An urgent need for curriculum reform in higher education

Posted on: 22 July 2014
By: Rajiv Kamal
Institution: University of South Africa
Research Area: Education / Training


According to a study by the Council on Higher Education (CHE), a third of students who enter tertiary institutions will not finish their qualification. Added to this, student participation is only 18% when compared to other countries such Finland and South Korea, which enjoy over 90% of participation. It places South Africa in dire circumstances, with higher education institutions (HEIs) being placed under more and more pressure to deliver on targets.
The relatively low rate of student participation and graduation rates prompted the CHE to conduct a study on the current curriculum model across HEIs. A task team set about investigating this issue, the culmination of which was a research study, A proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa: The case for a flexible curriculum structure. The paper also served as a barometer for progress on transformation since 1994.
Alarming graduation numbers
Prof Ian Scott is one of the members of the CHE task team and emeritus professor, University of Cape Town. During a seminar, Curriculum reform in HE: Implication for Unisa on 17 July 2014, he explained the shocking figures coming out of HEIs. “We took a population group of first-time entering students from 2006 over a five- to six-year period. South Africa has a first-year attrition rate of 33% and 55% of students at all institutions will never graduate. Our system is low participation and high attrition.”
Unisa was treated as a separate entity in the study since it is primarily an open distance learning institute. Like many other HEIs, Unisa suffers from high attrition rates. An estimated 78% of students in all three- to four-year degrees will never finish their qualification. Only 9% of students doing three-year degrees will complete their studies with 8% and 2% completing for four-year degrees and three-year diplomas respectively.
Scott says despite these figures across the HEI board, Unisa remains an important piece in the higher education puzzle. “Many Unisa students enrol in courses with no intention of completing them, highlighting the challenges, especially, in distance education. Unisa is important because accounts for a third of enrolment participation. Participation would drop from 17% to 12% if we took the university out of the equation and we must remember that Unisa helps many disadvantaged students.”
The difference between reality and expectations
Given the numerous current challenges, the White Paper on post-school education and training proposes an increase to 1.6 million students by 2030 and greater collaboration between universities and technical and vocational education and training. Scott says this will be untenable with the current curriculum structure.
“There’s pressure to grow access and graduation numbers. Universities are taking a lot of heat from the minister (HE). If we managed to get to 1.6 million students by 2013, we’d have an attrition rate of 800 000 and the current subsidy model unsustainable.”
So, how does South Africa and higher education reform a system that the CHE believes will eventually crumble? Scott says the CHE team proposes a flexible curriculum structure:
  1. The formal time of all existing three-year degrees and diplomas, and existing four-year professional bachelor’s degrees that terminate at HEQSF level 8, should be increased by one year.
  2. The new curriculum structure should be flexible to enable students who can complete a programme in less than the formal time to be permitted to do so.
  3. Curricula in the new structure should retain or improve upon existing exit standardsthrough utilising the additional curriculum space afforded to ensure realistic starting points and
    progression paths and to introduce valuable forms of curriculum enhancement.


Scott explained that along with reforms there needs to be synergy between basic and higher education, especially since students enter HEIs without prior knowledge of certain subjects and practices. In addition, government should also recognise that there are factors beyond the control of HEIs. “If we want to succeed with the current system, we need more matriculants and schools and colleges need to show us how they are going to improve students. Certain circumstances like family issues, poverty and poor schooling are beyond our control. Are we willing to do what we can with what’s in our control?”