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Centre for Education and International Development (CEID), IOE


A forum for staff, students, alumni and guests to write about and around CEID's five thematic areas of engagement.


Alternative Histories of Education and International Development #003 – Ejegi & Torbayeva

By utnvmab, on 3 December 2020

‘Can the subaltern speak?’

Decolonising Education and International Development Event launched by staff and students at UCL’s Centre for Education and International Development (CEID) 

by Shola Ejegi & Albina Tortbayeva

Dr Laila Kadiwal from CEID opened the event with this famous postcolonial question ‘Can the subaltern speak?’. In answer, she shared the words of her Dalit academic-activist friend, Mahitosh, who is the first Dalit lecturer/professor of English literature in India, who responded: ‘They can, but their voice remains under represented even in the Subaltern Studies literature’. Laila also told us that she grew up in a rural conflict-affected periphery of postcolonial India. Albina remembers her words that were powerful for her in both their openness and boldness: “I’m here because the East India Company and the Queen Victoria were there.  Of course, my class privileges also made it possible for me to be here”. In this very statement, she highlighted the continuing colonial legacies in the present through the university setting, and its intersections with issues of class.  Coloniality continues to echo in our society, and particularly in the education field which needs to work to transform and not to reproduce social inequalities.

Stories both personal and impressive came from other participants too –  professors, students and activists interested in researching the colonial entanglements underpinning the field of education and development joined this online event from a range of global locations. Professors Elaine Unterhalter and Moses Oketch – co-directors of the Centre for Education and International Development at UCL – shared their perspectives on the significance of decolonising the field of education and even the centre itself, inviting us on a brave journey to start questioning and naming colonial logics and uneven power dynamics in the field. We particularly felt brave being a part of the discussion cafe as it is a direct rejection of the ‘status quo.’ It felt eye opening to intentionally explore the meanings and history of discourses and practices that have been deemed universal, which are in fact are a reflection of Eurocentric norms at the expense of the voice and cultures of former colonised populations.

As one of the participants said, “the event was able to create a safe space to discuss the important topic of decolonizing our minds. We could talk about this for hours”.  This safety was fostered by participants and speakers alike being placed at the same level, where everyone’s voice could be heard – we shared interpretations from the curated resources in small intimate discussion groups before returning to the main room for an overall discussion. Speakers introduced their positionality, including we both, Albina and Shola, who were co-hosts. In this way, we consciously recognised the experiences that could shape our perspective. The introduction of positionality invited a more personal touch, resulting in the group feeling more welcoming, informal and an invitation for the diverse group of people to feel comfortable no matter where they came from. Through the discussion groups, we gained a deeper and more contextual understanding of the individual behind the words which adds meaning, richness and a story to the messages and interpretations that they shared. Needless to say that this event is just the beginning of our long and exciting journey to learning more about ourselves through reflecting and learning more about others.

A key discussion point raised by Professor Unterhalter in her introductory remarks was the intersection between ‘what works’ and ‘what matters’ in unravelling colonial entanglements in education and development. Often, national organisations take on the position of ‘what works’ in implementing strategies to improve development in host countries. But such interventions must involve local people who were subject to colonial powers in order to ensure any transformation is relevant to the context and indeed matters.

How does this look in practice? This question was posed by attendees. It is much easier to suggest ideas that look great on paper but are often not as fruitful as they appear in bringing systemic change. For example, large companies and organisations’ methods of decolonising narratives and systems can be treated as a tick box exercise. There was agreement that there has been an improvement in the general recruitment of minorities, events held and rules put in place to decolonize our environments. But how much of this results in effective systemic change where there is holistic dismantling of the colonial ideas, practices and culture in order to create lasting transformation?  We believe that theoretical approaches should be rooted in the experiences of local people, not simply a broad idea of what would make a country appear to be thriving, such as focusing on increasing the overall GDP of the country when indeed the people may still be suffering.

For us, the key takeaways were on the impressive influence that one’s past, not always so just and inclusive, can have on the present and future life. How important it is to learn more about oneself to be able to understand others and vice versa, and how these reflections help in untangling colonial narratives, systems and thoughts. There is huge importance in recognising the impact of one’s positionality in shaping perspective, and the consequences of this. The discussion empowered us to recognise our present role in dismantling colonial narratives by confronting the history that contributed towards colonialism in the first place, and seeing this work within the long histories of those who have fought against colonialism in the past.

We, Albina Tortbayeva and Shola Ejegi, are MA students at UCL in Education and International Development, who had the pleasure of co-facilitating the launch of the decolonisation discussion café and can be reached at Albina and Shola for any questions or inquires related to this blog post or just to connect and network.

Watch the recording of the launch below. 


Shola Ejegi is an educator, teaching both secondary and primary education in the UK, she is passionate about creating a creative and inclusive education system. Shola is also an artist and poet. Get in touch with her via social media: @sholaejegi (Instagram), @apoemforyouuk (Poetry Instagram & Facebook) and www.sholaejegi.com

Albina Tortbayeva is a Chevening scholar from Kazakhstan. Albina is a mid-career development professional (IREX, British Council, DAI, USAID) and she founded the first young researchers’ community in Kazakhstan (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1306952242721790).

If you are interested in attending the upcoming sessions co-hosted by the students and teaching team of UCL and our friends, please drop an email to: Colleen Howell and Lynsey Robinson

Want to publish a blog post in this series? Send a submission or idea to:  Mai Abu Moghli or Charlotte Nussey 

For everything else, please contact: Laila Kadiwal

One Response to “Alternative Histories of Education and International Development #003 – Ejegi & Torbayeva”

  • 1
    Chris Yates wrote on 5 December 2020:

    Great to see our MA colleagues working together to drive this project – we will, slowly, work together, to level unnecessary and counter-productive, hierarchies …

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