Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Decolonization and Higher Education

  • Sharon Stein
  • Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_479


Given the central role of universities in social reproduction, and in the creation and legitimation of knowledge, decolonization and its place in higher education are a subject of significant interest in both social movements and scholarly critique across the globe. Decolonization can be broadly understood as an umbrella term for diverse efforts to resist the distinct but intertwined processes of colonization and racialization, to enact transformation and redress in reference to the historical and ongoing effects of these processes, and to create and keep alive modes of knowing, being, and relating that these processes seek to eradicate. Colonization and racialization have both material and epistemic dimensions, which together shape social relations and enshrine categories that are then used to justify: occupation of Indigenous land; expropriation and expendability of Black life; the binary, heteropatriarchal gender system; claims about the universality of modern Western reason; objectification and exploitation of “nature”; capitalist property relations and modes of production; militarism; possessive individualism; and the very concept of race.

Under the broad umbrella of decolonization, there exist a number of paradoxes, disagreements, and diverse visions for decolonial futures and possible means of arriving at these different futures. These competing visions may even be held by a single individual. As well, there is significant discussion around whether decolonization projects overlap with, are reducible to, or are incommensurable with other justice projects. Thus, any effort to address decolonization and higher education necessarily contends with diverse understandings of “decolonization” itself. This entry reviews the general contours of decolonization and explores contrasting assumptions, desires, and concerns that orient different interpretations of decolonization in the current context of higher education.

Decolonization Efforts and Demands

There is no single genealogy of decolonization, particularly as racial and colonial violence have been resisted since the fifteenth century when Europe first initiated its modern project of global domination and dispossession through Black enslavement and Indigenous colonization. However, many trace the term decolonization to the mid-twentieth-century anticolonial movements in Africa and Asia that sought to dismantle European colonial rule, as well as Indigenous self-determination and antiracist social movements in European and settler colonial nations during the 1960s and 1970s. While decolonization efforts have been punctuated by several notable moments or eras, it may also be understood as a set of diverse, ongoing processes, rather than a distinct event or set of events.

Today, varied demands for decolonization may be summarized in three primary concerns: (1) the continued colonization of Indigenous peoples in settler colonial countries, as well as the ongoing legacies of Black enslavement, and the violent policing of national borders; (2) the highly uneven accumulated social, economic, and epistemic effects of centuries of colonialism and slavery for populations throughout the globe; and (3) the continued colonial architectures of global governance, such as the loan policies of the IMF and World Bank, strict immigration control in Europe, and the ongoing assertion of Western nations’ right to police the world (militarily and otherwise), all of which favor the maintenance of Western dominance and extend the reaches of global capitalism.

Collectively these and other decolonizing critiques signal recognition of the continuation of a “Modern/Colonial Capitalist/Patriarchal Western-centric/Christian-centric World-System” (Grosfoguel 2012, p. 82) and point to the need for decolonization to be a global project, even as it manifests across time and place in distinct ways. For instance, a significant development around decolonization and higher education in Latin America has been the growth in State-sponsored and autonomous intercultural universities that emphasize Indigenous epistemologies and the importance of horizontal engagements in collaboration with local communities. However, this entry emphasizes decolonization and higher education in the US and Canadian context.

Historicizing Decolonization and Higher Education

Scholars have identified many ways in which modern universities, from their very beginnings, were complicit in and benefited from colonization and racialization. The expropriation of Indigenous lands was and remains a necessary condition of possibility for US and Canadian institutions of higher education, and many early institutions forced slaves to labor in their construction and/or were founded and funded through wealth accumulated through slavery and colonialism (Wilder 2013). Many Western institutions were also deeply involved in the colonial cataloguing of non-Western knowledges and the production of knowledge in support of scientific racism and other racialized and colonial classifications used to justify forcible assimilation, military occupation, and even annihilation of nonwhite populations (Said 1978; Smith 2012). As a result, some have suggested that the emergence and eventual dominance of the modern, Western, secularized, and supposedly universal episteme (mode of knowledge) was only made possible in the context of Europe’s projects of conquest and enslavement (Spivak 1988; Wynter 2003).

A constitutive paradox of the colonial construction of knowledge therefore haunts any effort to decolonize existing institutions: claims about the universality of Western knowledge can only be sustained in contrast to the particularity and partiality of non-Western knowledges. Today higher education institutions continue to reproduce an epistemological hierarchy wherein Western knowledges are presumed to be universally relevant and valuable, while non-Western knowledges are either patronizingly celebrated as “local culture,” commodified or appropriated for Western gain, or else not recognized as knowledge at all. Curricula remain dominated by Western epistemologies, especially Western sciences and technologies, and research in these areas also tends to be the most heavily rewarded through grants and other forms of institutional support and validation.

