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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751

Abstract

VAN COLLER, H.P.. Perspectives on Afrikaans as a university language. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2016, vol.56, n.4-1, pp.998-1015. ISSN 2224-7912.  http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2224-7912/2016/v56n4-1a8.

In this article the focus is on the position of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at South African universities and on its future prospects. This implies investigatory research that cannot be done in isolation, as the South African university has a long tradition which necessitates an overview of the development of the university as an institution. On the other hand, all institutions of higher learning world-wide today face the same problems and challenges, which necessarily entails reference to the current position of the university in a situation where it is deeply influenced inter alia by globalisation, state interference and financial constraints. A point of departure is that the university, since its inception, had been elitist in the sense that selected scholars taught selected students in an enclosed environment. This was the model during the Middle Ages, when the first universities proper were founded in Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge and later in Belgium (the Catholic University of Leuven in 1425) and in the Netherlands (Leiden in 1575). During Medieval times the university was subservient to the Church and its doctrines. Teaching was seen as paramount and it was only in the nineteenth century that research gained importance as a means to gather new knowledge. The founding of the University of Berlin in (1809) by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) - after whom the University later was named - was seen as an important event. Von Humboldt was a noted man of letters who was a philosopher, linguist and politician and who had a holistic approach to (tertiary) education. His ideal was Bildung, which amounted to the integration of general learning with cultural knowledge and the integration of science with research. Where the Medieval university paid homage to the Church, the University of the nineteenth century -notwithstanding its claim to academic freedom - was a product of national states and thus subservient to them, also as far as the language of instruction was concerned. Therefore one often heard the accusation that the modern university was the lackey of the state. When the modern university is scrutinised, as in South Africa, it is clear that the ideal of Bildung is ostensibly alive and well and universities go to great lengths to implement new courses (like UFS 101 at the University of the Free State) to provide students with the philosophical underpinning of this lofty ideal. In Verbrugge and Van Baardewijk (2014), however, a lamentation can be heard in almost every contribution on the situation of the modern university. Apparently, in this taking stock of especially the Dutch university, the ideal of Bildung is under enormous pressure due to factors like publication pressure, the favouring of research over teaching, massification and its impact on teaching and the implementation of business principles in the management of universities. In this regard they refer to academic counterparts in England who suffer from exhaustion, stress, sleep deprivation and feelings of fear, distress and guilt. In the "brave new world" of the academe only one criterion seems to apply: that of economic viability and outputs. This tendency is of the highest importance regarding the future position of Afrikaans as a language of instruction at universities. Research is often conducted solely in English, as academic journals and conferences favour English. As far as teaching is concerned, handbooks are often available in English only and parallel-medium of instruction erodes time available for research. In discussing the situation of the South African university, the point is made that there never really existed a situation of academic freedom. Initially South African universities only offered tuition in English and later the Nationalist government excluded black students from so-called white universities. Giliomee (2001:30) made the point that the National Plan for Education of the current regime overlaps in many aspects with the recommendations of the Van Wyk de Vries-Commission in 1975: both were politically driven and both do not tolerate deviations or exceptions. In the rest of the article a few salient points with regard to South African universities are successively dealt with. One of these is the issue of accessibility of universities, which has a direct bearing on Afrikaans, as the language is often seen as a way of excluding or marginalising (black) students. At many universities the vendetta against Afrikaans is aligned with protests against increasing student fees. The protesters are deeply influenced by the theories of Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), born in Martinique, an influential Afro-Caribbean psychologist and philosopher who wrote extensively on the psychological effects of colonisation. Fanon was also a political activist who proclaimed the legitimacy of force in counteracting colonisation. A changing (economic) environment often necessitates the so-called horizontal mobility of students, which implies that they should be able to study in one language: English. As in Europe with its Erasmus Programme, English is the preferred language. This preference is not only attributable to pragmatic reasons, but also to globalisation and internationalisation and its effects on universities world-wide. This whole process is enhanced by other factors, for example the increasing demands of the private sector, the state and other institutions on universities with regard to the economic feasibility (and implementation) of research and publications. Against this backdrop, it may be asked why there is a need (or justification) for Afrikaans universities. One can attempt an answer based on three perspectives: the inalienable right of minorities to education in their preferred language (the democratic perspective), the importance of higher functions of language itself (a socio-political perspective) and last, but not least, the contribution that such languages can make to a multi-lingual society (the pragmatic perspective). In the next section of this study the status quo regarding Afrikaans universities (or universities where Afrikaans still is used as a medium of instruction) is investigated, with the situation at the University of the Free State (a former Afrikaans university) as a case study. In conclusion a projection for the future is given in the form of certain imperatives that should be heeded by any university that envisages the continuation of the use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction.

Keywords : Afrikaans as language of instruction; Higher education; South African universities; Sociology of language.

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