A case study of higher education curriculum construction and transformation


Wayne Dirk

In March 2008, the then Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor, established a Ministerial Committee on Progress Towards Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions(the committee). The establishment of the committee arose out of a racist incident at the former University of the Orange Free State (UOFS). The incident received massive coverage in the local and international media, sparked national campus debates and aroused public moral outrage. The committee was set up to investigate how such an event could have occurred in the era of post-apartheid transformation and advise what needed to be done to eradicate such behaviour.

The committee concluded that discrimination, in particular with respect to racism and sexism was ''pervasive'' at South African universities. Among contributing factors the committee found that the higher education curriculum, as a conduit for ''epistemological transformation" (the ways in which knowledge is conceived, constructed and transmitted (Hall 2007:182; Department of Education 2008: 13, 100)) had not experienced significant shifts after apartheid.

In the current study the lack of attention granted to the epistemological transformation of the higher education curriculum after apartheid is addressed empirically by means of a case study of curriculum change in a Faculty of Education at a local university.

Local scholars have also influenced the motivation for the study. Nkomo (2013: 12), for example has drawn attention to the substantial effort that would be required for “those who are in charge” of knowledge production at South African universities to radically transform their “epistemological and pedagogical orientations” in order to achieve the goals of post-apartheid curriculum change. Naidoo (2012: 79) also argues that:

Any curriculum process in South Africa needs to incorporate issues of equity and transformation. However, foregrounding these issues may result in resistance from staff members and sometimes even from the students themselves. 

The concerns of Nkomo, Naidoo and other scholars are closely examined in the study. They are particularly relevant in the light of the committee’s findings and the importance that Minister B.E, Nzimande has attached to knowledge production in post-school education. In articulating the social goals for post-school education in the White Paper for Post-School Education and Training the Minister has emphasised that post-school education should inter alia contribute to developing thinking citizens who can function effectively, creatively and ethically as part of a democratic society (Department of Higher Education and Training 2013: viii).

This study addresses some of the challenges that may stand in the way of the ''epistemological transformation" of the higher education curriculum after apartheid.

Some of these challenges have been characterised as a neglect of reflection on curriculum change, resistance among academics who tend to protect traditional curricula and the tensions that arise from the relationship between historically-corrective curriculum change and skills/knowledge acquisition by students (Dell 2011). The study highlights the main areas of contestation with examples of attempts to change the curriculum at two South African universities. It offers a research methodology for deepening sociological understanding of such debates particularly with respect to the social determinants that orientate curriculum production in a bounded social space such as a university.

Far from being a pessimistic account of the limitations of post-apartheid curriculum change the study posits that researchers working in collaboration and using a particular socio-historical research framework should be able to account, theoretically and empirically for the structures and actions that hinder or promote curriculum transformation.

The study is available at: http://hdl.handle.net/10500/11838

Dr Wayne Dirk is a Deputy Director  in the Directorate: Private Higher Education, DHET


Dell, S. 2011. South Africa: Grappling with curriculum 'relevance'. University World News Africa Edition. Issue 83. Online edition accessed on 21/01/14.

Department of Education. 2008. Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions. Pretoria.

Department of Higher Education and Training. 2013. White Paper for Post-School Education and Training: Building an Expanded, Effective and Integrated Post-school System. Pretoria.

Hall, M. 2007. Transformation and continuity in the university in Africa. Social Dynamics 33(1): 181-198.

Naidoo, A. 2012. Leading curriculum renewal in a Faculty of Education: a story from within. Perspectives in Education 30(20): 71-79.

Nkomo, M. 2013. South Africa’s Achilles’ heel and Phoenixian possibilities: reflections on structured underdevelopment and transformation challenges. South African Journal of Higher Education 27(1):5-23.

Quick links

Race and educational inequality

Book on the Doctorate

Fact sheet on NEET's

Evaluating the ‘MOT'

A case study of higher education curriculum

LMIP: Reconfiguring the post-schooling sector



The DHET skills forecasting model

Research update from SAQA

Update on ministerial task teams

Curriculum innovation programme (CIP)

LMIP fosters the research-policy nexus




Statistics on post-school education and training, 2012


free counters for websites

Contact Us


The Research Bulletin on Post-School Education and Training is prepared by the Directorate: Research Coordination, Monitoring and Evaluation. Enquiries or contributions may be directed to: Lesego RamoseTel: 012 312 5657 Email: dhetresearch@dhet.gov.za Department of Higher Education and Training, 123 Francis Baard Street, Pretoria 0001