Urgent strategy needed to decolonise university curricula


Suellen Shay

In April 2015 a statue of colonialist
Cecil John Rhodes was
removed from the University of Cape Town’s campus. The statue was
the flash point around which South African students organised themselves
under the banners of #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and drove a national – later
international – debate about decolonisation and structural change in universities.

In the 14 months since the statue was removed, there has been a great
deal of debate about “decolonising the curriculum” but very little
This is understandable – statues fall, fees fall but curricula
don’t “fall”. There is a risk that because of fatigue, frustration, and silencing this important moment will pass us by. It
will take years if not decades to gain momentum again. I believe that
it’s important to be clearer about the range of issues that feature
under the “decolonising” banner.

To this end, I carefully read three pieces contributed by students Calum
Mitchell, Brian Kamanzi and Njoki Wamai to the website University World
News’ special edition on decolonisation. I reread and listened to earlier
contributions to tease out from the many entangled demands and lists of
challenges. The six I’ll explore in this article are by no means the
only ones and are not discussed in order of priority. But I found that they recur again and again. With a proper,
focused strategy and resources, they can be tackled – and universities
can ensure that these crucial debates result in real change.

Challenge #1: A “fit” undergraduate curriculum
One of the challenges raised is that South Africa’s undergraduate
curriculum is simply no longer fit for its purpose. This echoes a much
bigger debate in other parts of the world and raises fundamental
questions about the appropriateness or “fitness” of the
existing undergraduate bachelor’s degree across disciplines.

Its fitness is questioned on two points. Firstly, there has been a massive
expansion of higher education. It has opened up in the past two
decades to South Africans across race and class lines. But is the
curriculum actually relevant for these new students, many of whom don’t
fit the profile of the typical “mainstream” middle-class,
white, “university-ready”, 18 year-old school leaver?

Secondly, is it fit for the rapidly changing world into which graduates
of these degrees move into? Leading universities around the world and in
some cases entire national systems are courageously revamping their undergraduate curricula to address these changes of demography and the future
world of work.

Challenge #2: Real-world relevance
Professional areas of study like health sciences, engineering and law
have grappled with their relevance to the “real world”. For example, in
an African medical curriculum, should universities prepare students for
the problems of developed-world specialists
or those of doctors working in poor, rural areas? Or both? Many
professional curricula have shifted to problem-based or

A focus on problems raises other issues: the balance and sequence of
theory and practice, and the plurality of theories and methods required
to solve the problems. Very few of today’s
“wicked” problems
can be solved with one perspective or one method of investigation.
These kinds of curriculum changes are highly complex and contested but
are being tackled in many disciplines.

Challenge #3: Students’ voices must be heard
Students argued that they need to have a voice or a say in curriculum
matters that affect them. This raises issues of meaningful
representation of students on departmental and programme governance
structures. Some academics will be concerned or even opposed
to this. They need not be.

Students are not naive about their role in curriculum change. They know
they are not the experts – they have come to university to be taught by
the experts. But they do have a perspective that comes from their
experiences both inside and outside the classroom.
If student input is valued, the overall quality of the curriculum will
be strengthened.

Challenge #4: Dominating world views
One of the concerns of the decolonising movement is how curriculum
content is dominated by – to name some – white, male, Western,
capitalist, heterosexual, European world views. This means the content
under-represents and undervalues the perspectives, experiences,
epistemologies of those who do not fit into these mainstream

African studies expert Harry Garuba
situates the current agitation for change in the long tradition of
calls for curriculum change of the 1960s in post-colonial Africa and the
moves of multiculturalism in the 1980s in the United States. He makes a
useful distinction between inserting these
new inputs into an existing, largely unchanged curriculum versus a more
radical rethinking of how the subject is taught.

Again, this kind of debate happens best in individual disciplines,
though it can be precipitated by external events, as has been the case
in economics.

Challenge #5: Power plays
Many curricula are taught in oppressive classrooms by academics who are
demeaning, unprofessional and use their power in ways that discriminate
unfairly against students.

Misuse and abuse of power by academics on students or students on
academics is simply wrong. The inadequacy of existing policies and
procedures for exposing and addressing the abuse of power has been
brought under a very harsh spotlight at South African universities. The extent to which
academics are unaware of their “rank” and its potential harmful
consequences on students will nullify everything else that’s done. One
could argue that this is the most important item on
the agenda.

Challenge #6: Reproducing inequalities
The curriculum – and particularly its assessment systems – serve to
reproduce society’s broader inequalities. This challenge has received
very little attention in the recent debates on “decolonising”. It is the
way in which the curriculum at every point – from
who gets admitted, who thrives, who survives, who fails – mirrors back
the historical and current unequal distribution of educational resources
in the broader society. A clear strategy is key.

Some of these challenges may fit more or less appropriately on the
“decolonising the curriculum” agenda. Perhaps it doesn’t matter: they
are all important. The point is that they will require different
strategies, different kinds of resources and expertise,
different lines of responsibility and accountability. The risk of not
having a clear strategy is that the curriculum will look no different in
2020 than it does in 2016. –

  Suellen Shay is a dean and associate professor at the University of Cape Town



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