing colonial symbols from university grounds are logical starting points, adjusting the curriculum poses a challenge. Most lecturers select or write their own teaching materials, making changes dependent on individual goodwill. ‘We need to come together as departments, as faculties, as the university, to put this on the agenda’, says Pesa.

Snowball effect

Encouraging discussion among students is as important as among staff. The course the UCG students are developing, for example, wants to facilitate conversation. It can have a big snowball effect, says Johanne, when one student raises their hand and says, ‘Oh, I learnt in this other course that this is actually really problematic; can we talk about this?’

As part of these efforts, the UG must ensure that decolonisation isn’t approached as just another item on the checklist. ‘It becomes problematic again when only one week is dedicated to non-Western perspectives. Because then, for students, it becomes this add-on to the Western canon’, Pesa says.

‘It feels like a checklist, like, “There you go, we talked about race”’, says Isabelle. She suggests always discussing every topic from various viewpoints. ‘It’s so important to include different perspectives so that you can actually have a more accurate portrayal of life.’


‘I think that as a university, we’re becoming more aware, but we’re also becoming more aware that we still have to do a lot’, concludes Riezebos. 

And while the UG has taken some steps towards greater diversity and inclusivity, much work remains. ‘Ultimately, decolonisation is an ongoing practice that perhaps doesn’t really have an ending’, says Alina. ‘And I believe that would be so valuable to add to the self-understanding of an institution. To say, “We’re in the process, we’re learning”. That would be very nice.’