Curriculum reform merely reproduces social inequality

A transformation policy for higher education introducing flexibility into the undergraduate degree time frame failed to see how the solution was merely reproducing the social inequalities it sought to address, according to Dr Lester Brian Shawa, a senior lecturer in higher education training and development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Tackling the challenges of graduate output in South Africa in terms of the higher education policy intervention, Shawa said the Council on Higher Education, or CHE, had accepted a proposal for a flexible undergraduate curriculum.

This approach allowed students – mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds – who required an additional year to complete their undergraduate qualification the flexibility within their curriculum to do so.

However, it also allowed students capable of completing the three-year degree within the framework the same right.


Shawa told the 9th Annual Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Conference in Durban last Monday that only 25% of students graduated within the regulated timeframe; 35% of the total intake graduated within five years.

Also, less than 5% of African and ‘coloured’ (mixed race) youth succeeded in graduating with any form of higher education. Nationally, South Africa only had 15% of the population with a degree qualification and graduate proportions were still racially skewed.

This scenario had underpinned the call for solutions to transforming higher education curricula, including the extended study period that took into consideration some of the issues students carried with them from their school career.

For decades, many universities provided ‘academic development’ programmes for bright but under-prepared students, which were generally successful in enabling students to succeed.

But there were concerns that the programmes marginalised disadvantaged students, and as student populations rapidly expanded, students from disadvantaged backgrounds came to form the majority in institutions.

It was argued that extending degrees from three to four years – or more in the case of longer degrees – would mainstream academic development, enable more flexibility and longer funding spans, and would reduce high drop-out rates.

Perpetuating inequalities

However, Shawa said, the effect of the initiative was a perpetuation of social inequalities, as students from more advantaged backgrounds were able to finish their studies in the shorter period and enter the working environment one or two years ahead of their classmates.

It also provided a level of prejudice to employers, who questioned how long students had taken to secure their qualifications.

He believed the proposal should have foreseen this outcome before being submitted to the Council on Higher Education.

Consequently, he said, the flexible approach would not boost graduate output and a long-term policy intervention that took into account South Africa's historical aspects had to be considered.

He also believed the solution had to come from a national co-ordinated approach that did not merely assume the answers came from higher education.

Rethinking the curriculum

Earlier, University of KwaZulu-Natal Deputy Vice-chancellor for Teaching and Learning, Professor Renuka Vithal, said campaigns like the #RhodesMustFall movement demonstrated the importance for conversations on curriculum reform to resolve high drop-out and failure rates.

The university had "tinkered on the edges" of its curriculum, including introducing compulsory Zulu proficiency for every undergraduate qualification. But Vithal said the time had come for taking those changes to the next step.

This would include rethinking the first-year curriculum, accounting for the difficulties in the school-to-university transition; reviewing the curriculum to ease the bridge to university, realising that most students had limited access to sound career guidance, and ensuring every student qualified with some level of community engagement inherent in their degree.

Undergraduate qualifications also had to prepare graduates for being knowledge generators rather than knowledge consumers.

One intervention may be removing the 55% pass threshold into honours degrees in favour of creating a four-year undergraduate qualification that allowed direct entry to the masters degree level.