SOUTH AFRICA: Grappling with curriculum 'relevance'

Seventeen years after the end of white rule and against the backdrop of persistent high unemployment levels, South Africa's universities continue to grapple with the issue of a 'relevant' curriculum and how best to achieve it.

At a recent lekgotla (meeting) on curriculum transformation convened by the University of South Africa's College of Law in its quest for a more 'Afro-centric' curriculum, Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande announced that a learning and teaching charter was on the cards to address, among other issues, the issue of curricula that are relevant "to the South African context specifically and the African context generally".

How effective a charter could be in such contested terrain is debatable.

Professor Nan Yeld, dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town, said although a charter would be "a good thing" if introduced across the sector, ensuring that its undertakings were met might be difficult.

"The charters tend to state the obvious, so are unlikely to be able to be contested - it's whether there will be any consequences that will be interesting," she told University World News.

Acting head of the School of Education and Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Dr Carol Bertram, argued that charters were unlikely to make much difference to the daily work of academics.

"Change happens as academics engage with one another in a community of practice, where there is an openness to engage with new ideas, an openness to change practice and to reflect on what kind of knowledge we value and to constantly be thinking about what the role of the university is in our society."

Bertram cautioned that while the national concern with having a curriculum that was relevant to context was important, there was also the danger of foregrounding context too much and remaining "context-bound".

"We need to teach students to engage with theories which enable us to see the world differently," she said.

Both academics agreed that the country's universities had not entirely neglected the issue of curriculum change, although there was significant "differentiation" and "unevenness" across the sector and within individual institutions, they said.

Nzimande, who is also Secretary General of the South African Communist Party and a seasoned educationist, stopped short of explicitly criticising the tertiary sector for its lack of curriculum change. But he reminded stakeholders that the debates around curriculum change pre-dated the democratic dispensation, now nearly two decades old.

And he made it clear that he believed there were some weak points in the system: "For example, I am concerned that despite the clear failure of neo-liberal market ideology, as currently manifested by the current global economic crisis...our curricula do not adequately interrogate these ideas, and also provide a variety of other ideas about the global development trajectory," he said.

The minister also saw fit to revisit the definition of a "hidden curriculum" and reminded senior higher education stakeholders of the power of the curriculum to reflect and mould the political and ideological assumptions of the society in which it operated. He called on delegates to reflect on the extent to which institutions were reproducing curricula that "still reflected the apartheid order, as a result of inadequate institutional changes.

"In our curricula lies the very identity of our society," he said. "If we therefore want to change our society, address inequalities and develop ourselves into a just and healthy society, we need to change the very content of the vehicle through which we teach and develop our young people."

Yeld said that universities had been doing much "soul-searching" on the issue of curricula transformation and the aims of student learning over the years.

Pointing to South Africa's unsuccessful experimentation with outcomes-based education post-apartheid and Christian national education during the apartheid era, she said there were many examples where the curriculum-as-a-vehicle-for social-change approach had resulted in the "effective downgrading of knowledge and skill".

Yeld said she believed that in the junior years of the undergraduate curriculum, there should be adequate emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge and skills. The idea of education as a vehicle for the betterment of society should then receive emphasis later on in the degree structure, "so that our graduates do indeed understand where they are, what our needs urgently are, and are competent to do something about it," she said.

Bertram told University World News that she believed the minister gave too much power to curriculum transformation (taking the term to refer to changes in what is taught) and its relationship to social transformation, particularly when it came to the relationship between appropriate curricula, skills-creation and employment levels.

Nzimande told stakeholders in his speech that approximately two million of South Africa's unemployed were potential first-time labour market entrants - young people who had just completed their formal schooling or post-school qualification.

"Social transformation is a hugely complex process, and curriculum transformation can play some role in it. However, the university cannot create jobs," said Bertram.

"The issue speaks to the fundamental tensions in how we see the role of the university - is it simply to create skilled people who will find employment?"

The minister also highlighted the problem of resistance to change among academics and higher education institutions which, he said, were often fearful of an assault on traditional curricula "revered as sacred" and protective of "existing ideology as upheld at academic departmental, faculty and institutional level".

Citing science philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who said that a paradigm shift may have to await "the death of the old professors", Nzimande said no curriculum transformation or innovation could be successfully implemented if the epistemological value thereof was not imbedded in an institution's strategic planning and culture.

"In a word, there is resistance to curriculum transformation because it is scary," said Nzimande.

Bertram said curriculum change was particularly scary if imposed on educators. "What an academic believes is valuable knowledge is intrinsic to her identity as an academic and, as the minister says, these deep epistemological values do not shift easily."

She said there was also the danger in programmatic changes that academics "focus on the macro structures in a technical way and do not engage sufficiently with the detail of what is taught and how it is assessed.

"The focus is then on changing the 'template' to meet particular external requirements, and not an in-depth engagement with what counts as knowledge. This may be resistance, but may also be the implication of a system which is increasingly driven by bureaucratic requirements," she said.

Cape Town's Nan Yeld said that while it was true that university senates were made up largely of professors who tended to be older and steeped in particular traditions, this did not equate to being "mindlessly conservative.

"There is a scepticism, however, to what can appear to be superficial, ends driven exhortation," she said.