Home » Faculty of Education » Research » South African Research Chair in Teaching and Learning » A Postcolonial Critique of Curriculum Change in South African Higher Education

A Postcolonial Critique of Curriculum Change in South African Higher Education

Themes 1, 2 and 4

This research project was initiated in 2022 in the aftermath of the 2015-2016 student protest in South Africa. It is informed by the scholarship on postcolonialism and addresses a neglected field of study in South Africa: teaching and curriculum transformation in higher education. We know more about macro policy in higher education than we do about the everyday realities we seek to transform. The significance of this work is that it focuses attention on what is happening at the grassroots.

University policies on curriculum transformation as a result of student political pressure to change do not help us understand the complexities of lecturers’ understandings and practices. One way to look at this problem is to consider the fact that lecturers’ often conservative views are not openly expressed because all around them, from the government, university management and the students they teach, calls are made to “decolonise” and “Africanise”. What is happening on the ground matters. The task of this project, in the best tradition of critical theory, is to understand and explain what we wish to transform.

The research investigates current understandings and practices of teaching and learning as integral to curriculum change at university. It asks the following research questions:

  1. What are the aims and purposes of higher education?
  • What content and subject matter do lecturers teach?
  • How do lectures teach (including hybridisation and digitisation)?
  • How are students expected to learn?
  • How are students assessed?
  1. What changes in curriculum, if any, have taken place in recent years or are taking place? How have they occurred and why?

This is a mixed-method comparative case study which includes three South African universities: UJ, Wits and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). The target population of the study includes lecturers who teach modules in the Humanities and Education faculties of all three universities. The study focuses on analysis of documents (study guides, course outlines, tests, assignments and examination papers and memoranda of marking); large scale survey data from a questionnaire to be administered at all three universities; and 80 in-depth interviews.

Team members: Project co-ordinator: Dr Venise Joubert; team members: Prof Shireen Motala, Prof Everard Weber; Research Assistants: Celene Coleman, Thabo Mathabela.

Achievements of set goals by end 2022

  • Access to all (3/3) of the research sites
  • Complete Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Complete Chapter 2: Literature overview
  • Fieldwork conducted: 30 interviews completed
  • Successful application for additional funding: University Research Committee (URC)
  • Research Assistants recruited after an extensive interviewing process.


  • Gaining access to the research sites:

–           This has proved difficult and time-consuming.

–           The turnaround time for applications has caused a number of delays.

–           Alternative research sites have had to be approached.

  • Getting access to potential research participants’ contact details has also caused delays.
  • The amount of literature/reading has been significant but steady progress is being made on this.
  • Approaching the project from a unique point of view, considering other projects on similar topics, has been something that the members of the project have had to consider.

Knowledge contribution/contribution to the Chair’s strategic goals

This research is intended to make a valuable contribution to the international literature on postcolonialism, inform practice on the ground in South Africa and generate further study. The project aligns with the key focus of the Chair’s research programme and expands on the priority areas of academic teaching, academic learning and the academic curriculum.

The project also aligns with the Chair’s primary focus of teaching and learning in higher education and particularly the interrelated sub-fields of academic learning and academic teaching and student learning together with knowledge, curricular and other enablers of access and success across undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

The role played by identity and language is highlighted with contradictions between the life and scholastic experience of black students and the sophisticated academic discourse they are expected to master being of focus especially when it comes to identities of lecturers. Language is also emphasised as key for curriculum change particularly through an approach that puts emphasis on the development of African Languages by enhancing policy and practices.

Strategies going forward and timeframes for completion 2022-2023:

  • Apply for access to a third alternative research site (CPUT) by 31 October.
  • Continue conducting interviews at two research sites (WITS and UJ): 2022-2023.
  • Complete writing Chapter 1: Introduction.
  • Data analysis (2023).
  • Continue with drafting a manuscript for publication (Everard Weber, Venise Joubert and Shireen Motala) by end 2023.
  • Submit drafts (currently being written) to colleagues for review.

The project has been granted URC funding of R250 000. This is primarily used to fund the research assistants and undertake the data analysis.

One student, Plaki Chikunda successfully submitted her doctoral study in 2022 and has graduated.