‘Every field of study requires regular renewal, reinvention and new knowledge’ – UP law professor on curriculum transformation

Posted on September 20, 2021

To optimise growth, development and transformation, 2021 is the year in which the University of Pretoria (UP) launched the process of reimagining itself. Central to this is the Curriculum Transformation Drive, themed ‘Curriculum transformation is not a future event, but a present activity’. 

UP’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, Professor Norman Duncan, asked me to drive this process for the University in which we actively discard archaic, outdated practices, processes and beliefs that hinder transformation and knowledge expansion, and embrace those that befit a 21st-century South African university. We seek a curriculum that asserts and celebrates our local capacity to produce cutting-edge teaching and research with a global reach, and that prepares graduates to optimally contribute to the context in which they will live and work.

Curriculum transformation in the higher education sector has been gaining traction globally, and in South Africa all our higher education institutions have been tasked with its implementation. At UP, we have identified seven areas of curriculum transformation: decolonising the curriculum; technology-enhanced teaching and learning; excellence and quality assurance; student support; student retention and throughput; student access and accessibility; and reinventing assessment through alternative assessment systems.

The worrying statistics of youth unemployment in South Africa and on the continent require UP to commit to knowledge and education that make a decisive difference to our society. Two ways of doing this is by directly engaging in solutions to our society’s many challenges and by educating youth to achieve their full potential and contribute to the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which are in the best interests of our society and world.

The foundation of UP’s Curriculum Transformation Drive is a social justice framework that ensures the metamorphosis of a “transformation consciousness” for all our staff and students, across all faculties. It’s a paradigm shift, where we move from the single-story syndrome of the traditionally Western university to an institute that honours and reflects multiculturalism and is inclusive of our dynamic, diverse society.

It is a process of rethinking, reimagining, recreating and creating new courses and curricula in all disciplines at UP based on the critical examination of current knowledge.

This year, we are hosting an online lecture series on this, looking at each and every discipline. The point of departure is that every field of study is dynamic and requires regular renewal, reinvention and new knowledge; every field of study holds the power to either advance or retrogress our humanity; and every field of study needs to ensure that it actively does away with stereotypes about race, class, disability, religion, sexuality and nationality. This is how we nurture graduates who will go out into the world with an enquiring mind and a transformation consciousness. This is how we encourage diverse forms of knowledge production to come together in what, how and who we teach.

To offer an example from law: in our curriculum, we look at the South African legal system with transformation as a central theme in order to explore the difference between Western and African conceptions of law. The South African legal system affirms the overriding power of the Constitution and recognises both common law – Roman Dutch and English law – the law of the colonisers that was entrenched as mainstream law, and African customary law, which the colonisers came across when they arrived in South Africa but perceived as being less important and inferior.

Today, both systems are subject to the Constitution as the supreme law of the land and both have their place. Common law focuses more on individual rights and African customary law focuses on the collective rights where the interest of the groups supersedes the interests of the individual. In place of the expensive nature of litigation where the winner takes all, people are encouraged to explore mediation to resolve disputes, which is very much part of African customary law, and it ensures that people’s rights to access justice are realised.

Transformation of the law curriculum and the legal fraternity as a whole requires the mainstream inclusion of African customary law alongside Western conceptions. We need to make use of a diversity of systems and knowledges in our courts to arrive at just and fair decisions – an inclusive rather than a unitary approach.

Across all faculties, knowledges, inheritances and cultural heritages from Africa and the Global South need to be incorporated in the curriculum. As part of curriculum transformation, academics in all our faculties are calling for transdisciplinary and trans-faculty collaboration in our teaching and learning, research and engagement practices, where they can learn from one another and students can share with each other.

The transformation process at UP began in 2016 with the crafting of a policy document on curriculum transformation after extensive consultation and engagement with the UP community, including staff and students. The document serves as a guideline, platform and driving force for faculties to work towards decolonisation and transformation of the UP curriculum.

It opens up the space for critical thinking and robust debates where students become proactive in curriculum transformation. At the same time, this develops them into independent individuals who can confidently enter society and the world of work, and share new knowledge and views.

To monitor progress, the Deans of all our faculties report on their curriculum transformation initiatives to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, and we are working on a collaboration effort with the University’s Transformation Office to bridge the gap between curriculum transformation and institutional culture because the two go hand in hand. 

UP is transforming into an institution of individuals who are comfortable with differences; sensitive to historical injustices; conversant in a diverse array of knowledges, world views, cultures, literatures and ways of life; people who show deep care for the natural world that sustains us, and who are committed to contributing to the positive development and transformation of our country, continent and world.

Professor Charles Maimela is Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Law and Coordinator of the Curriculum Transformation Drive at the University of Pretoria.

- Author Professor Charles Maimela

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