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SOUTH AFRICA
HE conference agenda reflects sector’s topical issues

The issue of academic decolonisation was a strong feature of the 11th annual University of KwaZulu-Natal Higher Education Teaching and Learning Conference held in Durban in late September.

The conference, which has become a standard bearer for discussions on higher education and its role in South African society, saw leading South African and international academics and researchers tackle the theme of “Crises, Contestations, Contemplations and Futures”.

The conference showcased innovations, generated debates, theorised policy and practice and explored opportunities and challenges in higher education. Broader issues considered were governance and leadership as well as possible funding models.

Conference Convener and Chairman Dr Rubby Dhunpath said the focus change was necessitated by the expanding purview of the successive conference themes, which sought to embrace concerns beyond teaching and learning. Over its lifetime the conference has shifted from best practice to considering the scholarship of teaching and learning and now to higher education teaching and learning more generally, he said.

University of KwaZulu-Natal Professor of Education Michael Samuel said the next step involves looking at the “indigeneity” – the ability to indigenise universities and their curricula. He also questioned why members of less advantaged higher education institutions were not participating in such conferences.

Decolonisation

Walter Sisulu University Professor MH Kali said the issue of decolonisation was gaining momentum across Africa and there was a call for a framework for deconstructing colonisation. This could determine the effectiveness of the decolonisation initiatives and determine whether the transformation imperatives had sufficient impact.

Kali defined colonisation as the deliberate and systematic extension of direct power and authority over the people of another country. It is expressed as racial segregation, exploitation of resources, deprivation of rights and freedoms, dispossession of land and property and the suppression of culture, identity, language, symbols, values and dignity.

“Despite notable progress made in addressing historical inequalities in public universities, patterns of systemic exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination persist … most universities still follow the hegemonic Eurocentric epistemic canon that attributes truths only to the Western way of knowledge production,” he said.

Against the backdrop of this melee he believes the government must review South Africa’s constitution to ensure “society and the world claim its moral character” and to ensure that higher education institutions become breeding grounds for a new social order.

“The expression of African perspectives must be infused in teaching and learning as standard and acceptable without reservation,” he said.

Head of the Academic Support Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Learning, Teaching and Development, Raazia Moosa, said transformation had been on the higher education agenda for 20 years but today students were demanding renewed attention to it through issues such as higher education finance, student fees and decolonising the curricula.

These demands had resulted in violent protests requiring interventions at national higher education policy and institutional levels.

Qualification frameworks

“Qualification frameworks and decolonising the curriculum and universities are international issues and not limited to former colonies or the South African context. However, at policy level, little attention has been paid to the relationship between quality assurance policies and decolonial priorities,” Moosa said.

She said a national policy like the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework could contribute towards addressing calls to decolonise the curriculum with a policy review supported by detailed analysis. Research findings suggest that transformation imperatives are implicit in the sub-framework and that opportunities have been created to decolonise institutions via language policies, she said.

“Decolonisation of knowledge within the curriculum is possible, although translating different knowledge structures into the curriculum is challenging. Broadening current conceptions of knowledge to incorporate epistemic diversity is essential to support efforts to decolonise,” Moosa said.

A study conducted by University of Johannesburg academics J West, M Vermaak and NJ West examined how and why universities were failing their students in the 21st century.

Research shows that employers look for communication skills (written, oral and technical), ability to work in a team, professional and ethical behaviour, decision-making abilities, as well as an ability to analyse and solve problems. These requirements also have implications for continuous learning.

The UJ research indicated that assisting students for work readiness requires them to be techno-savvy, embody innovative thinking and creativity, be team players who can inspire and rally support for a concept, and engage and communicate across different levels of the organisation.

This means universities should be rethinking and redesigning the way in which courses are taught, re-aligning the curriculum and formalising research projects, the academics said.
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