Indigenizing and decolonizing higher education: From Aotearoa New Zealand to Nicaragua to Scotland

sjtgI work at what could be called a mainstream Enlightenment university. Like many old universities in the western world, the University of Edinburgh is proud of its Enlightenment tradition. It names prestigious lecture series after the Enlightenment as if it was a good thing. While the Enlightenment undoubtedly had its merits in terms of calling into question the tyranny of royals and God, and in the notion that we could as human beings think for ourselves and by so doing create a better world, all to be applauded, it was abysmal in its treatment of women, people of colour and indigenous peoples, whose epistemologies were deemed too irrational, too emotional and too superstitious. Their perceived incapacity for rational thought was a key justification for sexist, racist and colonial practices. It made it justifiable to exclude them from franchise, to deny them access to spaces of economic or educational opportunity, to take their lands and resources and to kill them when they got in the way of “progress” and “civilization”. And it had profound implications for knowledge and for the administrative organization of knowledge in the academy, splitting the natural and physical sciences off from the humanities and social sciences.

As many indigenous scholars have noted, including Sami scholar Rauna Kuokkanen (see for example Kuokkanen 2007) and Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (see for example Smith 2010), the mainstream Enlightenment university is a colonial and monocultural institution that functions on a basis of epistemic ignorance regarding indigenous cultures. For indigenous faculty and students, working or studying at such an institution means therefore being engaged in a struggle against racism and coloniality. It is this experience that led a group of Miskito and Creole intellectuals on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast to create URACCAN or the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast ( ), a university in which indigenous ways of knowing form the basis of scholarly and pedagogical practices. URACCAN’s project forms the basis of a recent article that Kevin Glynn and I (Cupples and Glynn 2014) have just published in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, an article that forms part of a special issue on Advancing Postcolonial Geography, edited by James Sidaway, Chih Yuan Woonan and Jane Jacobs at the National University of Singapore ( ). Drawing on insights from the modernity/coloniality/decoloniality (MCD) paradigm and focusing in particular on research and teaching in both communication and health, we outline how western epistemologies are displaced and indigenous ones productively foregrounded. We are inspired by what we have seen as URACCAN. Indeed, we wrote this paper after working for a decade at a New Zealand university that has repeatedly failed indigenous staff, students and knowledges. In the late 1990s, a doctoral student in education, Hazel Phillips, recruited a group of Māori students at the University of Canterbury. Her thesis documents their struggles to succeed in a hostile and colonial institution that repeatedly invisibilized or silenced their perspectives. Sadly, none of the research participants recruited at the start of the study completed their degrees. In the decade since Phillips’ thesis was completed (Phillips 2003), there is no doubt that the University of Canterbury is undergoing an indigenization of sorts. There is a visible indigenous presence on campus, strategic planning documents and appointments articulate aims to strengthen linkages with Māori communities, support Māori research initiatives and enhance the capacity of Māori researchers (see for example and there are institutional opportunities available for non-indigenous staff and students to become proficient in Māori language and protocol. Such attempts to indigenize the university are however constantly undermined by vertical and undemocratic modes of governance, particularly “line management” (see Cupples and Pawson 2013; Johnston, Sears and Wilcox 2012) and by the privileging of western science and engineering over interdisciplinary and critical cultural and area studies, which are undermined through closure, attempted closure and downsizing through attrition.[1] Such managerial moves compromise the indigenization of the university, for as both Kuokkanen (2007) and Smith (2010) write, it was the development of critical and anti-positivistic cultural, feminist and area studies that emerged from within in the academy that provided an opening for indigenous knowledges to gain legitimacy and flourish (see also ).

The library at URACCAN

The library at URACCAN

URACCAN, like other intercultural and indigenous universities that are starting to emerge in Latin America and elsewhere, provides important lessons for those of us working in postcolonial settler nations such as New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the United States with indigenous populations organized in pursuit of decolonization. It also provides lessons for those of us working in the UK, where funding regimes and the pressure to get grants undermines the kind of long term, in-depth and ethnographic work required for doing research with indigenous communities and where our students are mostly (but not exclusively) very privileged and so one of our most important tasks as educators is to help them unlearn their privilege (Spivak 1988) so that they might become more than individualized and compliant consumers when they graduate[2]. In my experience, students are receptive to anti-capitalist, feminist and decolonial thought but they need to have time to think through their implications and be exposed to them over the course of their degrees. URACCAN also provides important lessons for those of us who are deeply concerned at the intense neoliberalization and corporatization that has taken hold of our public institutions in ways that are profoundly damaging. Neoliberalizing threats to humanities and social sciences and the privileging of STEM subjects are therefore also threats to the necessary indigenization and decolonization of the university. At URACCAN, with far fewer resources than both Edinburgh and Canterbury, they have quite a different approach. You can find the article here. If you don’t have an institutional subscription to the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, and would like a copy of the article, please email me. This article is part of the project Geographies of Media Convergence funded by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand.


[1]Over the past few years, the management of the University of Canterbury has closed American studies, Religious Studies, Gender Studies and Theatre and Film Studies, subjects in which critical, cultural, and non-positivist perspectives could be found and in which some faculty were working on and with Māori. I do of course acknowledge that in New Zealand there are Māori scientists and engineers (see Victoria Guyatt’s Masters thesis on Māori female scientists for a discussion of how competing worldviews are reconciled (Guyatt 2005)) and that there are a small number of non-indigenous scientists and engineers who are trying to incorporate indigenous worldviews into their teaching and research, but they are few and far between and are hindered by their embeddedness in western scientific epistemologies.

[2]I am however delighted that I have a Masters student, Laura Mariana Reyes, who is about to depart to do fieldwork with Unitierra, a similar initiative in Oaxaca, Mexico.


Cupples J and Glynn K (2014) Indigenizing and decolonizing higher education on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 35(1): 56-71.

Cupples J and Pawson E (2012) Giving an account of oneself: The PBRF and the neoliberal university.  New Zealand Geographer 68(1): 14-23.

Guyatt V (2005) Reconciling Multiple Identities: Māori Women Scientists in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Unpublished MSc thesis, Department of Geography, University of Canterbury.

Johnston J, Sears C and Wilcox L (2012) Neoliberalism unshaken: A report from the disaster zone. Excursions Journal 3(1): 1-25.

Kuokkanen R (2007) Reshaping the University: Responsibility, Indigenous Epistemes, and the Logic of the Gift. UBC Press: Vancouver.

Phillips H (2003): Te Reo Karanga o nga tauria Māori: Māori Students, their Voices, their Stories at the University of Canterbury 1996 – 1998. Unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Education, University of Canterbury.

Smith LT (2010) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd edition. Sage: London.

Spivak G (1988) Can the subaltern speak? In C Nelson and L Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. University of Illinois Press: Urbana, pp. 271-313.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s