CoPAL Colloquium on the New Language Policy Framework for Higher Education – September 2021


Vice-chancellors and language experts from all 26 public universities met virtually from 28 to 29 September to facilitate a common understanding on the New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, and to contemplate ways to implement this policy framework. This policy framework comes into effect from January 2022.

The Colloquium, hosted virtually from Stellenbosch University, was a first in a series of engagements to be hosted by universities and under the leadership of the C0PAL. The purpose was to:

  • Provide a platform for a robust intellectual engagement in the current debates on the New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions.
  • Further unpack the philosophical discourse and the implications of the newly gazetted policy framework, as well as the broader systemic issues affecting and foregrounding multilingualism, transformation, and decolonisation within the context of the CoPAL and the sector agenda.
  • Explore strategies to harness and deploy the necessary resources to support Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in successfully implementing the policy framework.

Alongside vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors and language experts drawn from USAf’s CoPAL, other delegates in attendance were a retired member of the judiciary and senior officials from the departments of Higher Education and Training (DHET), Science and Innovation (DSI), Basic Education and (DBE), Arts and Culture. Senior representatives of the Pan South African Language Board were also in attendance (PSALB).

At its peak, about 200 delegates had linked in to attend this purely online event.

What transpired

Senior officials from the DHET explained the constitutional, philosophical and transformation imperatives informing the New Language Policy Framework. They gave an overview of the history and trajectory of South Africa’s language policy since the dawn of democracy; the consultations carried out with the university sector which helped advance the policy to this framework, and government’s expectations regarding the implementation thereof.

The Acting Deputy Director-General: University Education Branch, Dr Thandi Lewin (right), stipulated government’s envisaged three-pronged approach to the implementation of this policy:

  • Regarding Languages of Teaching and Learning, she said while recognising the status of English as the language of teaching and learning across South Africa’s institutions, this policy was calling upon universities to adopt a flexible approach in the implementation of English as a language of teaching and learning. She said institutions were expected to support students for whom English is not the first language or mother tongue.
  • On Scholarship, teaching and learning, she said universities must demonstrate in their language plans, the investment they have made or will make in the development of official languages into languages of teaching and learning, scholarship and research.
  • About communication within institutions, the Acting DDG said all official internal communication must be conveyed in at least two official languages other than English, as a way of cultivating a culture of multilingualism within public universities.

Further to the above, institutional language and teaching experts laid out the key principles contained in their individual institutions’ language policies; mechanisms put in place to promote multilingualism; on-going pilot interventions and the benefits derived, and lessons learnt from various language practices. Institutional delegates also went on to state the challenges still being faced in their attempts to implement multilingualism more meaningfully in the university sector.

Key impressions made

Speaking in his capacity as the Chair of the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG), Dr Sizwe Mabizela (left), who is also Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University, told the gathering that universities were doing far more than they were being given credit for, but that a lot more still needed to be done. He posited that language carries a lot of political baggage and emphasised the importance of acknowledging that. “It requires political will to implement what we have committed ourselves to doing.” The TLSG Chair also urged the delegates to see the question of language studies, development, preservation, and dissemination, not so much as a means to an end but as an end by itself. “It will not be adequate to simply focus on these languages as a means to advance other ends. Let’s develop them, study them and intellectualise them as an endeavour in its own right.”

What stood out at the Colloquium for Professor Bawa, CEO of USAf (right), was the richness and diversity of experimental projects going on at public universities. “I was enthralled by those inputs and the critical expression that goes on in those experiments.” He said these initiatives by universities present an exciting opportunity to build a national approach to the implementation of the Framework, which indicates the need to develop a collaborative platform. “When I look back at the last 18 months, the only way we were able to weather the storm of CoVID-19 was by working together as a sector – working together with the government and the private sector. It is about understanding the benefits of working together; in essence, co-creating solutions to the challenges that we’re facing.”

