/ 18 June 2015

Dismantle colonialism’s assumptions

Graphic: John McCann
Graphic: John McCann

The #RhodesMustFall movement has led to calls from academics and ­students for a “decolonisation” of the curriculum at the University of Cape Town (UCT). They insist that we discern and address ways in which colonialism insinuates itself into our curriculum – the choices of images, metaphors, readings and, at much deeper levels, the very “ways of knowing”.

These calls echo an increasingly lively and heated debate around the globe about not only what know-ledge but whose knowledge gets ­privileged and why. This is a critical time to engage in more rigorous debate about what “decolonisation” might mean, what we are aiming for and how we might achieve this.

An aspect of “decolonisation” that has received less attention than it should have is that we seem to have forgotten that our entire undergraduate curriculum structure is part of our colonial inheritance. At the risk of oversimplifying, there are, around the globe, two broad models of undergraduate curriculum: the four-year model, as in the United States and underpinned by the values of a broad liberal arts education; and the three-year model as in Britain, which values depth and specialisation.

We have adopted a three-year model with little consideration for whether it is appropriate for us. In 2012, for instance, Hong Kong, after a 10-year review process, ditched its colonial curriculum structure and moved to a four-year undergraduate degree to align itself with China and the United States.

The point is not that we ditch the three-year degree because it is colonial or because the US and China have four-year degrees. The point is that we need to examine critically the assumptions that underpin our current structure and respond to the imperatives of our context.

This is what the Council of Higher Education’s Proposal for Undergraduate Reform in Higher Education has done. Its 2013 agenda essentially argues that our higher education system is failing the majority of our students. It argues that the three-year structure makes assumptions about what it means to be prepared for university, which, if one looks at the national dropout rates, are patently not true.

Further, the National Benchmark Tests (NBT) provide a good baseline for assessing where we are. Of nearly 54 000 NBT writers of mathematics, representing the national ­applicant pool for science, engineering and commerce, 46% scored “basic”, which “predicts that students will not cope with degree-level study without extensive and long-term support”. This calls for systemic reform that challenges assumptions. I propose:

• First, review our existing foundation programmes (extended ­curriculum programmes), which, in most universities, essentially provide an extra year of “foundational provision” funded through grants from the department of higher education and training.

These programmes have made an important contribution to the access and success of black students, but are they sufficiently flexible to cater for the increasingly diverse levels of preparedness? Does the department’s foundation grant funding serve our changing landscape?

At UCT, black students feel stigmatised by foundation programmes. Other students are angry because they do not feel that they have been provided with enough academic support. Either way, such anger should speed up critical examination of “academic development” and how it may position students in counterproductive ways.

This might lead to dismantling foundational provision and replacing it with courses supposed to cater for everyone. We need to be cautious here. As Professor Pierre de Vos has argued, equality is not about treating everyone the same. This may simply “freeze” the inequality: “Equality is about the end result.”

A review of current programmes needs to start with ­genuinely listening to students to understand their challenges and using qualitative and quantitative data to understand the experiences and patterns of “being at risk”. Several institutions are embarking on a concerted effort (through the Kresge-funded Siyaphumelela project) to understand the student experience in order to improve success. The department of higher education could provide funding to match Kresge’s so that more institutions can be part of this initiative.

• Second, face up to the gap between the achievements of school-leavers (as measured by the NSC results) and preparedness for university education. This gap shows in first-year performance and high dropout rates at that level.

We tackle this by taking a hard look within our existing curriculum at “gateway” courses, the standard required entry courses in any undergraduate degree: mathematics one, economics one, psychology one, statistics one and so on.

These courses are critical to a student’s success but are beset by many challenges: they are often run by departments that “service” other faculties; they have large student numbers, taught by beleaguered junior staff.

Recent work at UCT on these courses shows sobering patterns: they have high failure rates and significant differences in performance by race, gender, faculty, ­language and NSC and NBT results. 

Three decades of extended curriculum courses have left much experience in forms of teaching and course design that can make large classes effective places of learning. If the department wanted to invest in a significant reform initiative, it might consider funding a national gateway curriculum development project to align these courses more closely with students’ actual levels of preparedness.

• Third, the department needs to consider piloting a four-year degree, perhaps a bachelor of science, where the overall completion rates are most worrying and where the needs of the country are most pressing. UCT’s completion rates for bachelor of science over the past 15 years show a slight improvement, yet the average completion rate for all students for 2005 to 2009 was still only 58%, with 79% for white students and 38% for black South African students.

We await the minister’s response to the Council of Higher Education proposal. The word is that he is not going to support it, and that the department believes “things are improving”, so radical reform is not necessary. If there is truth to this, I look forward to seeing the evidence for this “improvement” – and the department’s alternative plan of action.

Professor Suellen Shay is dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town