Black students ‘undervalued’ at UCT

Curriculum content at the University of Cape Town sustains colonialism and working-class black students believe their knowledge is not valued.

These are some of the findings of the UCT curriculum change working group, set up in 2016 after the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests in 2015 and 2016. Former vice-chancellor Max Price formed the task team to respond to issues — including changing the curriculum — raised by students. Its report came out last month after campus-wide consultation.

The report said working-class black students “felt that their knowledges and experiences were not valued”.

READ MORE: UCT to embark on its own TRC

“In the arts curriculum … African genres and art forms occupied a fringe status in the curriculum, while the Global North was reflected powerfully in how texts, scripts and bodies of knowledge were selected and enacted. Students expressed the need to transcend Eurocentric theorising and locate themselves in a national and regional context that centres African knowledge and practices,” reads the document.

Arts students said that a curriculum based on Eurocentric ideals also needed to be revisited. “Students felt that while white academics had expertise in specific areas, they could not claim authority on blackness, black pain [or] African ideology,” it says.

It was reported that black students are often typecast as cleaners and domestic workers in arts learning scenarios, whereas coloured students are guided to play “white” in stereotypical ways. “Like in medical sciences, where graduates who are not white can only follow certain specialities, in the arts, black students can only do certain works,” says the report.

Music students said that certain disciplines and their repertoires enjoyed more prestige than others. “Western classics and jazz (with a particular privilege of American genres) enjoyed more prestige than African music … The conservatoire metaphor is easily sustained through opera and voice that adhere to Western classics than through African traditional music and Africa-based jazz, which thrive on improvisation … thus defying ‘professionalism’,” the document states.

Students also pointed out that racial sensitivity needs to be cultivated by choosing educational material that is specific to a South African or African context. “The university is encouraged to explore the different disciplines and ensure that knowledges reflect the cultural, social, linguistic capital that students bring to the classroom,” the document states.

Students also said English, which is not the first language of most students, was used to exclude them and discriminate against them. “How English is used as a language of the privileged was seen by students to be conflated with a measure of intelligence and ability to communicate,” reads the report.

READ MORE: Transforming UCT: Reflections on the road ahead

It also said students believed that certain English accents were deemed “not professional enough” in oral examinations, particularly in the health sciences faculty. To mitigate this, students called for a multilingual staff complement that represents the country’s demographics.

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the university hopes the report will stimulate discussion. “The report will now be considered by the appropriate governance structure — the senate teaching and learning committee, which will be tasked with considering how to take this back to the university community,” he said.

Faculties will need to consider which recommendations apply to them. All faculties are currently reviewing their own curricula and the report’s findings would enhance this work, Moholola said.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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