Professor Vim de Villiers, USAf’s Deputy Chair (left) and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Stellenbosch University, said he had found this an outstanding engagement. “The extremely rich inputs vastly exceeded my expectations,” he said during the closing session of the Colloquium. “I have certainly acquired a new understanding of multilingualism and am sure that our 200 delegates also have. This policy was drafted by the DHET in extensive consultation with universities and USAf. The Colloquium has therefore strengthened our networks greatly. I think we can declare this Colloquium a success. It has demonstrated that South Africa’s universities are taking multilingualism seriously. It is truly heartening to see what language experts are doing to promote African Languages. We have a long way to go, but this is very clear: we’re taking steps in the right direction, but we need to pick up the pace and we’re ready to do so.”

Dr Langa Khumalo, Chairperson of CoPAL (right), agreed. Against CoPAL’s undertaking to USAf at the beginning of 2021, to assist and support universities in their appreciation and implementation of the New Language Policy Framework for Higher Education, and to assemble the senior management of the 26 public universities to move the discourse on language and multilingualism from the periphery to the core of our educational discourses, Dr Khumalo said he had found the conversations at the Colloquium robust, frank and addressing a lot of pertinent issues. These had included “mechanisms to enable that process of transforming the academy from a monolingual academy to a truly multilingual academy that acknowledges and affirms all the 11 official languages that are pronounced in our constitution.

“I want to say that, by and large, we succeeded in bringing this conversation from the periphery to the core of our universities and, indeed, our academy. So, this conversation is getting more and more actionable. It is no longer just rhetoric. We are now moving into a space where we need to be more active participants in the rollout of the new Framework for Higher Education.”

Way forward

Professor Bawa urged his university sector colleagues to consider developing strategic partnerships and collaborations as they conceptualised this project, going forward. “USAf’s part will be to maintain the momentum in ensuring that the 26 institutions continue the dialogue by not just engaging with the policy but also the philosophical base of the Framework and the implementation aspect thereof. We will rely heavily on COPAL, but the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group, the Research and Innovation Strategy Group and the Transformation Strategy Group will remain involved.” Further than that, Professor Bawa said USAf would need to bring in the Human Sciences Research Council alongside other science councils including the NRF, into this national project, to play a role alongside universities and the DHET.

“Ultimately, this project needs to be immersed in the broader decolonisation debate and the social justice imperatives that face our universities.”

In closing the Colloquium, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, Chairperson of USAf (right) and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Nelson Mandela University, said “I fully agree with Professor Bawa, that we should not be paralysed by the question of resourcing, because indeed what we need more than resourcing is political will. If the political will is there, and we’re prepared to work collaboratively, resourcing can happen… An undertaking of this nature requires leadership at the top and from the front. It requires our collective capacity to collaborate and share resources as our institutions do not have the same heritage. It also requires supportive infrastructure to support the work that our scientists are doing in building the body of knowledge in this field of languages and multilingualism.

“Finally, we must all be committed to the importance of the dignity and inherent equality of all languages. We need to push against ourselves, against our norms and to transgress what we have long been comfortable with, if we must achieve a multilingual society through our teaching, learning and research and innovation. I wish us well in the implementation of this project as we tackle this very important national imperative at this time in our democracy.”

Dr Langa Khumalo reiterated that “we do not need to re-invent the wheel. Where other universities have set the pace and foundation, we need to build on that and explore ways to replicate best practices across the system. Indeed, collaboration is going to be key in developing policies that are going to be in sync with the new Framework. Our implementation plans need to express that.”

“We need a system-wide alignment to give effect to this Framework,” said Dr Thandi Lewin from the DHET. “Implementation is not a purely top-down responsibility of DHET but a joint responsibility. We need to collaborate across the sector. DHET will play a role but the resourcing of this (i.e.recruiting and training staff) will be the responsibility of institutions… We must do this.”

The Colloquium programme, concept note and meeting recording are hyperlinked below.

Watch meeting recordings: Tuesday – 28 Sept 2021

Watch meeting recordings: Wednesday – 29 Sept 2021