An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 26, 2021

Dell, Neo-Liberal Decolonisation

Neo-Liberal ‘Decolonisation’ and Medieval Studies in UK and Australian Universities


Helen Dell


There will always be changes in university curricula but I was recently dumbfounded by reading that many hundreds of years of medieval and early modern English literature would be dumped from the English Degree at the University of Leicester, UK. Below is an excerpt from the rationale offered by the university:


The aim of our proposals are to offer a suite of undergraduate degrees to provide modules that students expect of an English degree, as well as a range of modules which are excitingly innovative and thematically driven: a chronological literary history, a selection of modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum, and new employability modules.


The proposed change is to refocus and strengthen English by closing English language (which includes the BA English with English Language and the MA English Language and Linguistics), to cease teaching medieval English and to reduce the size of Early Modern Literature, and to develop new employability modules in education, publishing and the creative industries. (courtesy of David Clark).


It is difficult to understand how removing a huge swathe of the most magnificent literature in the English language from an English curriculum will strengthen the course. But most egregious of all is to provide shelter for the changes under the deceitful guise of decolonisation. It is difficult to take seriously the outraged denial from a university spokesperson, that “There is absolutely no truth to the suggestion that certain modules are being eliminated for being too white.” The word “decolonisation” is an all too obvious dog-whistle to that effect, with the apparent intention of silencing anyone afraid of being classed as racist for criticising the changes which academics close to the scene are calling a cost-cutting exercise. Even more importantly, ‘decolonisation’ is too crucial a concept to be casually misapplied.


And, as some have noticed, the either/or logic is flawed. Dr Christine Rauer, a lecturer at the University of St Andrews, told MailOnline: “It's hard to see why race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity can't be taught alongside Chaucer and Beowulf.” This was similar to the response on Twitter of David Clark who teaches medieval literature (among other things) at Leicester:


I’m bemused by the implication none of us already teaches/writes about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or decolonising the curriculum: or that our areas aren’t relevant to the discussion (@dragonista99).


English down under

Leicester University’s strategy offers one way to prevent people from studying literature: cutting huge chunks out of the curriculum and attempting to bemuse and deter potential critics with loaded words. Another way to make literature inaccessible is to make it prohibitively expensive. This is the strategy employed by the Liberal, i.e. conservative Government currently in power here in Australia to deter potential critics, as Australian journalist Michelle Grattan argued in The Conversation in June 2020:


Finally, there does seem to be an ideological tinge to the policy, notably in the treatment of the humanities. The cost for these courses will rise by a massive 113%. … . There is an anti-intellectual streak in this government, with ministers unsympathetic towards universities, which many of them see as breeding grounds for left-leaning activists.


The argument of the then Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, was that the government wished to attract students to those courses which would feed them into the jobs the economy required. In June, 2020, he announced changes to funding rates for university courses as part of a plan to create “job ready graduates,” hiking up fees for courses deemed less like to lead to jobs and bringing down fees for those leading more speedily to employment. On June 19, Peter Hurley wrote, also in The Conversation:


Under the new plan, students doing teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages will pay 46% less for their degree from next year. Students in agriculture and maths will pay 62% less, while those studying science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT, and engineering will be 20% better off. But the student contribution for the humanities will go up by 113%, and the costs for law and commerce will jump by 28%. The rationale is to encourage students to select courses with the best employment outcomes.


The statistics did not, however, bear out Tehan’s pronouncements:


Of the study areas where the government is proposing students contribute more, law graduates (95.8%) and business graduates (95.5%) are employed at rates above the average. Humanities graduates are employed at a rate of 91.1% (above science and maths) (Hurley).


Michelle Grattan and Peter Hurley both write for The Conversation, a “collaboration between academics and journalists” whose motto is “Academic rigour, journalistic flair.” Both saw through the bias in Tehan’s (and the government’s) arguments. As numerous responses to the proposed Leicester changes also make clear, studying literature, studying the humanities, teaches you to think for yourself, teaches you to pay attention. You learn to spot the inconsistencies, the illogicality, the loaded words with which the dishonest attempt to paper over their real intentions. Listening attentively to people talking is a large part of the work and the pleasure of literature and drama.


But over and above these considerations, there is something almost blasphemous about a system which attempts to bribe and bully students to place themselves, not where their hearts lead them but where financial constraints force them. (Students in the Humanities at Australian Universities may find themselves shouldering a lifelong debt). Where is there here any hint of the idea of a vocation, a calling? I don’t wish to sound too romantic. People have to live, have to earn money to feed themselves and their kids, and communities need doctors, architects, nurses, etc. But there is more to life and to education than being fed into the machine of economic requirements or even social needs. The best doctors, architects and nurses etc. are those who want to be.


To end on a personal note, my own life has been enriched by an education and work spent in the study and practice of literature and music. As a reader, a writer, a singer, listener and teacher, I have known a love and enjoyment greater than I could have imagined possible when I first left school. That love and enjoyment was, to a great extent, the gift of my teachers at different universities in Melbourne: Melbourne, Monash and LaTrobe. My thanks to all of them and to everyone who helped, encouraged and inspired me along the way. I can only offer the hope for an education so blessed to all those entering universities now.


Helen Dell

Honorary Research Fellow, English and Theatre Studies

School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne