A critical investigation into curriculum development discourses of academic staff at a South African university of technology.
This thesis investigates the curriculum discourses of academics within a University of Technology, exploring their responses to curriculum challenges and considering the degree to which national and institutional shifts contest existing curriculum discourses. Curriculum discourses are identified and discussed against the national and institutional environment and are found, to some degree, to reflect the entrenched assumptions of teaching and learning that were dominant during the apartheid era. Existing curriculum discourses also reveal the influence of curriculum practices adopted within the highly bureaucratic technikon system out of which the institution has evolved. This critical inquiry rests on the assumption that with more insight into socio-cultural values and assumptions, understandings of knowledge, teaching and learning, and existing power relations within individuals’ working context, the possibility of transforming curriculum will be increased. Selecting a small sample of twelve participants from the Durban University of Technology, I conducted in-depth, open-ended interviews intended to explore these academics’ curriculum discourses. Adopting discourse analysis as my primary method of data analysis enabled me to explore the discourses which academics use to construct the notion of curriculum and their own roles in regards to the curriculum. Further to this, I used my own experience of the institutional context and the literature on the national and international contexts of higher education to inform the study and add to the richness of the data. Issues of professional, disciplinary and institutional knowledge and culture are acknowledged to play a central role in participants’ curriculum discourses. These socio-cultural factors are found to affect academic identity construction and change, assumptions about knowledge production and dissemination and notions of teaching and learning. These insights are then overlaid onto a consideration of the extent to which academics have the agency to transform their curricula to align with current higher education policy and the societal and economic transformation agenda. Competing curriculum discourses evident in post-apartheid policy, enormous institutional changes resulting from mandated institutional mergers, changed institutional management team profiles, significantly different student profiles and increased student numbers have all to a large degree overshadowed issues of teaching and learning and led to confusion, disillusionment and uncertainty among the academics participating in this study. There is evidence of a weakening institution-identity with academics feeling uncertain about their roles and responsibilities within the institution, feeling under-valued by the institutional leaders and over-burdened in their workloads with limited support and resources. On the other hand there is a strong identification with workgroups which include both professional and departmental groups that share sets of assumptions and established practices that provide academics with the stability, familiarity, security and affirmation that they need. The issue of individual agency as reflected in the findings, demonstrates that there was a continuum of participant agency that tentatively points to a correlation between the level of agency and the amount of stability and value gained from allegiance to and participation in workgroups. Despite the increasing pressure upon academics to interrogate their own systems and disciplinary structures that chiefly focus on a traditional mode of specialised knowledge production, there is limited evidence of significantly changed understanding of curriculum practices. Furthermore there is little to suggest that these academics’ curriculum practices have been impacted by international trends towards globalisation, marketisation and shifts in modes of knowledge production. Traditional views of knowledge construction and low skills training discourses were strongly evident in the data. With the challenges presented not only by the need for economic and social transformation within South Africa, but also by the need to respond to fast-paced technological and knowledge advancements, exceptional leadership and improved capacity are required to enable rather than inhibit curriculum transformation.