Changing the curriculum at the University of Cape Town: a grassroots movement or academic cleansing?

01 September 2016 | Story by Newsroom

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Emeritus Prof Tim Crowe responds to the VC Desk: Curriculum Change Working Group.

It is potentially good news that the Executive of the University of Cape Town (UCT) has created a structure to promote adaptive change in its curricula. It's also good to hear words like "create more opportunities to expose students to ways of thinking associated with disciplines beyond their primary areas of specialisation".  Indeed, I would hope that all academics and students should be perennially thinking of such opportunities and ways to make them realities.  There are examples of such success stories already in place at UCT which could be used as templates.

However, it's sad that this process is being more strongly linked to notions like: "marginalisation", "exclusion", "identities", "traditions", "negative stereotypes", "dominance", "exploitation", "alienation" and geographical bias.  Also, why focus on the Faculties of Humanities and Commerce?  What I find very disturbing is the unambiguous linking of curriculum change with decolonisation rather than adaptation. This clearly indicates the primacy of 'cleansing' before replacement. Surely, both need to be done concurrently. 

Having said this, I am concerned with the strategy of appointing yet another disparate assemblage of the UCT community to facilitate/drive the process of meaningful curriculum change. Without focusing on any particular individual in this select group, I would like to see evidence of experience in this regard of past performance in successful curriculum innovation and not just culling. Even given this, based on my own experience is such an exercise (vis-à-vis the development of cross-discipline-faculty conservation biology), I maintain that such academic innovation is inherently a grassroots, bottom-up process involving no more than a handful of key, goal-directed academics/students/employers/NGOs with complementary expertise in day-to-day teaching and research and the publication and real-world application thereof. The last thing academics and students need to hear is that key aspects of their cherished curriculum must be summarily dropped because they are perceived by non-peers or politically/ideologically motivated segments of the UCT or extra-university community as being undesirable in terms of the above-mentioned "notions". 

I am particularly concerned that those interested in this critical process need to submit their ideas/comments through a secretariat. It would make much better sense and transparency to expose coherent well-rounded draft programme proposals to the UCT Community (including alumni et al. with real-world experience) widely, e.g. through UCT NEWS or a co-ordinated survey, for critical comment. Otherwise, there is the perception, or even the reality, of the process being driven by aggressive minorities within the community without a clear linkage with academic excellence and career development sensu lato.  

I'll be clear on this. Why only mention such amorphous, informal entities as the Black Academic Caucus and the MustFall movements, especially since the latter are identified with politics, intimidation and destruction.  I have 'Googled' both and found no information on their terms of formal constitution, mission, leadership, identity-related admission criteria, etc. There are more than 100 staff/student societies and organisations at UCT reflecting a wide range of interests, including academic, religious, cultural, social and political activities. Some examples of entities in good standing are: Students' Representative Council, The Institutional Forum,  South African Students Congress, Democratic Alliance Students Organisation and the Academics' Union.  Why are these excluded?

This will not impress the 'fallists', but, during my time a UCT, its curriculum has changed profoundly, in some cases incrementally, in others puctuationally.  One of the reasons for this ignorance is the remarkable dearth of personal and scholarly histories of UCT as a whole and its departments, institutes and key members of its community. Those who wish to dispute this conclusion should read Stuart Saunders' autobiography and/or "A Centennial history of the Zoology Department, University of Cape Town 1903–2003: A personal memoir" – by Alec Brown – Trans. Roy. Soc. S. Afr. 58 (1). 2003. Pages 11–34.

I am also dubious about the efficacy of "deep conversation about the curriculum”, planned or otherwise, with proximate or ultimate goals prescribed by some overarching entity, especially one with a mission including identification of 'undesirable' curriculum components in the absence of constructive alternatives.

Doubts and concerns such as (but not restricted to) those mentioned above can only be addressed when some concrete proposals are generated for broad comment and debate. In the absence of these and the presentation of 'done deals', as there were with UCT artwork and soon building names, there will be outcries/accusations of academic engineering/censorship. This could lead to the best-and-brightest, portable academics and students finding other academic homes. Those academics left could also focus more and more on supplementing their university salaries with paid 'public intellectual' opinion pieces and 'consultancies'.  One only need to look northwards in South Africa and beyond for examples of this.  Academically, they and students can aspire to produce products that are "good enough for government work", and argue amongst themselves about the "contextualised notions" guided by the UCT Executive.

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