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Melz Owusu, the Free Black University
Melz OwusuPhotography Will Stanley

The Free Black University is here to decolonise education for good

Academic Melz Owusu has raised over £86k in the campaign to push back against traditional curriculums that fail Black students, in favour of new educational possibilities

“Education should be the most freeing and liberating experience ever,” says 25-year-old Melz Owusu, “but Black students are leaving university traumatised. We recognise that universities are ill equipped, and so we want to exist to create the liberating experience that education should be.”

Owusu is the founder of the Free Black University, a newly-launched project that aims to decolonise education and redistribute knowledge, centring Black students and a curriculum that reflects them.

As an academic themselves – Owusu studied at the University of Leeds and will start a PhD at the University of Cambridge in October – Owusu has experienced first-hand what it’s like to be Black in the UK education system; a system that is literally built on imperialism.

“Throughout my whole schooling, I’ve learnt about knowledge and histories that don’t reflect me,” Owusu tells Dazed, adding that the idea for the Free Black University stemmed from the realisation that “asking to be included in curriculum design is just putting a plaster over the massive wound that is colonial education”.

Although they had the idea for the university a while ago, Owusu only just launched the project’s GoFundMe on June 3, with the fundraiser already racking up an impressive £86,835 in donations. Owusu hopes to eventually raise £250k, and is calling on universities to 'redistribute” money by committing to an annual donation.

According to recent statistics, currently just a fifth of UK universities have committed to decolonising their curriculums. Academics and students have since criticised institutions’ inability to recognise that the decolonisation of education goes further than simply hiring Black lecturers – who make up less than one per cent of UK university professors – or adding Black authors to reading lists. 

Once established, the Free Black University will deliver open-access online lectures, provide radical Black books to the community – including those incarcerated – establish a mental health service for Black students, build an online library, create a “transformational” publication, launch a podcast, and more.

Here, Owusu tells Dazed why now is the right time to announce the project, why restructuring traditional universities will never work, and what students can expect from the Free Black University.

How did the traditional curriculum fail you growing up? What stories from others have led to the creation of the Free Black University?

Melz Owusu: Throughout my whole schooling, I’ve learnt about knowledge and histories that don’t reflect me. So, working in the space of decolonising, and asking for faces like mine and knowledge like mine to be included on the curriculum, is something that I’ve been doing for a few years. However, the creation of the university came from recognising that it’s not enough for people like me to be reflected within curricula at whatever level. The idea of the Free Black University is to transform education from its root because asking to be included in curriculum design is just putting a plaster over the massive wound that is colonial education.

What are the Free Black University’s key aims?

Melz Owusu: To produce radical knowledge that will help transform the world – that’s at the heart of it. And to ensure that healing and mental health support is at the crux of what we do, because Black students are being failed again and again by institutions. Education should be the most freeing and liberating experience ever, but Black students are leaving university traumatised. We recognise that universities are ill equipped to give (much-needed support) to students, and so we want to exist to create the liberating experience that education should be.

“Education should be the most freeing and liberating experience ever, but Black students are leaving university traumatised” – Melz Owusu

What failings have you seen when it comes to mental health services for Black students at university?

Melz Owusu: There’s very rarely culturally competent mental health provision, in a sense that we don’t have many Black therapists etc. But we’re not just trying to fix the wound that has already been created. Black students’ mental health isn’t just bad because Black students find university harder, it’s the fact that every single day they’re experiencing a curriculum that doesn’t represent them, a curriculum that is actually harmful to them, that essentially legitimises slave traders and eugenicists. (Black students are being educated in) spaces that have been built on the suffering of their ancestors. All of these things affect Black students’ mental health. And so, we recognise mental health not just as something that needs to be fixed, but something that can be transformed – both through how spaces are created and what spaces stand for.

How would that work at the Free Black University?

Melz Owusu: The curriculum is going to represent students, which will help with mental health. Plus, we’re hoping to have healing sessions, looking at both Western approaches to mental wellbeing, and pre-colonial African spiritual approaches.

What else is going to be on offer for those wishing to study?

Melz Owusu: First up, we’re hoping to launch our podcast in the next few months, then we’re just thinking through how we can actually create a radical curriculum. We want to engage people who are going to produce knowledge to really push boundaries. It’s going to be a lengthy process because to have the radical nature that we want, we need a lot of funding, and we need a lot of time – radical knowledge can’t be reproduced in the framework that we’re accustomed to. We’re trying to break the boundaries of everything in every sense.

Why did you decide that now is the right time to announce the project?

Melz Owusu: I just felt compelled. Obviously everything that’s going on in the world put focus on Black lives, and since it’s a project I’ve been thinking about for some time, I had short term and long term goals for it, but I thought, ’Do you know what, let me just try it and see whether people are going to support the long term vision for this’. It feels like people are recognising just how needed a space like this is.

“We’re not going to try and get the crumbs that universities are willing to offer, and instead we’re going to create a space in which marginalised students become the centre of the educational experience” – Melz Owusu

You’ve been campaigning for the decolonisation of higher education for a while – how have universities responded in the past? Have you seen more of a seismic shift in recent times?

Melz Owusu: Universities have responded differently. Overarchingly, this desire to institutionalise decoloniality has come about, and so universities are trying to make it easier for themselves by changing what decolonising means. They’re being like, ’OK, now we have a Black lecturer, we finished our decolonial project’. But when we really think about the essence of decoloniality, universities are at the heart of it. The changes that they need to make have to be incredibly radical, but they’re not ready to make them. Of course, we’ve seen that Rhodes is now coming down, but it’s such a shame that it took this long for that to happen, and now it feels very anti-climatic in a sense of, ’OK, now you’re going to take down Cecil Rhodes, what else are you going to do, Oxford?’ I don’t know whether universities are going to be able to do what they need to do.

Why do you think the Free Black University is the answer as opposed to attempting to restructure traditional institutions?

Melz Owusu: I used to believe that it was possible to restructure universities, but more and more I’m recognising that it’s not. Students shouldn’t have to wait for the bureaucracy, the slowness, and the intentional harm that a lot of these institutions continue perpetuating. Rather than putting pressure on marginalised students to fight their institutions every single day, we decided that we’re not going to try and get the crumbs that universities are willing to offer, and instead we’re going to create a space in which these marginalised students become the centre of the educational experience.

You're going to study epistemic justice at Cambridge in October – what do you see as the most urgent issues surrounding racism that Oxbridge has to reckon with?

Melz Owusu: Redistribution of wealth is at the heart of it. There's a lot that can be said for admitting Black students, however, (there is a danger to) admitting Black students into a system that can traumatise them. These institutions, specifically Oxbridge, hold so much money, a lot of which has benefitted off the pain and servitude of people of colour. They need to quickly start thinking about ways to redistribute that wealth and repair the harm that they've caused.

For you, what's it been like navigating traditional educational spaces as a Black academic?

Melz Owusu: It's been difficult. Because I'm often in a position of advocating for other students, I'm always the dissident voice and, on a personal level, it's so harmful. The weight of it is terrifying. Having to continually go to these old, white academics and make the case that my life matters – that other Black students matter – and urge them to change things is incredibly mentally, emotionally, and physically taxing. That's why I've decided that it's time to divest from that structure and create something that is liberating, both for me and my community.

Donate to the Free Black University here.