Shedding the colonial curriculum structure

05 January 2015

Assoc Prof Suellen Shay
Dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development

The calls from academics and students in the past few months for a 'decolonisation' of the curriculum are critically important. These calls insist that we discern and address ways in which colonialism insinuates itself into every aspect of our curriculum - the choices of images, metaphors, readings; and at much deeper levels, the very 'ways of knowing'.

There is another aspect of the 'decolonisation' debate which has received less attention, but which, in my view, is the most important: we seem to have forgotten that the entire curriculum structure is part of our colonial inheritance. The three-year bachelor's degree is not a universal norm. Many countries around the world - including the US and China - have a four-year undergraduate degree. Hong Kong in 2012 shed its colonial curriculum structure to align itself with China and the US. The problem with the three-year degree in South Africa is that it makes assumptions about what it means to be prepared for university - which, if one looks at the national data on drop-out rates, are patently not true.

As Ian Scott has argued, our higher education system is failing the majority of the students in the country. It fails students by refusing to acknowledge the persistent inequalities in education - in other words, that the playing field is not level. Over the past few months we have heard anger from black students about academic development programmes and the ways in which students feel stigmatised by these courses. They are right to raise their anger, but what should its target be? We fail our students if we fail to acknowledge the articulation gap between schooling and higher education, which is profoundly exacerbated by the legacy of apartheid. We fail our students if we fail to recognise the ways in which this gap, along with other aspects of our colonially inherited system, educationally disempower a significant proportion of our students at UCT, contributing to feelings of humiliation and failure; and ultimately, unacceptable, racially differentiated academic performance.

So how do we address these concerns? Do we dismantle academic development and simply hope that our existing three-year 'colonial' curriculum will serve everyone? This would be the worst of liberal responses. Commenting on this, Scott notes that Pierre de Vos has argued elsewhere that "equality is not really about just treating people exactly the same, because that would freeze the status quo in the inequality – equality is about the end result". Demands for a decolonised curriculum should include demands that an extended degree be 'normalised'. It is not something for a small minority of black students - it acknowledges that a significant proportion of our students (even those who have benefited from good public schooling) are not adequately prepared for UCT, especially in the programmes requiring maths and science. In addition to addressing the articulation gap, an extended degree would allow all students to take an African language, for example, to do electives outside their major, and take courses that would broaden their perspectives and strengthen their future employability.

This is a much more radical proposal for curriculum transformation than the demands that are currently on the table at UCT, because it acknowledges that colonialism has not just insinuated itself into the curriculum content but into the very structures of the curriculum. You can add or replace one content for another - this is important - but unless the very structure of the curriculum is reformed, we may achieve very little in the end.

Monday Monthly Read more stories from the May 2015 edition.


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