A proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa: The case for a flexible curriculum structure


In moments of great historic transitions the world over, extremes of action are normal. Corrective in their intent, they are part of the logic of change. The ascendant power requires “its own people” in large numbers to replace those that had kept going the passing old order. Statistics and quantification of the progress of change carry political import. They can validate or invalidate the new political order. Because they become part of the definition of success or failure, they bear consequences. Woe unto the new order that does not pay attention to them.

In South Africa representation in numbers as an indicator of transformation since 1994 was one of the desired extreme actions. It was one of the requirements to give colour and shape to a new order on the promise that statistical replacement of the old with the new would bring about a future radically different from the past. This was a message of intuition rather than of fact. While intuitions may convey authenticity of intention, they do not go far enough. In fact, on their own, they can be a source of doubt and even disappointment. But such doubts and disappointments can be regarded less as failure than as profound lessons.

This is why the pursuit of numbers partly worked. There was no doubt who wielded political power in South Africa after 1994. But it also became increasingly clear that more was required of people than that each was a number. The numbers needed to go with more.

From a variety of measures, the quality of people bearing a number was also a vital ingredient of their status as citizens. The distinction of a South African citizen will have a great deal to do with the quality of their education; skills they carry as the measure of their competence; the quality of the institutions within which they live and work; the measure of their awareness of the solemn calls of citizenship; and the longevity of their lives to sustain the impact of their contributions to the commonwealth. Such qualities are seldom the product of intuitions. Rather, while they may give expression to intuitions, they are themselves the product of conscious and deliberate effort.

Where the state defines its primary purpose in terms of the quality of its people, and where it supports its intuitions of the future with rigorous effort, its desires will be in synchrony with the required rigour of action necessary to achieve them.

At some point, then, the rigours of the present require more attention than the dreams of the future. The state is likely to succeed where its dreams become embedded in the rigours of the present, informing those rigours, and giving them life and purpose.

This publication is one of an increasing number of signals that South African democracy is entering the second stage of its historic new life. Another signal, by way of example, is the National Development Plan (NDP). Its marked feature is how it diligently critiques a future more evoked than realised in self-conscious effort; a future that keeps receding because it seems to disappear in a murky and unfocussed present severely lacking in human capacity.

The NDP presents the possibilities of a state with a future that is possible only because that state is rigorous in both the ways it thinks and the ways it turns its thoughts into accomplished enterprise. A critical significance of the NDP is its emphasis on rigorous process in the achievement of the goals of the state. The vision of South Africa in 2030 that it explores and presents requires a rigorous, efficient, yet caring constitutional state.

The ultimate message of the NDP is that no country can live on its aspirations only.

Next to a strong curriculum supporting a basic education system is a sound curriculum undergirding the undergraduate programme. Both levels of education are essentially foundational in the total scheme of things. But undergraduate education, being closer to career systems and life orientation, is through its graduates more decisive in enabling nations to achieve many of their critical objectives.

This study confirms through multiyear undergraduate cohort tracking, that although South Africa has since 1994 witnessed a significant growth in enrolment in both the schooling and higher education sectors, graduate output has not kept pace with the country’s needs. High attrition and low graduation rates have largely neutralised important gains in access.

It also highlights the resilience of both historical and systemic factors that have combined to put a brake on the momentum of the desire to craft an undergraduate system that delivers on a demanding constitutional mandate to achieve a successful post-apartheid society. People are always at the heart of such successes or failures. The option to desire success drives educational transformations.

The conditions on the ground dictate a fundamental systemic review of the undergraduate curriculum. More programme time, more flexibility, more system self-awareness, and more rigour and steadfastness around the principles designed to hold the system together are needed. True transformation will occur in the field of teaching itself. The onus on higher educational institutions is to assume greater responsibility for achieving the qualitative transformation reflected in the missions of many, but now requiring their urgent realisation.

Lasting change, against the history of resilient historical factors, will occur more in response to local urgency, and less to external global demands, no matter how significant the latter might be. The universal tends always to be in the particular.

It has been a privilege to work with a remarkable group of South Africans who between them brought together dedicated years of higher education thinking, practice, and leadership. Equally uplifting is the leading scholarship brought to bear on the study and which informed its conclusions.

South Africa may yet have the large numbers she desires and the quality of people to make it a leading country in the modern world. Njabulo S Ndebele Chairman: Task Team