The struggle for a democratic curriculum in neoliberal times

The curriculum taught at a university shapes the way its students perceive education and its roles and purposes, as well as the academic discipline(s) they study. It occupies the heart of the educational apparatuses by which ideologies (of dominance) are naturalised and socialised. The curriculum can also be a site where pathways of resistance are creatively carved out. Therefore, universities need to take the tasks of designing and revising their curriculum seriously. It must be seen as central to the democratisation of free education in Sri Lanka.

Disappointingly, curriculum-making, under neoliberalism and the officialdom that prevails at our universities, has become a technocratic, bureaucratic activity done in line with a set of narrow guidelines, introduced by agencies like the World Bank or ADB, and adopted uncritically by the University Grants Commission (UGC). The hierarchies entrenched in our universities, lack of discussions within academic Departments and the condescension with which the system treats students, turn this process into an undemocratic one. Sometimes we spend enormous amounts of time arranging the Intended Learning Outcomes of dozens of courses in their order of complexity in standardised curriculum templates but do not adequately discuss how the curriculum can be made meaningful to the social worlds of the students, teachers and the institution where it is taught.

The Student and the Curriculum

The place of the student and the teacher within our educational systems and the wider community, the social relations that shape the contexts where education happens, and a larger vision about the kind of society we seek to build, should shape our deliberations on the curriculum. Sometimes we hastily prioritise what is considered trendy and on other occasions we are reluctant to remove what has become irrelevant, simply because we think it has so long been a part of our tradition. Such pieties, leaving little room for curiosity, creativity and critical praxis in the curriculum, sideline questions of social justice and democratisation.

An enabling curriculum is one where the student recognises her voice and social location, not just in its content but also in its approach to education as a struggle for social justice, equality and coexistence. Such a curriculum is informed by the inequalities fissuring the arena of education, and enables the student to transform the meanings and practice of education in the direction of democratisation. How often do we ask whether the curriculum we teach speaks to the heterogeneities observed in our societies or includes mechanisms that can address the inequalities within the higher education sector?

Students who enter our public university, system following their GCE A/Ls, come from various backgrounds. Even as the district quota system has led to a democratisation of higher education, it obscures forms of marginalisation within the school education system resulting from the inequalities between urban and rural schools, national and provincial schools, and the class divisions within a district. In their first year, undergraduates who had their school education in Sinhala or Tamil, or at schools that did not have, for instance, proper laboratory facilities, may face challenges in keeping up with their counterparts from better-resourced schools. In most universities, the curriculum taught in the first-year does not offer adequate support to students who went to disadvantaged schools. The curriculum should be revised taking into account not just the opportunities free education and the district quota system have created but also their limits.

The Disaggregation of the Curriculum

Donors and education technocrats often insist that the curriculum prioritize practical skills over theory. In so doing, they present theory and practice as dichotomous, disaggregating the curriculum into artificial components. A democratic approach to the curriculum should frame these two as indissociable, helping the student grasp the ways in which they animate one another. It should be emphasised that writing, reading and presentations are not mere skills, for they cannot be taught or learnt in isolation of critical engagement with the concepts, ideas, and the historicity of (everyday) situations that students write about or present on.

The ideologies of neoliberalism, which drive the UGC’s quality assurance frameworks, seek to isolate practical skills from critical practice. In so doing, they try to turn our graduates into unquestioning and individuated suppliers of skills, torn apart from the collectives they are part of. Critical practice, by contrast, is about exploring egalitarian alternatives and creating inclusive spaces that can ensure dignified coexistence of people and communities on this planet. To what extent does our curriculum give importance to critical practice and collaboration, eschewing neoliberal framings of success as individual self-improvement and entrepreneurship?

Specialisation and Inter-disciplinarity

Neoliberal ideology informs at once the language of specialisation and inter-disciplinarity to produce two sets of workers with differing outlooks of knowledge, work, labour and social relations. On the one hand, it seeks to train, via the curriculum, particularist specialists with expertise in specific skills that can cater to specific, profit-generating enterprises. Such students are trained to view education and work as compartmentalisable into narrow territories of specialisation, and, by virtue of this pedagogy, cannot relate themselves and what they learn to larger socio-economic systems. These divisions also shrink the space for academic, workplace and social solidarities that challenge neoliberal exploitation. On the other hand, neoliberalism welcomes inter-disciplinarity in the curriculum, for it sees in inter-disciplinarity an easy route to turn a section of our students into flexible, multi-skilled, multi-tasking, exploitable individuals who can be recruited to strengthen the profit-centered endeavours of the private sector.

The response to neoliberal imperatives for interdisciplinarity cannot come from territorial academics within our university system who police disciplinary boundaries. A democratic curriculum should facilitate teaching across Departments and Faculties, cross-listed courses and cross-disciplinary collaborations as ways of imagining social justice, both within and outside the academia. It should also allow space for deep, sustained academic inquiry into specific areas and issues, since such scholarly pursuits are necessary to understand and eliminate deep-rooted structural problems. At a time when Sri Lanka’s higher education sector is under neoliberal assault, an urgent conversation is necessary to explore the ways in which cross-disciplinarity and specialisation can be recouped and re-articulated as academic solidarities and intellectually deepening critical practices that inform democratic educational and social initiatives.

The Templatisation of Assessment

Under the UGC’s outcome-based curriculum development model, the methodologies of evaluation are heavily templatised and policed. The curriculum is required to include blueprints of almost every aspect of the evaluation process. These practices obstruct the teacher from adopting new methodologies of assessment when the existent ones lose their dynamism. Even to make minor changes, she has to seek permission from a chain of committees.

The increased templatisation of higher education in recent times follows the undue emphasis placed on the need to compare students’ academic performance across different student cohorts. The underlying logic here is that students from different batches are in competition with each other for positions in a common job market, and therefore the university should be able to indicate to the market in the most ‘objective’ manner possible who among them occupy the front positions in this rat race. Such an approach giving primacy to competition and individualism allows the market to dictate the terms of our evaluation practices.

Templatised evaluation methods discount the impact of specific teaching and learning conditions on students’ academic performance. For instance, it is disingenuous to use a standardised evaluation template to compare the performance of a group of students who sat for examinations during a national crisis like the ongoing pandemic to the performance of those who pursued their education under relatively stable circumstances. Standardised templates leave little room for creativity and experimentation on the part of the teacher. Those who question or refuse to comply with these uninspiring practices are quickly labelled as non-cooperative and lazy. While some broad guidelines are necessary to ensure fairness in evaluation, they should take into account the contexts of teaching and learning.

Even as some academic Departments have resisted, with some success, the ways in which neoliberalism and institutional hierarchies interfere in the curriculum, there is much to be desired as regards the way our universities approach the question of curriculum. A one-day workshop on how to fill out the curriculum templates designed by some superior authority invisible to the students and a majority of the teachers is clearly not the way-out. There need to be wider discussions on how we understand and frame the curriculum and the philosophies that should inform its content and methods. Equally importantly, we should situate our struggle for a democratic curriculum as part of our larger struggle for social justice and democratisation.