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Decolonise more than just curriculum content – change the structure, too

A student protests against colonial-era statues at the University of Cape Town. Changing the curriculum structure is another way to decolonise South Africa’s universities. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

It is critically important that we decolonise South Africa’s universities. This will involve creating a radically altered curriculum and producing a genuinely diversified academic population.

But there’s another aspect of the decolonisation debate which has received less attention and yet is the most crucial: the entire curriculum structure is part of our colonial inheritance.

The three-year bachelor’s degree offered by South African universities is not a universal norm. Many countries around the world – including the US and China – have a four-year undergraduate degree. Hong Kong overhauled its colonial era higher education system significantly in 2012 to start offering four-year undergraduate degrees.

What’s wrong with three year degrees?

A look at the national data on drop-out rates shows that many students are simply not prepared for university. Professor Ian Scott has argued that our higher education system is failing most South Africa students by refusing to acknowledge the persistent inequalities in education. The playing field is not level.

Almost half of the students who enter South African universities drop out without completing their degrees. A lack of funding is one reason frequently given for dropping out.

Others say that institutions don’t do enough to support students negotiating the transition from poorly resourced secondary schools to university. High dropout rates are common worldwide, but South Africa is also dealing with a low participation rate – only about 18% of the population enrols in higher education.

The gaps between primary and secondary schooling and the university system educationally disadvantage a significant proportion of students. This contributes to feelings of humiliation and failure; and ultimately, to unacceptable, racialised differences in academic results.

At the moment, an extended degree is offered only to specific students. It allows them to carry a lighter course load in first year and extends the traditional three-year curriculum to four.

Extended degrees should not be reserved for a small minority of black students. They should be the norm. This would acknowledge that a significant proportion of our students – even those who have benefited from good public schooling – are not adequately prepared for university, and particularly for the programmes that require maths and science.

A four-year degree can offer great opportunities beyond simply levelling the playing fields. For instance, all students could then take an African language, pick up electives outside their major and take courses to broaden their perspectives. All of this can strengthen their future job prospects.

The logistics

This change requires significant work and resources upfront – Hong Kong spent ten years preparing to implement the four-year degree. South Africa’s Council on Higher Education (CHE) has suggested that this “flexible” degree be piloted nationally in just one qualification.

The council did not suggest any particular qualification, but an obvious candidate would be the Bachelor of Science. In this degree, completion rates are particularly poor, and the South African economy badly needs skills in the fields of science, engineering and technology.

Teams of academics around South Africa would need to work on this pilot project, developing a four-year curriculum and placement mechanisms for those students who can still finish in just three years. All the implementation challenges could be tested.

Even if this process takes five years, it is a step in the right direction. Even if we only ended up with a four-year Bachelor of Science, we would be better off than we are now.

Can we afford this extended degree? By the CHE’s calculations, given the current wastage in the system due to drop-outs, a flexible degree structure is the most cost-effective option. It would produce more graduates and improve the higher education sector’s utilisation of human and material resources as well as its return on investment.

Radical – and necessary

This is a much more radical proposal for curriculum transformation than the demands that are currently on the table at my institution, the University of Cape Town, and elsewhere in South Africa. Colonialism hasn’t just insinuated itself into the curriculum content but into the very structures of the curriculum.

You can add or replace one content for another – which is important – but unless the very structure of the curriculum is reformed, very little may be achieved in the end.

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