The VCs’ Language Colloquium 2022 provided universities an opportunity to collaborate like never before

Published On: 5 December 2022|

Language is not just a means of communication but the very fabric of peoples’ cultures and religions. This was emphasised by all speakers at the two-day 2nd Vice-Chancellors’ Consultative Colloquium on the revised Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions.

The hybrid dialogue, hosted by Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) in partnership with University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) Vice Chancellor and Principal, was held at Senate Hall on UP’s main campus in Hatfield from 1-2 December.

Themed Taking the Conversation Forward; the dialogue was aimed at unlocking the resources required to fully implement multilingualism in higher education, in keeping with the spirit and intent of the revised Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions. This Policy Framework came into effect in January 2022.

Programme Director, Professor Charles Maimela (right), Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Law at University of Pretoria (UP), kicked off the colloquium by reminding delegates that the first Vice-Chancellors’ colloquium, hosted at Stellenbosch University, had explored the philosophical framework and implications, as well as high-level implementation strategies for universities. He therefore intimated that this colloquium was an opportunity for universities “to do more than pay lip service.”

Welcoming the delegates, Professor Tawana Kupe (below), UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal said this Colloquium would contribute “much-needed clarity on various issues critical to the successful sector-wide implementation of the language policy framework for public Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). For context, he explained that Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, had published the language policy framework in the Government Gazette in October 2020.

“I was struck by its brevity and succinctness, contained in just 18 pages. The Policy Framework did an admirable job of providing a high-level view of what public universities must do to promote multilingualism in our teaching and learning, research, scholarly discourse, official communication and administration. The detail on implementation has not been spelt out – surely intentionally, to allow universities the flexibility to implement it in ways accommodating institutional autonomy and circumstances on the ground.” He called that a delicate balance.

“To implement the policy framework effectively, individually and collectively, it is important to have a good grasp of what is required of us,” Professor Kupe went on to say. Quoting what Professor Langa Khumalo, Executive Director: South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) and Chairperson of Universities South Africa (USAf) Community of Practice for African Languages (CoPAL) had said in Stellenbosch in 2021, the UP Vice-Chancellor said: “We really need to tease it apart and understand it. Then we can begin to say we’re implementing the new language policy for Higher Education.”

This teasing out, that had begun in Stellenbosch in September 2021, would continue at the UP-hosted event. Some of the successes of embedding multilingualism across operations would be shared, along with key aspects of how to implement multilingualism across universities. Professor Kupe said: “Implementing the Policy Framework is not just about introducing a couple of multilingual academics or issuing some multilingual messages. It is big, ambitious and essential if we are to do what the South African Constitution demands – strengthen all official languages across all functional domains of higher education in SA.”

Acknowledging that language still stood in the way of success for many students at higher education institutions, Professor Kupe said: “our higher education policies and practices call for systemic serious transformation on a scale that few, if any, higher education systems in the world have attempted.”

He said this dialogue was an opportunity to collaborate and co-create like never before. “UP is collaborating with the University of Cape Town (UCT) to develop an open educational resource term bank funded by a grant from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). This offers terms in English and the other 10 official languages for disciplines from accounting and anthropology to family medicine and literature. Its free for anyone to use.”’

The multilingualism challenge, he said, required universities to work together, in ways similar to what they had done to prevail over the CoViD-19 pandemic.

In her opening address, USAf’s Chief Executive Officer, Dr Phethiwe Matutu (right), said over the past seven years, CoPAL had worked tirelessly towards reaching its objectives, including that of transforming universities’ language policies to be more socially inclusive and representative. CoPAL had also worked hard to drive the implementation of the revised Language Policy Framework, and to promote the use of African Languages as languages of teaching and learning in universities to achieve social justice and to advance student success.

Dr Matutu said the need for CoPAL to work with universities’ executive leadership on the language imperative was identified in 2021. That was how the idea of the Vice-Chancellors’ colloquia was birthed. She added that the inaugural event, in Stellenbosch, had successfully deepened stakeholders’ understanding of the key issues laid out in the Language Policy Framework, as well as its requirements.

The USAf CEO said the multilingualism agenda aligned strongly with USAf’s pursuit for an equitable national higher education system, responsive to South Africa’s challenges. Dr Matutu added that by reporting to USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group which, in turn, reports to USAf’s Board of Directors, CoPAL is strategically placed to influence universities’ actions towards advancing African languages in the system.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.