Motala, shireen; Sayed, Yusuf (2017). 'Developing Capabilities : Curriculum reform, equity and quality in Higher education in South Africa' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Developing Capabilities : Curriculum reform, equity and quality in Higher education  in South Africa.

Shireen Motala and Yusuf Sayed

University of Johannesburg and the University of Sussex


There is a debate unfolding globally, and in South Africa in particular, about what universities teach, and the curricula and its relevance. Students in South Africa re- inserted these concerns into the  current discourse , through collective political action in 2015 and 2016, calling for decolonising the university curricula and the academic curriculum, amongst other demands, including the need for “fee free”and “free” education. The starting point for this paper is to consider the role of education in achieving development as seen from the capability approach, fulfilling three roles: instrumental, empowering or redistributive. It also uses African discourses as a point of departure, by addressing not only content, but language and methodologies of education and learning. Using the lens of equity and quality in education, the paper explores these two related aspects , pivotal in the recent student action. The funding issues have put into sharp focus equity and social justice, and whether the enabling environment, exists for the achievement of quality education, in the context of declining public investment in education. The relationship between inequality, access to quality education, and societal change has put systemic issues into sharp focus. A number of funding scenarios are on the table, including cost sharing , which advances the notion of education as a public and private good. Whether the call for fee free education, advances equity and a redistributive  approach is critically analysed. This provides the backdrop of the broader institutional and policy dynamics and how these impact on efforts to rethink curricula.

  Following on the capability approach, quality is understood not only as inputs and outcomes, but also as the pedagogical process.  Quality has to be understood not only by what can be measured, but “what it actually is” .  The paper explores what it might mean to decolonise the curriculum as it relates to teacher education, promoting critical reflexivity, and how this could be done. Defining decolonisation as a process of expanding imaginations, and drawing on a meta-analysis of teacher education curricula, and interviews with teacher education lecturers, at five South African universities, the paper examines the kinds of intellectuals and intellectual debates to which student teachers are being exposed, how teacher educators understand the factors underlying their curriculum decisions, and the broader institutional and policy dynamics that impact on efforts to rethink curricula.

The paper concludes with the following propositions : that epistemic access is constrained by the political and economic legacy of apartheid rendering education as instrumental, rather than empowering ; lecturers’ curriculum decisions illustrates a generational narrative, as they traverse the complex space as mediators of teaching and learning and student protests in an environment of dwindling institutional resources; the hegemonic forms of knowledge making , and the fragility and incompleteness of alternatives suggests that decolonisation has to be seen as a process and not an event; and that the curriculum is moving too slowly to a broader imaginary of who is an intellectual and what counts as intellectual work.

Finally, returning to the capability lens, the paper considers  the purpose of education reform and its impact, and argues that there is a need to develop epistemic agency and an African rootedness, which will be the hallmark of an  empowering, equitable and quality post apartheid education system .


Key words: Decolonisation, curriculum, equity, quality, higher education

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