Western epistemological dominance occurs not only in colleges and universities within the West itself but also in the non-West, where Western institutions are often viewed as the model for the ideal university (Nandy 2000). This has led many to emphasize the importance of “decolonizing the mind” (Thiong’o 1986) and the pursuit of cognitive justice in higher education research and curricula (Sousa Santos 2007). Others note the potential danger of emphasizing the epistemic dimensions of decolonization at the expense of more material struggles over land and other restitutions (Tuck and Yang 2012). However, these are not mutually exclusive, and demands for decolonization from both of these perspectives and more are increasingly being articulated by students, faculty, and activists around the globe in both Western and Westernized universities, within former imperial metropoles, settler colonial nations, and formerly colonized countries.

These recent efforts cannot be delinked from earlier movements in the 1950s that led to the desegregation of historically white institutions and later student movements in the 1960s and 1970s that demanded more wholesale institutional transformation through the de-Westernization of curricula and knowledge production and more significant redistribution of material resources. Specifically, these movements contested the framing of racialized and Indigenous peoples as objects of knowledge and sought institutional recognition and support of themselves as subjects of knowledge. Such movements did not have all their demands met, but in many cases achieved the institutionalization of ethnic and women’s studies programs, as well as the creation of student cultural centers and culturally specific programming on campuses (Ferguson 2012). Around the same time, Indigenous controlled colleges and universities were founded in the USA and Canada.

However, today many of these departments, programs, and institutions struggle to receive adequate funding. In fact, more recent demands for decolonization have come from a growing dissatisfaction with what are understood to be weak, tokenistic, and conditional commitments to the inclusion of nonwhite/Western perspectives, peoples, and modes of knowledge production in historically white and otherwise white-dominated mainstream institutions (Ahmed 2012; Nandy 2000). There is further frustration with the fact that nonwhite students and faculty continue to be underrepresented in higher education, particularly in the most prestigious positions and institutions. This dissatisfaction has also been fed by the increasing privatization of public higher education, the weakening of affirmative action commitments, and the institutional cooptation of the very demands that were made decades earlier for radical transformation.

Decolonial Possibilities in Higher Education Today

In the current conjuncture, many questions have arisen around the possibilities for institutional transformation, as well as around the desired horizon of change. In this, there is significant tension around the purportedly universal nature of institutions like colleges and universities and the demand for inclusion within them by those that are consistently deemed categorically particular, such that their inclusion remains conditional and premised on degrees of difference in reference to a universal standard. In response, some have advocated for the need to reimagine the uni-versity as a pluri-versity (Boidin et al. 2012).

More generally, questions have arisen around to what extent it is possible to decolonize institutions that are supported by the nation-State and capital and/or whether these institutions can serve as spaces in which decolonization projects are imagined and enacted. For instance, if universities were created and adapted to support a colonial order of knowledge and tend to reproduce our existing social system, to what extent can these institutions be transformed without larger social transformations? What approaches to knowledge might neither reproduce the colonial order of knowledge nor contest it using colonial terms? Is it even possible or desirable to produce alternative knowledges within existing educational institutions, given that they would likely be unintelligible according to existing modes of knowledge production?

The remainder of this entry reviews responses to these and other questions around decolonization and higher education by offering a summary of three different critical approaches to colonial and racial violence in the context of contemporary colleges and universities; not included are those who do not recognize this violence as a problem.

Three Sets of Responses

The first category of responses emphasizes individual and institutional interventions focusing on proportional representation, advocating primarily for increased numbers of Indigenous, racialized, and low-income students and faculty, and the supplementation of existing curricula with non-Western perspectives. Rather than decolonization, the goal is enhanced diversity, which manifests as selective recognition and inclusion of difference into existing institutions in ways that do not significantly challenge existing measures of success or structures of power. Within this position, the problems of racism and colonialism are identified largely at the individual level. Thus, emphasis is on addressing the ignorance or bias of individuals from dominant groups through more knowledge or the right institutional policies. Meanwhile, for individuals from marginalized groups, emphasis is on enhancing their capacity and social capital so as to better prepare them to successfully compete for mobility within the existing system. Due to the lack of structural analysis, the uneven distribution of power, wealth, and opportunity across race is not problematized. As a result, there is no redistributional impulse, and the desirability of social relations premised on competition for scarce resources goes unquestioned. Further, inclusion is often framed as a benevolent gift, such that nonwhite individuals are expected to perform their gratitude and refrain from further dissent. More radical demands or critiques may be dismissed as ungrateful, unproductive, or uncivil. Thus, the boundaries of the institution and of acceptable modes of knowledge production and critique are still firmly policed by white and capitalist power structures. The majority of institutional actions around colonialism and race fall within this category.

