UFS language policy challenged in court

The language issue at three universities continue to be in the spotlight. Last week, the University of Pretoria (UP) and the University of Stellenboch (US) confirmed new language policy decisions. The UP adopted English as an interlanguage much the same as the approach of the University of the Free State (UFS) outlined below. The US settled for a complex mixed language model. At the same time, UFS’s policy faced a challenge in the High Court.

On 20 June 2016, the Bloemfontein High Court reserved judgement in a matter that challenged the University of the Free State’s (UFS) decision to move from parrallel language instruction to English. Afriforum and Solidariteit (together with amici: the Afrikaanse Taalraad, the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools and the South African Teachers’ Union) lodged an application to have the decision of the UFS Senate and Council set aside. If this is granted it would force UFS to go back to the drawing board. A parallel medium policy was first decided in 1993 and further developed in 2003.

They lodged the application on the grounds that the Senate and Council decision was not taken rationally and that they never considered the constitutional rights of Afrikaans-speakers to be educated in their home language. They expected to win the right to take the matter to the Constitutional Court. They also wanted the parallel medium policy adopted in 1993 and endorsed in 2003 to replace the new policy.

Documentary evidence in court showed that the UFS governing bodies were aware that home language education, especially at the tertiary level, was not a guaranteed, unqualified right for one group. They had a duty to weigh up how the implementation of that right might unfairly discriminate against fulfilling the rights and freedoms of other groups.

The Journalist outlines the process that unfolded since last year:

The university’s Language Committee conducted a comprehensive review process on all three campuses from July to November 2015. Over the past 23 years, there have been repeated, widespread recognition by, among others, leaders of the institution, several institutional reports and audits, a report by the previous language committee (2010) and four out of eleven submissions at the University Assembly (2015) that the university has been battling to foster integration and social cohesion due, in part, to its parallel medium policy adopted in 1993.

Structurally speaking, the policy continues to make possible separate and divisive teaching and learning environments and therefore, in practice, calls matters of equality, access, participation and fairness into question – not only in terms of vastly altered student demographics and their learning experiences but in terms of staff recruitment and retention as well. The policy was seen to be causing some serious hindrance to the advancement of inclusive multilingualism, the internationalization plans of the university, practical demands of academic publishing, employment equity and more generally, the optimal functioning of the Academic and Human Projects of the UFS.

Following the review process, the Committee formulated a report based on the evidence acquired with a set of recommendations. They submitted it to all governing institutional bodies for discussion. In formulating the report and recommendations, the Committee was guided by the Constitution (1996), the Higher Education Act 101, higher education policies, frameworks and reports, advice from various experts and a mass of institutional data including more than 400 submissions from stakeholders.

On 4 December 2015, the UFS Council in concurrence with the Senate, voted decisively in favour of changing its parallel Language Policy ratified in Council in 2003. Prior to the Council meeting, the University Management Committee, Rectorate and Institutional Forum also supported the change and forwarded their own notifications in this regard to the Council.

The debates in all member gatherings were lengthy and detailed, taking many problematic aspects of practicability, equity and redress into account. Responding to the university community’s pleas for change, the Council elected to set aside the current parallel Language Policy and opt for a new policy to be formulated with the instruction and business of the university to be conducted primarily in an interlanguage. The interlanguage with broadest access in South Africa was English. It was decided that this would be the interlanguage of choice since this would provide an inclusive environment in which all members could participate locally and internationally. This would make possible access to a global competency essential to academic freedom requiring the contestation of competing ideas, shared communicative actions, and multicultural social exchanges.

Moreover, due to the easy availability of English learning materials and open access through digital media, English would go a long way to combat problems of exclusion that persists at the university. In the new policy, where specific languages were a necessary competence for practice in respective sectors – such as language courses, teacher education and training theology practitioners for specialized, single-language usage – instruction in other South African languages would continue.

Further, an extended multilingual tutorial system would be developed and supported as this has happened organically in many pockets of the university already and would greatly assist first-years transitioning to English medium, in particular. In March 2016, the Council (again in concurrence with the Senate) voted to adopt the newly formulated policy and corresponding implementation plan to begin operation in 2017.

The court’s judgement will determine whether this will go ahead as planned or not.

Statement by Mr George Steyn, Chair of the Stellenbosch University Council

The Council of Stellenbosch University (SU) today (22 June 2016) approved the proposed new Language Policy with the amendments proposed by Senate. On 9 June 2016, Senate approved the Language Policy with a large majority of votes (113 for and 10 against). According to the Higher Education Act and the Statute of Stellenbosch University, the Language Policy is the only policy to be approved by Council with the concurrence of Senate.

By approving the proposed new Language Policy, Council has expressed its unequivocal support for multilingualism, without excluding students who are not proficient in either Afrikaans or English. The policy is based on the principles that the University’s languages of instruction must promote access and academic success, and that the institution’s language policy must serve its academic project. The policy explicitly makes provision for students who prefer to study in Afrikaans, while also improving access to education for students who are proficient in English only.

According to Mr George Steyn, Council chair, members specifically expressed their strong support for the multilingual context outlined in the new policy. “The revised Language Policy acknowledges SU as a national asset and reaffirms our commitment to the users of Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa, being the three official languages of the Western Cape,” Mr Steyn said. The institution uses its languages of choice to ensure that no student or staff member is excluded from actively participating in its activities.

The Language Policy also makes provision for mechanisms for academic oversight, effective management and good governance relating to language implementation, within a framework that enables faculties to customise their language implementation plans, and their mechanisms for accountability and reporting to the relevant structures.

The policy confirms that SU is committed to engage with knowledge in a diverse society. It gives effect to the Constitution of South Africa in relation to language usage in the academic, administrative, professional and social contexts of the University, and also advances the institution’s own vision of being inclusive, innovative and future-focused.

In response to media reports on members leaving the Council meeting, Mr Steyn said:

“It is unfortunate that some members of Council left the meeting forthwith after the Language Policy was adopted, although several other agenda points of broad institutional importance were being tabled. During the meeting, I also regrettably received Mr Jannie van der Westhuizen’s resignation with immediate effect. It is a pity, because as a Council, we do appreciate diverse opinions, but we respect majority decisions.”

To read the new Language Policy click here.

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