[intro]A confidential draft report of the Language Committee of the University of the Free State (UFS) was leaked to the Volksblad newspaper this past week before it was presented to Senate, the University Management Committee (UMC), then Institutional Forum (IF) or Council. There were various inaccuracies in the article, according to JC van der Merwe, Deputy-Director at the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice (IRSJ) at UFS.

He writes for The Journalist this week, outlining the process involved in the language review policy at the university. The question of language is key to the transformation debates raging on South African campuses.[/intro]

The language policies at Historically Afrikaans universities have come under the spotlight once again in recent months and have been put firmly on higher education transformation agendas by protesting students and concerned staff.

Although students at the UFS protested in national solidarity on issues such as fee increases and outsourcing, unlike Stellenbosch University, Pretoria University or the North West University, their concerns regarding the language policy were already being addressed by the university when #FeesMustFall protests broke out in October.

At its meeting on Friday 5 June 2015, the Council of UFS mandated the senior leadership to conduct a formal review of the current Language Policy through a comprehensive process of consultation with all university stakeholders.
The mandate was given in response to submissions concerning the Language Policy tabled at a University Assembly held on 28 April 2015. In these submissions, concerns were raised that the current language policy is believed to be an obstacle to the broader transformation process currently underway at the UFS.

The University Management Committee (UMC) appointed a Language Committee (LC) to conduct the review process and to make recommendations containing policy advice (not policy itself) to the various governing bodies and Council. The UMC appointed 11 Core Committee members.

Faculties and relevant stakeholders (Unions, Student Representative Councils, the Rectorate, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning) nominated representatives to serve as ex officio members. The Core Committee met weekly since the beginning of the process in July 2015. Ex-officio members joined regularly to help think through the issues.

The Directorate for Research and Academic Planning (DIRAP) provided extensive quantitative data. Further, research and academic documents; institutional, provincial, and national documents and higher education legislation, policy frameworks and reports; as well as policies and practices from other higher education institutions were accumulated throughout the process in order to inform and support recommendations with regards to all proposed positions and, possibly, offer some new perspectives and solutions. DIRAP also provided necessary reports and analyses on qualitative data specifically for this review process.

The four month review process was structured as to provide maximum opportunity for all students, staff, alumni and other stakeholders to present their views. Since 19 August 2015, the following public sessions have taken place across all three campuses:

  • Public dialogue on language matters for staff and students, Qwaqwa Campus, 19 August
  • Staff submissions, Bloemfontein Campus, 20 August
  • External stakeholder submissions, Bloemfontein Campus, 24 August
  • Public dialogue for staff and students, South Campus, 26 August
  • Alumni submissions, Bloemfontein Campus, 27 August
  • Expert panel discussion for staff and students with Q&A, Bloemfontein Campus, 31 August
  • Staff, students, and external stakeholder submissions, Qwaqwa Campus, 9 September
  • Panel discussion and public dialogue for students, Bloemfontein Campus, 10 September
  • Expert panel discussion for staff and students with Q&A, Bloemfontein Campus, 11 September
  • Student submissions, Bloemfontein Campus, 15 September
  • Staff and student submissions, South Campus, 16 September
  • Convocation submissions, Bloemfontein Campus, 30 September

It is thus clear that all members of the UFS have been provided ample opportunity to make comments and submissions (written and oral) to the LC via various forums, including an online portal if that was their communicative choice. All submissions have been recorded and filed. The seven faculties were also invited to make submissions containing their specific needs and requirements.

Following the university’s commitment to open, democratic practice, the UFS further called upon all its current staff and students to participate in a campus-wide poll in order to assist the LC in determining possible preferences for the language of instruction among current staff and students based on the following models: An English only model; OR English classes plus multilingual support and differentiation; OR the current parallel model (Afrikaans and English). These possible models have emerged from the broad consultation process and the polls were to be facilitated by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in order to reach a legitimate result and fully protect the process. The poll, which ran from 29 October to 4 November on all three campuses, was not a formal voting process or referendum and formed one component of many deciding factors that will be referred to the UFS Council for their deliberations regarding the future of the language policy at the UFS.

As is clearly shown here, the university process was democratic, extensive and inclusive and took place in a variety of public settings, giving all voices an opportunity to be heard. More than 400 submissions were received from individual- and group-stakeholders. Bear in mind that the LC was constituted as a data-gathering and advisory committee with no decision-making powers and that the data and recommendations going to Council will be further supplemented by standpoints offered from the Senate, the University Management Council and the Institutional Forum.

Council will decide which information or recommendations to take into account during their deliberations informing possible changes to the Language Policy. At a public university, such as the UFS, Council in concurrence with the Senate (Higher Education Act 101) is the decision-making authority who determines the institution’s language policy. The UFS Council meets on 4 December 2015.