UP Senate Conference: How the tide must turn for curriculum transformation

Posted on February 22, 2023

A sense of urgency has infused curriculum transformation at the University of Pretoria following the conclusion of the 2023 Senate Conference on Friday, 17 February 2023.

“Today, when we finish this conference, the tide must really turn,” said Professor Tawana Kupe, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, in closing the two-day conference, titled “Turning the Tide: Reimagining Curriculum Transformation at UP”.

Focusing on the phrase “turning the tide”, he said it conveyed multiple meanings relevant to curriculum transformation.

“Turning the tide might mean that from now on we gather steam and there is scaling up and critical mass in the projects, initiatives and practices presented here,” he said, referring to the curriculum transformation work highlighted during the two-day conference at the University’s Future Africa Institute campus.

“It might also mean we are turning the tide from a reluctance or even a pushback from people who did not believe in curriculum transformation.”

Similarly, the concept of “reimagining” is very relevant to curriculum transformation, Prof Kupe said, especially in revisiting what it means to succeed and in recognising different forms of knowledge.

“What success looks like” was a recurring topic at the conference, with speakers and audience members alike referring to the injustice that comes about when there is academic language hegemony.

An example mentioned was that of a student who, while writing an examination, had written a word in his own language because he did not know the English word for it. Although his answer had in fact been correct, it was marked wrong.

Just as indigenous languages have been excluded, so have different forms of knowledge that do not exist within the academy but are part of society, such as indigenous knowledge systems (IKS).

During the Senate Conference, Dr Rutendo Ngara, an IKS practitioner and transdisciplinary researcher, spoke about “transformation by enlargement”, meaning the inclusion of what has been excluded before, and “cognitive justice”, referring to the right of knowledges to co-exist. “I believe it is possible for these two knowledges, indigenous and western, to converge,” she said.

Moving ahead: what needs to be done

After two days of intensive – and sometimes uncomfortable – discussions, the task facing the Senate, as the academic leader of UP, is threefold, Prof Kupe said. “How do we mainstream projects, initiatives and practices, how do we as Senate lead the University in the promised new directions, and what does success look like?”

He noted that this undertaking is not taking place in a vacuum. “In South Africa as a society, things are regressing in multiple ways and the situation is hugely disrupted. So, using knowledge to prevent that regression, and turning the tide for our society in transforming, is no mean feat.”

Still, in moving forward with curriculum transformation, the University community can look to a number of success stories in various faculties.

Seeing the bigger picture of accounting

Accounting Sciences has realised the importance of enabling its students to see beyond disciplinary silos to the bigger picture of the workplaces they will enter after graduating. “Making the connections was tough for me and some I only saw when I entered the workplace,” said Randy Seda, an MSc Accounting Sciences student. He presented at the conference in conjunction with Professor Madeleine Stiglingh of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences.

With a view to enlarging the perspectives and skills set of undergraduate students, Accounting Sciences has intentionally incorporated professional skills into the curriculum to complement technical accounting skills by introducing a Business Acumen module for fourth-year students.

“In future, you will not be able to get a BCom Accounting Sciences unless you have a balance of technical and professional skills,” said Prof Stiglingh, adding that the Business Acumen module design team had come from different academic departments, including Philosophy, Information Systems and the Unit for Academic Literacy.

Theology is no longer denominational and doctrinal

“In our discussion of curriculum transformation, we asked whether there is something like universal knowledge as opposed to contextual knowledge,” said Professor Jaco Beyers, Deputy Dean of Theology and Religion. “If knowledge is universal, there would be no need to localise.”

The conclusion the Faculty had come to was that there is “no such thing as a universal theology” and that theology needs to be expressed in local contexts.

Hence, the Faculty had introduced spirituality into the curriculum, along with Pentecostalism and Rastafarianism.

“We have expanded our view of religion and acknowledged religions emerging from an African context,” said Prof Beyers, noting that Rastafarianism was developed by Africans for Africans.

From the pulpit to the kitchen

Tiwi Mhere, an alumnus from the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, spoke about students’ views on transforming the curriculums of UP’s two consumer sciences degrees with culinary sciences programmes.

In focus group discussions, students had concluded that while the curriculum as a whole was relevant and they were learning the necessary skills, the menus were too old-fashioned and context-specific textbooks were lacking.

“Students wanted more focus on South African cuisine in preparing them for the world of work, and a stronger focus on indigenous cuisine,” Mhere said.

Students also wanted to host and attend sessions by specialists in the industry – including their own aunties and uncles, who are specialists in African food.

Veterinary Sciences has come a long way but still struggles with language

Curriculum transformation had been a key focus in the Faculty of Veterinary Science between 2016 and 2021, according to Professor Dietmar Holm, the Faculty’s Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning. This had emphasised the student experience, student-focused education, differentiated success and local context, which had been lacking.

Some of the changes resulting from this round included reducing the overload on undergraduate students, placing more emphasis on professional and life skills, as well as work readiness, and introducing ethno-veterinary medicine and African wildlife conservation.

“There are a number of things we need to do next,” Prof Holm said, including expanding transdisciplinary and elective courses and bringing in more international exposure. “The big issue is language. We have not been successful in bringing language (diversity) into the curriculum.”

The use of language was also a major point raised in the last presentation of the conference, a Faculty of Education presentation on transforming South Africa’s Foundation Phase home language pedagogy.

Successes and failures in home language teaching

Dr Susan Thuketana, Dr Makwelete Malatji and Matshedisho Lekgetho of the Faculty of Education were candid – and at times scathing – about the University’s mixed performance in training education students to teach children in their home languages in the Foundation Phase.

Little progress had been made in actual teaching practice, they said. “Learners are supposed to be taught in their mother tongue. Are we doing that? No,” said Dr Malatji from the Department of Early Childhood Development.

During a recent teaching practice, a school principal had reported that “our students do not know how to teach in African languages”, she said. On visiting a Sepedi-speaking school in Mamelodi, Dr Malatji said she had found one of UP’s students teaching in English. The student had explained that she did not know how to teach in Sepedi.

On a positive note, seven-week literacy practice in Sepedi, isiZulu and Setswana has been successfully introduced into the BEd Foundation Phase training for teachers, and the first students had completed this in 2022. Going further – subject to Senate approval – Sepedi, Setswana and isiZulu would be introduced for first-year BEd students from 2024.

Read: UP Senate Conference: ‘Tinkering at the edges of change’ will not deliver curriculum transformation (Day 1)

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