Re-envisioning higher education through curriculum reform

Structural obstacles to improving graduation rates in South Africa, where half of all students drop out, cannot be tackled effectively without increasing the duration of programmes. A high-level investigation into the curriculum, which recently proposed introducing four-year degrees, has relevance for all societies with deep inequalities – especially the developing world – according to one of its authors, Professor Ian Scott of the University of Cape Town.

“We need the space to do what we need to do,” said Scott during a keynote speech at the annual teaching and learning conference held at the University of KwaZulu-Natal from 25-27 September 2013 and titled “Re-envisioning African Higher Education”.

Scott was a member of a task team appointed to look into curriculum reform by the advisory Council on Higher Education. Last August the council published the report, A Proposal for Undergraduate Curriculum Reform in South Africa: The case for a flexible curriculum structure.

Scott said that while there was excellence in South African higher education, it was “in a critical condition, because it is not meeting the needs of the majority of our people – either the majority of students coming in, or the majority of the population". "It has not adjusted to our realities. That’s quite extraordinary in this time.”

Two decades have passed since political reforms, the de-racialisation of higher education and the start of massification – student numbers have grown by 80% since the first democratic elections in 1994, to over 900,000.

“So something decisive has to be done.”

“We need to be able to deal with diversity. ‘One size fits all’ doesn’t work for us, and moving from one rigid three-year type structure to another rigid one is not going to deal with that. It is controversial and difficult, but we think it is very important to start to increase flexibility. It is the way the world is going anyway.”

“We must allow for differentials in starting assumptions, progression paths and duration – but there will be no compromise on everybody getting the same exit standards. We do not want first and second class programmes.”

This required re-envisioning higher education. There was thinking going on about how to do things differently, as discussed at the conference and at the micro-level in universities. But big things also needed to be done, or what was happening at the micro-level would get lost.

The task team addressed this issue in the area of the curriculum framework. “It doesn’t deal with issues of content or canon, idealogical debates and contestation. It’s something more basic and for that reason something very important, to allow for other developments.” A set of concrete ideas and proposals had been developed, and theorised.

The case for change

South Africa needed to substantially improve graduate output, both in terms of numbers and quality. “It’s about the attributes of graduates for our needs and the needs of the world and, critically, equity of distribution of the very important benefits of higher education”.

While not downplaying the importance of schooling, unless South Africa produced sufficient numbers of high-level educated people, development would be impeded. It was also essential to revitalise the whole education system, which was in a “bad state”, and to minimise the unsustainable wastage of talent.

At the heart of re-envisioning higher education, said Scott, was the need to take ownership of the system, “understanding where we have come from, and valuing the good part of that".

“My common phrase in this is that we need to design our own system, starting with the framework in terms of and in accordance with our own realities. This is very important – not somebody else’s system, and not what ought to be but what is. In terms of our needs as a country in this part of the world, and in accordance with our own passions.”

South Africa’s current curriculum framework was inherited during the colonial period, Scott pointed out. “There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, the system must be judged on its own merits. But it was designed in a different era, for a totally different student body – homogeneous, small, generally privileged – and has changed very little since.”

A new framework was needed because there was now clearly a mismatch between reality and needs, which was affecting the majority of students.

“It really is time to keep what is positive – and there’s a lot that is positive, we inherited good standards and science – but to move beyond those factors that are unnecessarily impeding our students’ progress. Why would we not?”

Frameworks may be either enabling or constraining, Scott said, and higher education’s current framework was constraining. “We’ve got to produce one that is enabling, and does not in any way downgrade the importance of the pedagogy that goes on inside it.

“We argue that the framework is a necessary if not sufficient condition for moving ahead.”

The proposal

At the heart of the task’s team proposal is the need for a flexible and “brutally practical” curriculum structure that increases the duration of an undergraduate degree or diploma by a year, from the current three years (although some professional degrees are longer) to four. The majority of students would benefit.

“Because of our own diversity, we have to allow people to move at their own pace a lot more than we do now. We do not want to hold people back. For whatever reason, if they are able to get through a degree programme in a shorter time, that must be possible,” said Scott.

Existing outcomes and exit standards would have to be maintained or improved. “That’s where the rubber hits the road.

“We have found this to be a feasible and affordable means of improving graduate output and outcomes. Interestingly, it will be more cost-effective than our current inefficient system.”

The case for the proposal was built on four pillars: unsustainably poor performance in higher education; no prospect of schools and further education colleges improving sufficiently to enable ‘business as usual’; a new curriculum structure as a necessary condition for substantial improvement; and academic and resource implications.

Higher education participation in South Africa remains very low, with a gross enrolment ratio of 17%, and it is still racially skewed. Participation ratios among whites are four times higher than for black South Africans. “The access problem has certainly not been solved.”

Performance remained “stubbornly poor”, with only 27% of contact students graduating in the regulation time – most take four to six years – and half never graduating at all.

With participation rates of only 10% for the black African and ‘coloured’ (mixed race) higher education age cohort, and half of students dropping out, the upshot was that only 5% of these youth groups were graduating. “That is unacceptable,” Scott stressed.

“The upside is that we are taking a small proportion, only about 10% of the youth of our majority population. They must collectively have high potential to succeed. You cannot say that these are rubbish students. It doesn’t match up with reality.

“In terms of potential, although it is an elusive concept, we have to say that we should be able to do well with the top 10% in terms of achievement and performance of our youth.”

Currently South Africa had a low participation, high attrition system, which clearly indicated systemic problems. In other countries, where there was a high attrition rate – such as the United States – there was also a high participation rate.

“Attrition on this scale cannot be blamed on students and their proficiencies. Nor can it be blamed on us, the teaching staff. It has to be a systemic problem. Our students are not more stupid than the rest of the world, our teaching is not all that much worse than the rest of the world. So why do we have these problems? How do we account for them?”

Material factors, such as poverty, and cultural factors were significant. “But the task team concluded, and many others have too, that at the heart of the matter are deeply embedded learning-related problems. And that’s not surprising, given where we come from.”

Student unpreparedness, said Scott, was a relative concept. A person might be underprepared for one thing, but not for another. “The better way of looking at it is the mismatch between what students bring with them, and what institutions have traditionally expected. The problem is not about right or wrong, but about realities.”

The articulation gap between school and higher education was a crucial concept. “Because a gap can be closed from either side. It does not absolve either side from the responsibility of trying to close it.”

But with overwhelming evidence that the school system was not going to improve “in my lifetime”, said Scott, “we should not rely on improvement outside of ourselves”.

The key factor in solving the problem of underperformance and low graduation rates was space, Scott said. Universities and students needed more space – that is, time – to achieve academic outcomes and standards. “You can’t fix the gap with a bit of add-on support.”

Universities also needed to work harder on developing skills fundamental to supporting learning and that were also good graduate attributes – including the huge issue of language, spoken and academic.

The task team commissioned “excellent exemplars” that showed its curriculum model to be feasible, and financial projections that found it to be affordable.

An additional subsidy would be required to fund an additional year of study, but under the proposal’s scenario of producing 28% more graduates, the cost per graduate would end up at 10% less than the current cost. The cost per student would be higher, but a far greater number of students would graduate and reap the benefits rather than dropping out and losing their investment.

The task team report is out for consultation until 29 November. Higher education – leaders, academics and administrators – had a choice, Scott concluded. “To accept that the status quo is somehow inevitable and just go on as we see fit. Or actually do something about it, and act on things that are within our control.

“I am hoping that this higher education system will have the integrity to make that choice.”