The next set of responses focuses on systemic analyses of the creation of inequalities and is characterized by its recognition of epistemological hegemony within higher education. These analyses emphasize the ways that the harms of racialization and colonization are enacted through institutional structures and logics that consistently reproduce existing racial and economic hierarchies, distribute resources in highly uneven ways, and exploitatively extract labor and symbolic resources from marginalized groups to accumulate wealth for those in power. Critiques from this perspective tend to emphasize one or perhaps two dimensions of social violence, such as capitalism, racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, nationalism, or colonialism, but may not link them all together. Demands for significant institutional transformation are focused on the redistribution of material and epistemic resources and the centering and empowering oppressed students and faculty. Significant demands are also made for institutional redress for historical and ongoing participation in violence, for instance, demands to rename buildings named after slave-owning alumni, divest from fossil fuel or prison companies, or grant free tuition to Black and Indigenous students. Approaches to change in this category may be framed as “speaking truth to power” through critique as well as direct action and/or may enact a principled refusal to engage. Efforts in this vein have historically led to significant institutional transformation, including de jure desegregation and the establishment of ethnic studies departments, even as institutional cooptation consistently threatens to undermine the radicalism of the demands. Responses in this category may also reproduce at least some parts of the system they critique, as it is difficult to disrupt all colonial elements at once, particularly if there is a desire to remain intelligible so as to have one’s demands heard by those in power.

The final set of responses emphasize the ontological hegemony that structures and orients the existing university and identify the fundamentally violent and unsustainable system within which it is embedded. These approaches suggest that modern existence is dependent on colonization and racialization for its continuation, and therefore consider the limits of the kinds of transformations that are possible within higher education “as we know it,” especially as long as it is funded and regulated by the nation-State and capital. Because current crises of the university are linked to the longue durée of modernity and its racial and colonial conditions of possibility, ultimately it is thought that reform is not possible and what is needed is to imagine and create radically different, unknown futures for higher education and beyond. Thus, for example, this position critiques the fact that expanded access to higher education is conditional on a willingness to adhere to existing institutional norms but also points out that expanding access to a harmful (capitalist) system does not necessarily make that system any less harmful. From here there are different emphases as to what should be done in the short term, including hacking the university, i.e., appropriating its resources for use in radical projects; experimenting with alternative modes of organizing education, for instance, the creation of autonomous “eco-versities”; or “hospicing” the university by learning from past mistakes and preparing for the transition into different decolonial futures. This position emphasizes the double binds and contradictory complicities that result from conflicting desires for decolonization and for fulfillment of the promises that colonial system offers. Further this position also recognizes the need for immediate harm reduction efforts within higher education, including those outlined by the other two positions, though in general these are thought to address the symptoms rather than the root causes of harm and thus are not understood to be the final horizon of decolonial possibility. This is illustrated in the following quote:

[T]here is no way we are going to intellectually reason our way out of coloniality, in any conventional academic sense. There is no way we are going to publish our way out of modernity. There is no way we are going to read our way out of epistemological hegemony. (Burman 2012, p. 117)

While often these three approaches are theorized as distinct and potentially incommensurable, in practice people tend to strategically and incoherently make use of different approaches, often at the same time, depending on what is possible and desirable within any given situation. Enacting decolonization in the context of existing higher education institutions is an ongoing, challenging, messy, and often contradictory process.


Decolonization is often evoked as an event of interruption of a specific process or characteristic deemed “colonial” and therefore undesirable. However, this conceptualization is grounded on a very selective analysis of coloniality and colonization. An alternative mobilization of decolonization in education, taking account of the force, pervasiveness, and complexity of colonial perceptions and relations, would frame decolonization as a lifelong, life-wide process, fraught with difficulties, competing demands, and uncertain outcomes. As part of this process, higher education may be one of the many spaces in which to denaturalize the modern/colonial world, reach the limits of what is possible within it, and experiment with the apparently impossible, without assuming that such work can ever be free from complicity in colonial harm.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada