Episode 7

Published on:

28th Dec 2022

(S2E7) Decolonising postgraduate research

In conversation with Professor Richard Hall (De Montfort University). In our weekly Research Culture Uncovered conversations we are asking what is Research Culture and why does it matter? In Season 2, we are in conversation with a number of presenters from the Researcher Education and Development Scholarship International Conference of 2022. In this episode we cover:

  1. Dimensions of decolonisation at the postgraduate research level.
  2. Self-audit guide
  3. How to approach decolonisation at the postgraduate research level
  4. Impact at De Montfort University

Related links from the podcast: 

About Decolonising DMU

Decolonising DMU: A self-auditing guide for Research Centres and Institutes - applying a decolonising lens

Decolonising DMU: a working position

Humanity and Identity are Inextricable from Astrophysics: a Review of the Disordered Cosmos by Dr. Chandra Prescod-Weinstein

Decolonising methodologies: research and indigenous peoples 

Be sure to check out all the episodes in this season!


Follow us on twitter: @ResDevLeeds, @OpenResLeeds, @ResCultureLeeds

If you would like to contribute to a podcast episode get in touch: academicdev@leeds.ac.uk


Welcome to the Research Culture Uncovered podcast, where in every episode we explore what is research culture and what should it be? You'll hear thoughts and opinions from a range of contributors to help you change research culture into what you want it to be.


Hello, I'm Tony Bromley and welcome to season two of the Research Culture Uncovered podcast.

ent Scholarship conference of:

So welcome and hello to you Richard.


Hi. Thanks for the invite. Lovely to be here. Lovely to be talking about this as well. It's kind of, I think it's something we've been doing at DMU for a few years, so it's kind of part of the, kind of part of the institutional, um, sort of energy and DNA.


Yeah. And one of the things I was going to, um, ask about was the context, because this might just be simply, uh, my ignorance in terms of knowing about what's going on across the sector in, in this area, but a lot seems to be going on on the undergraduate level, but not quite so much at the post-graduate, post research level.

Would that be accurate?


Yeah, I think it would be. There's a lot certainly in, um, institutional access and participation plans. Engagement with, with things like the, um, the AdvanceHE, um, ECU work on, um, the race equality charter and getting accreditation in, in that way tend to look at the awarding gap or the, the, you know, the attainment gap as was.

lot of work certainly in the:

so first or two ones than, um, than their white counterparts. And there was a kind of a very heavy focus on undergrad. I, I guess in part because, a lot of the, kind of the national culture focuses upon value for money, for of degrees, the value of a degree, outcomes, student outcomes, all of that kind of stuff. So yeah, there had been less, not to say there was no work, but less, um, visible work on, and certainly less noise publicly, I guess, on postgraduate research, but also I guess on kind of institutional research environments and culture.


Yeah. So it's the, it's the broader picture. So in terms of your involvement, when would you, when did your involvement really come in onto this? Or is this something that you, you, yourself, have grabbed a hold of and led institutionally? How did you come into this?


Yeah, in relation to the, um, the research,


the postgrad research side. Yeah. The decolonizing on the PGR side.


Yeah. We had a, um, we, we were involved in a. An OFS Office for Students funded thing. Um, that closed out in 2019. And that was, um, that was a partnership, um, uh, a sort of a national sort of partnership really. It was led by Kingston and we were looking at value added and inclusive curriculum design, at undergraduate level.

When we, we then decided as an institution that more work needed to be done structurally in terms of structures, sculptures, and practice, beyond undergraduate really to kind of look to then to move an agenda forward in relation to, to decolonizing as a, as a, as a process. Not to define what decolonized looks like, but to, but to talk about, I guess, some kind of, um, the characteristics of what process of decolonizing might look like within an institution and therefore, we would have to break this down to look at the broader student experience.

We'd have to, we would wanna be engaging with staff, we would want be looking at issues to do with kind of library service provision, that kind of thing. Um, and institutional level stuff that was happening in relation to kind of policy and strategy and governance, but also research. So I was kind of leading on that pillar, which was, which was mostly research and evaluation

of the project, but also then, um, I think there were a few of us who wanted to make the impetus around, well, how do we, how, how might we, if we're thinking about the, the REF for instance, and it's focus on environment impact outputs and within environment, thinking about PGR, thinking about training, doctoral supervision, whatever it might be, what might this process moving beyond EDI towards, um, processes kind of decolonizing what might

that look like then. Um, which then enables us to do work in relation to, for instance, research ethics. That that kind of space or in relation to kind of theory, methodol, different methodologies or methodological approaches we might take, we could do work in that space. Um, that's got renewed again in the, in this kind of the second incarnation of our decolonizing DMU project because we have, we've, we've now got,

rather than these pillars, we've got four commitments and one of those Right, right. One of those is on, um, equity in, um, education and research. So we are very deliberately got some targets in, in relation to that. I mean, that is a, that in itself we can talk about later if you want, is a kind of an issue having a, where you've got a very process, a process focused kind of developmental, relational

engagement like decolonizing, but you try and project manage it cuz all institutions wanna put targets and deliverables in. We've got those. But uh, but yeah, I think part of the research thing has, has, has emerged because individuals see it as being important, but also because whilst we're a university that is teaching intensive and research active, there is, there is still a very strong commitment to research.



Cause I just wondered to, just to unpick things because there's complexities within this. Yeah. Um, the, in terms of the, the curriculum side of things at undergraduate level in, I'm probably being simplistic, but it seems like a simple thing to get ahold of. Right? Somebody has a curriculum as a starting point,

we can look at what the content of that curriculum, um, is. Now, what does curriculum mean at postgraduate research that cause. Um, and well actually colleagues talk about the, the hidden curriculum, so perhaps we have got a curriculum in a sense. So what are the main issues, uh, at the postgraduate research side that may not necessarily be as obvious as when you have a starting point at an undergraduate level?


Yeah, I think you are right. It is a really great, um, point you make, but it feels easier to get a hold of at undergraduate level because there has been quite a lot of, of, of, of very visible discussion and dialogue. Um, around the, the reading list around around which authors, um, should make it onto those lists.

A lot of, a lot of. Heat and not a lot of light at times around that, I think, and who's being canceled and, and is this part of some kind of woke agenda and all of, and all of that? Yeah. Some of the stuff that doesn't get thought about in the undergraduate curriculum also comes in through, I think into the post grad curriculum.

Um, and that might be around, around transitions and how we support transitions into and through, um, study. And what, who is certainly within the context of that, how in terms of PGR, what supervisory teams, how they're constructed, and how that, and how that plays out. What are the, how do those, how are those relationships being supported?

How are we making decisions around admissions and are we making them based on, um, particular world views that might marginalize particular theoretical or methodological, um, demands in particular where there are alleged subject specific kind of disciplinary, um, I guess kind of quality standards or accepted kind of modes of thinking and writing and processes of transitions, admissions, the balance between wanting to get, well, some of the language that was used was around high quality students into do PGR work, but actually it is, it is students who are, who are themselves, I guess

aware that they're gonna need to grow in that space and they have space to grow in that space and that, and that good enough is good enough in that space. And that a variety, a variety of approaches, methodological, positionings, developmental positionings, theoretical positionings, might be viable, valid, authentic with it for a particular kind of project.

So thinking about that kind of transition moment about research ethics in that space as well. And we see. You know, we see a range of groups Royal Society for Chemistry, for instance. Um, disciplinary organizations in relation to en engineering physics have all got statements related to EDI within their space.

It, a lot of that is around the diversity of their kind of PGR, um, admissions and the PGR, um, student body, but also supervisors also in relation to kind of staffing. They tend to talk less around I guess a range of theoretical or methodological kind of positions, although those tend to get opened up a little bit more in the social sciences.

But there are some very live issues there. And in relation to, um, research ethics and, and for instance in that space, the reviewing process, the kind of research ethics and projects within, um, within particular kind of research areas. So there are, there are some issues there I think in relation to PGR.

Yeah. Also some issues in relation to, to voice, um, and, if we're thinking about those learning outcomes for, you know, the, the framework for higher education, qualifications level descriptors, you know, we are, there are, there are things we're trying to validate around an original contribution around a systematic understanding of, um, literature at the forefront of a particular disciplinary area.

[Yes]. About a methodological, richness that enables us to set, to validate that this person can go out into the world without breaking it or without breaking other people. So we w we want, we kind of want that as well. So beginning to try to think about those in relation to doctoral training as well and process it, of kind of putting a, a thesis together that, that enables voice to emerge.

And one of the things that some of our students have been very clear about then is, is in relation to position and positionality. So one of the things that they're, that they are, that a number of them are, are, feel's attention is that they want to present a positionality statement for themselves within the context of their research.

[Right]. And is, is that okay or is an examiner gonna fail me for that? Is uh, because, you know, because there are objective truths in terms of how the thesis is presented. Right. And we have to do quite a lot of work on, on that. You know, I've examined 20 odd PhDs and I've never failed anyone for that. You know, people have been about fail people, but not for that.


Well, it's interesting for, you've mentioned a method a couple of times in research method and, uh, just to reveal my background, so this'll be, and also reveal my ignorance. So I work on the science and engineering side originally. That's what my PhD, uh, was. [Nice]. So I'm, I'm intrigued in terms, you talk about decolonization of method.

And the social science will have it. So is there perhaps a specific example you could just give me to illustrate how a method well is, you know, might, may need decolonization?


Yeah, I suppose this, for me, some of this emerged from conversations with postgraduate research students in particular in, um, in, in politics who I guess we're, look, we're looking at.

Kind of we're, we're questioning or critiquing. And some of this also connects to, um, work that's been done on indigenous and, um, the colonial approaches to research methods. Some of the work of people like, um, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Eve Tuck, um, who have, um, or even I, I, I guess, um, Uh, who wrote Disordered Cosmos?

Chanda Chanda Prescod over in the, over in the States who writes about, she's kind of one of the first astro physics PhDs over in the, over in the States. And Disordered Cosmos is brilliant because she writes about the intersection of her, her, her race, her queerness, um, her scientific method and scientific approach.

Talks about kind of western ontological and epistomological out outlook. So how are we thinking about knowledge? How are we thinking about knowledge production? How are we conceptualizing that? How are we ordering that in order to understand the world and the, and the universe effectively and attempting to, to sort of think through well

can we understand that in terms of its historical and material emergence from, from, with a kind of post, an enlightenment, post enlightenment kind of western world. How, how, if we were to think about that in a more relativistic way, what might, how might that enable us to think about knowledge or ways of knowing the universe?

And I think people like Carlo Rovelli actually, when they're thinking about, um, relational quantum mechanics, begin to think about this a, a, a little bit, a little bit more. [Right]. Only in thinking about the way in which the, the world is constructed, not just objectively, but there's a, a kind of a deep subjective, cultural, communal element to the ways in which we un we understand social phenomena and also potentially scientific phenomena within that, within that space.

So our students are coming back to us and sort of talking about this, you know, there are these disciplinary norms that, that talk about, I don't know, social constructivism, interpretivism, post positivism, whatever. They wanna do these things. They wanna do these things in a, in a kind of a, almost a very linear way, but they, but we see the kind of construction of our projects in a much more relational way that might be much more metabolic rather than kind of fixed in their relationships.

And can we, how do we discuss that within the context of our methodol, of our, of our kinda methodological approaches in order to kind of almost disrupt, standard views of kind of epistemology and ontology. And this isn't coming, then we don't, not necessarily seeing our kind of focus on decolonizing there as a, in rela, specifically in relation to black and ethnically minoritized individuals, but also in terms, I guess, of thinking about, um, equality, which we might then apply to a whole range of identities, not an intersectional kind of identity markers.

You know. Within that space.


No, it's absolutely fascinating stuff. And of course we've only got a, a relative short space of time in this podcast and it's certainly, I feel like this is an entire podcast series in terms of unpicking all the

aspects you've said


In the show notes. Um, if you have show notes, I can ping you, I can ping you two or three

um, uh, links to things that I've read that I have, um, really been important to me by [Yes]. Um, and, and I think they will really help you. Listeners.


That would be great. We will have show notes so people listening, have a look at the show notes. Um, I'm, I'm thinking now to just bring things together. Um, One would question would be, um, a straightforward question.

If somebody else was starting out today and thinking, right, we do need to look at our postgrad research. We do need to look at decolonizing. Um, where would you suggest they start? How did they get, did you get a group together, you know, universities, we do love our committees. You know, where would you, where would you start with this?

What, what would be your sort of guidance?


We, um, we have quite a lot of people who, are are very negative about, about this as well and, and, um, push have pushed back quite strongly and clearly people are on a continuum in their engagement with this and we want to encourage those conversations. I, I have, we have tended to go, I have tended to go in the first instance where the energy is where and where the positive energy is because at times we know that our institutions

can, can be quite difficult places for some of us to kind of exist in, know workload pressures, issues in relation to kind of wellbeing some of the relationship stuff. We've seen a, a vote for, you know, kind of action from UCU. So it's, I think it's quite, it's important to be generative in our, in our engagements and relationships.

So we, we've set, we set up, um, uh, a network, a network effectively in relation to research centres and institutes that I knew were friendly. I know there are some that are less friendly, but I knew that there were some that were definitely friendly. Yeah. So we have a, for instance, centre for Reproduction Research Centre for UM, computing and Social Responsibility Centre for um, criminology community education, social justice.

Um, urban research on, on austerity. We knew that there was work that was happening there. That was a trying to, um, that was engaged in EDI or decolonizing work in relation to the process of building a research culture, or they were actually doing the, the content of their work was in relation to this. So in in CCSR, in our computing and social responsibility area, they were doing quite a lot of work on

on artificial intelligence in the global south, the ways in which we might reconceptualize that. So there's a, there was the content happening there that was impactful, but there was also, they were also doing some quite significant work with their PhD students and their PhD culture in terms of ho making that much more kind of horizontal and, and beginning to work against privilege in that space and think about voice.

So we went to some friendlies. And that was, that was important in order to define what we might do. From there, we, we, we built a self audit tool for, for research institutes, which is not about monitoring from the centre. I'm not interested in the outcomes of that. I'm interested in discussing the outcomes, but that focuses on environment impact, public engagement, outputs, doctoral stuff, you know, so it's got a checklist for people.

So I would suggest that, get, get groups together, either in schools or faculties or whatever, who can at least out and discuss baseline, where we are, where you are, and then where you might want to, where you might wanna go knowing that this is, that, that we, that we deliberate where we might want to go, what we might what, what we might wanna focus on.

We move, we deliberate again. We move, we deliberate again. We do, we do want to kind of build that, that moment of kind of dialogue. And I think if you can get sort of PGR students in there to lead with some of that. I've got some PGR students who have, um, Co-produced. Um, all I've done is facilitated it, but they, they've co-produced some principles for PGR supervision in relation to kind of, um, decolonizing or working with black and ethnic minoritized students.

And we have a, a lot of students who will, who will identify like that. So they have co-produced that, and we will then, we will then share that through our, our networks and try and build a dialogue around it. And I think, but I would definitely say go where the po the more positive generative energy is.


Excellent. And I just wondered, uh, to again, pull things into summary. Was there one or two things that you, you, you, you must have achieved things, is there some change that you've achieved that you, you would say that, you know, this is a good example, that we looked at this area and now this is happening or there has been a change?

Is there any sort of change examples you can think of that might be good for us to hear? It's a

difficult thing to get changed.


Yeah. Very. I think in the, in the, in the the talk at the conference, I was, the, the, the stuff that I pulled out was in relation to admissions in our faculty of business and law, where that had been a, that had been a need that their faculty head of research units had identified and we pulled together some

um, it was workshops with, with supervisors and, and PGR students who were then defining some kind of principles in relation to that that staff and supervisory teams could work with. Certainly during that kind of, um, admissions process for students. The work that we did with research institutes and centres, that, that generated the self forward

it's all that's being used, um, autonomously by centres and institutes as well, I think is a, is was a nice framing, um, in that space. Also, the ability for to, to, to work around the principles for supervisory teams in working with, um, black and ethnically minoritized students has also begun to catalyze some thoughts around, um, networks, I guess, of, of those students who can, who can then

evaluate their own position and bring that forward to our doctoral college and the doc. And our work on training is another area that I guess, that now, that now, um, these issues are embedded within doctoral training. Um, at an institutional level doesn't mean that they're everywhere, doesn't mean that they dominate, but they're, they're in there for teams and individuals that to consider.

And the next, the next stage for us being led a little bit because, I'm the faculty head of research students in my faculty, sorry, faculty head of research ethics in my faculty is on research ethics and what we are, what we are doing there through the kind of review process to to support the variety of um, projects.

ristics and the impact of the:

those students to kind of have their voice. So that's the kind of next stage for us.


Yeah. No, that's excellent. Thank you. And it's, uh, to bring this to a close is a bit of a shame because there's so many things that have been fascinating to, to listen to, and there's so many aspects of this. I think it's, it is really helpful, certainly for me and hopefully for those listening just to get some of the bullet points and to raise so many issues that we can look at within this.

So, uh, if thank you for, for joining us and thank you for what you said. This afternoon


a. Ah, you're really welcome. Thanks ever so much for the invite. It's a privilege to get to talk to you.


Thanks for listening to the Research Culture Uncovered podcast. Please subscribe so you never miss out on our brand new episodes. And if you are enjoying the discussions, give us some love by dropping a five star rating and written review as it helps other research culturists find us and please share with a friend and show them how to subscribe. Email us at academicdev@leeds.ac.uk. Thanks for listening, and here's to you and your research culture.

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About the Podcast

Research Culture Uncovered
Changing Research Culture through conversations
At the University of Leeds, we believe that all members of our research community play a crucial role in developing and promoting a positive and inclusive research culture. Across the globe, the urgent need for a better Research Culture in Higher Education is widely accepted – but how do you make it happen? This weekly podcast focuses on our ideas, approaches and learning as we contribute to the University's attempt to create a Research Culture in which everyone can thrive. Whether you undertake, lead, fund or benefit from research - these are the conversations to listen to if you want to explore what a positive Research Culture is and why it matters.

Unless specified in the episode shownotes, Research Culture Uncovered © 2023 by Research Culturosity, University of Leeds is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. This license requires that reusers give credit to the creator. If you remix, adapt, or build upon the material, you must license the modified material under identical terms. Some episodes may be licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0, please check before use.

About your hosts

Emma Spary

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I moved into development after several years as an independent researcher and now lead the team providing professional and career development for all researchers and those supporting research. I am passionate about research culture and supporting people. I lead our Concordat implementation work and was part of the national Concordat writing group. I represent Leeds as a member of Researchers14, the N8PDRA group and UKRI’s Alternative Uses Group.

Taryn Bell

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I work as a Researcher Development Adviser at the University of Leeds. My focus is on career development, with a particular focus on supporting funding and fellowships. I previously worked at the University of York as their Fellowship Coordinator, developing and growing the University's community of early career fellows. Get in touch if you'd like to learn more (T.L.Bell@leeds.ac.uk)!

Katie Jones

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I am a Researcher Development and Culture Project Officer at the University of Leeds, where I lead projects within the Researcher Development and Culture Team. My role involves managing projects that enhance the development of researchers and foster a positive research culture across the University and the higher education sector.

Tony Bromley

Profile picture for Tony Bromley
I've worked in the area of the development of researchers for 20 years, including at the national and international level. I was lead author of the UK sector researcher development impact framework charged with evaluating the over £20M per year investment of UK research councils in researcher development. I have convened the international Researcher Education and Development Scholarship (REDS) conference for a number of years and have published on researcher development evaluation and pedagogy. All the details are on www.tonybromley.com !! Also why not take a look at https://conferences.leeds.ac.uk/reds/

Ged Hall

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I've worked for almost 20 years in researcher development, careers guidance and academic skills development. For the last decade I've focused on the area of research impact. This has included organisational development projects and professional development for individual researchers and groups. I co-authored the Engaged for Impact Strategy and am heavily involved in its implementation, across the University of Leeds, to build a healthy impact culture. For 10 years after my PhD, I was a consultant in the utility sector, which included being broker between academia and my clients.

Ruth Winden

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After many years running my own careers consultancy business I made the transition to researcher development leading our careers provision. My background is in career coaching, facilitation and group-based coaching, and I have a special interest in cohort-based coaching programmes which help researchers manage their careers proactively and transition into any sector and role of their choice.

Nick Sheppard

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I have worked in scholarly communications for over 15 years, currently as Open Research Advisor at the University of Leeds. I am interested in effective dissemination of research through sustainable models of open access, including underlying data, and potential synergies with open education and Open Educational Resources (OER), particularly underlying technology, software and interoperability of systems.