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Academic Week 2020: Curriculum Renewal & Transformation - What Are Universities For?

What counts as knowledge? Whose interests does it serve? And who and what are universities for? These and other questions formed the core of a discussion around decolonisation and curriculum transformation at UWC Academic Week 2020.

(Published - 18 September 2020)

“What counts as knowledge? How is it selected and organised in academia, and whose interest does it serve? And finally, one of the bigger unspoken questions: what are universities - and all their scholarly projects - actually for?”

These questions were posed by postcolonial scholar Professor Rajendra Chetty of the Faculty of Education at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), speaking on curriculum and the politics of knowledge in a webinar on Curriculum Renewal and Transformation on 15 September 2020, as part of UWC’s Academic Week 2020

“Every discipline contains core knowledge, which - sometimes for valid reasons - many academics refuse to disrupt. The question that then arises is: why is this knowledge settled? And do we enlarge this canon - or create it anew?” Prof Chetty said. 

“The imperative is to pursue a radical and emancipatory curriculum, rather than narrow nationalist agendas. Jakes Gerwel in 1987 noted that the social question cannot be separated from the curriculum. So how can the curriculum not change when society changes?” 

To this end, UWC has devised a Framework for Curriculum Renewal and Transformation for discussion by staff, students and other stakeholders.

“The main focus of this exercise is towards the design of a curricula that will empower our graduates to demonstrate attributes that make them societally relevant and enhance their employability,” said Odwa Mntonintshi of UWC’s Academic Planning Unit, in his discussion of the process undertaken to develop the framework, and the key principles underlying it.

“The anger and frustration of students who feel disconnected from the education system is unmistakable,” he noted. “We have to do something about it. We need to understand their perspectives, who they are, where they come from. We need to find out who they are, and what their needs are as African citizens in a changing world of work. We need to put them at the centre of our curriculum reform efforts”

Academics at UWC’s Faculty of Dentistry did just that, completing a student needs assessment which explored their backgrounds. It was done to engage in a dialogue on decolonising the curriculum, and how that could lead to teaching and producing students that are inquiry focused, knowledgeable and caring.

“Academics sometimes think that looking at decolonisation may compromise the intellectual quality of programmes - but it’s actually the opposite,” said Dentistry’s Dr Samuel Lundie, discussing pedagogical or learning responsiveness within the context of decolonisation. 

Cherishing Differences: Strength Through Diversity And Change

Dentistry is not alone in their transformative efforts.

“In answer to the calls for Curriculum Transformation and Decolonisation, UWC’s Community and Health Sciences (CHS) Faculty has begun to grapple with what this might mean for its students and academics,” said Jill Wilkenson, a lecturer in the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition and a member of the CHS Curriculum Transformation Task Team.

“It’s important to acknowledge and value the diversity of our student body – our classrooms are rich learning spaces to explore graduate attributes such as interpersonal flexibility and the ability to engage across differences, but we should not assume that this will happen spontaneously. Lecturers should model the desired attributes and consider how the teaching and learning thereof is made more explicit.”

That modelling behaviour applies to every aspect of the classroom experience - as Cherith Sanger, lecturer in the Department of Criminal Justice and Procedure in UWC’s Faculty of Law, explained. 

“We live in a society plagued by gender inequality, gender-based violence and toxic masculinity - and what’s happening in society is so deeply linked to what we teach our students,” she said. “What they are learning directly inside the classroom, and indirectly from the wider university environment, can have a direct impact in the actual communities that students come from.”

Sanger, who holds an LLM degree with a specialisation in gender, health and human rights and has 10 years work experience in the NGO sector in the area of gender law, having explored the relationship between gender equality and transformation at academic institutions.

“We need to embrace difference in our universities and in our teachings. We need to unlearn and un-teach gender norms and roles. We need to adopt language and examples that embrace the broader gender spectrum, and don’t just adopt the standard gender binary. And we need to provide role models - students, lecturers, executives and more - who aren’t just pale white cis-het males. We need to change the face of success - and embrace diversity.”

Now is the time to consider these matters, said Professor Vivienne Lawack, UWC’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and host of UWC Academic Week.

“COVID-19 has been a shock to the system for higher education, and the world in general,” Prof Lawack noted. “It’s given us a moment of pause, a moment of reflection, for us to think about what we’ve been doing, and not necessarily carry on the way we’ve always been carrying on. Now is the time to take the opportunity to really shake things up - and to find out who we are going to be in this new world.”
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