UP Senate Conference: ‘Tinkering at the edges of change’ will not deliver curriculum transformation

Posted on February 17, 2023

In a provocative start to the University of Pretoria’s (UP) 2023 Senate Conference, speakers challenged the academic community to engage in uncomfortable conversations and to steer away from “tinkering at the edges of change”.

Setting the tone for forthright discussions on curriculum transformation – the theme of this year’s Senate Conference at the Future Africa campus – Professor Siona O’Connell of the School of Arts pointed to UP’s own problematic history and urged Senate members to “do our past justice”.

While race-based forced removals were under way across Pretoria in the 1950s and 1960s, including in Garsfontein, Marabastad, Eersterust and Wonderboom, the University had remained aloof.

“From the Humanities Building and all across the beautiful campuses, staff and students would have overlooked Pretoria’s shame,” Prof O’Connell said in a keynote address on Thursday, 16 February, the first day of the two-day Senate Conference, titled: “Turning the Tide: Reimagining Curriculum Transformation at UP”.

Gaps in UP’s own history

So removed had the University been from the apartheid-induced turmoil around it, she said, such as the mass arrests and detentions, consumer boycotts, factory strikes, work and school stay-aways that lasted into the 1980s, that critical moments in its own history went unrecorded.

One such moment was Chief Albert Luthuli’s visit to the University in the early 1960s, when the then-president-general of the African National Congress fell to the ground after being assaulted by a young student.

However, there is nothing in the UP Archives to show that that the visit had even happened. From what is available in the archives today, “Albert Luthuli never had the opportunity to visit the University,” said Prof O’Connell.

Even in 2015 and 2016, amid the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests, UP “squandered” the opportunity to make amends, not only to the Luthuli family but also for events of long ago, colonialism and slavery, that had made such moments possible.

“In the wake of student protests, the opportunity to transform was left spinning and trapped, unable to breathe in a vortex of metal turnstiles,” she said, referring to the security measures put in place in reaction to the protests.

Now, in 2023, UP has an “incredible opportunity” for redress. “We will imagine and re-imagine curricula of the sort that responds to South Africa and to students who are the first from their community to make it here, who may come from homes that are headed by young people, who may be afraid that they do not belong.”

Becoming known for boldness and compassion

“By setting out to understand all its students, and thinking and acting boldly, the University can stake its place as a benchmark space of higher learning in, and of, Africa,” said Prof O’Connell. “We can be known as the African university capable of having the most difficult of conversations, of not tinkering with the edges of change, and of looking at the past with compassion.”

Professor Tawana Kupe, UP Principal and Vice-Chancellor, who gave the opening address at the conference, agreed that “you can’t tinker at the top or on the sides with education”. He said change has to be articulated right through the organisation.

During question time, he and other Senate members emphasised the necessity for UP and its staff to embrace curriculum transformation wholeheartedly and not to avoid difficult questions – including the issue of whether the UP has too many students who should rather be attending technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges.

“We are ducking these questions,” Prof Kupe said.

No transformation without language change

The point was strongly made that the use of African languages and curriculum transformation go hand in hand.

“As a university, we need to take the role of African languages seriously. The monolingual model is excluding people who have the potential to succeed,” said Professor Chika Sehoole, Dean of the Faculty of Education, during a panel discussion on African languages in higher education.

He gave the example of a taxi driver he had encountered who speaks 10 African languages. “He asked, ‘Teach me English, it will open doors for me’,” said Prof Sehoole. He noted the irony that, by normative standards, someone who could speak one language, English, was considered intelligent, while a person who can speak 10 languages but not English was considered the opposite.

“That is an indictment on how we judge the inability to speak English, as well as how we speak English,” said Professor Loretta Feris, Vice-Principal: Academic, who was facilitating the discussion.

The notion that only certain accents are acceptable must be dispelled, said Professor Mbulungeni Madiba of Stellenbosch University, adding that it is important to help people understand that there is no preferred accent.

The 2023 Senate Conference continues on Friday, 17 February, with a combination of plenary sessions featuring speakers from academia, industry and indigenous knowledge practice, as well as breakaway sessions.

Curriculum transformation in practice

Four case studies on curriculum transformation in practice were presented during the first day of the 2023 Senate Conference:

Other conference highlights

For his welcoming speech, Prof Kupe had two sets of prepared remarks – one of which was written by the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot ChatGPT. He shared this after reading the first set of prepared remarks, from ChatGPT, adding that he would not be reading the second set as it was largely similar to the ChatGPT version.

However, what ChatGPT had been unable to do was provide a long historical reflection on human civilisation and knowledge. It was important to the curriculum transformation debate to go further back in history than imperialism and colonialism, which were relatively recent developments.

When going back to the Gold Collections, such as the Mapungubwe Gold Collection known for its gold artefacts, it becomes clear that science was at the heart of the Mapungubwe kingdom’s way of life.

“Colonialism and apartheid do not define all of human history,” Prof Kupe said. “We need to go back to where knowledge is created, to where we came from.”

Read: UP Senate Conference: How the tide must turn for curriculum transformation (Day 2)

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences