“As a public institution that is partly funded by taxpayers' money, we belong to all the people of our country. Therefore, we want to be accessible to all – in a language spoken by most people, and that is English," Prof Wim de Villiers writes in an op-ed in Die Burger today (19 October 2019). This follows the ruling by the Constitutional Court on October 10 that the 2016 Language Policy of Stellenbosch University (SU) is “constitutionally justified". Click here for the article as published on Netwerk 24, or read a translation below.
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SU and Afrikaans: the facts
By Wim de Villiers
Stellenbosch is not an Afrikaans university, neither an English university, nor an isiXhosa university. Stellenbosch University (SU) is a world-class multilingual South African higher education institution – one of only a few in this category and something that is much needed in a country with 11 official languages. That is how we ensure that language does not become a barrier to access but an aid to academic success – especially in a diverse educational context.
This is what I said at my inauguration in 2015 and it is still the case today. SU can no longer be an Afrikaans-only university, as it had been in an early era of our history when we were still a “volksuniversiteit". As a public institution that is partly funded by taxpayers' money, we belong to all the people of our country. Therefore, we want to be accessible to all – in a language spoken by most people, and that is English.
Not only English
And yet SU is not an exclusively English university. We still use Afrikaans in teaching, administration and in the living and work environments of students and staff. And we are committed to the development of isiXhosa. Each of these languages has a fixed place at SU and enjoys the same status. The only difference is how much of each is used, and that is determined by the context.
The judgment by the Constitutional Court on 10 October 2019 reconfirmed that our current Language Policy, which was approved by Council in June 2016 with the concurrence of Senate and which came into effect in January 2017, is “constitutionally justified". It strikes the right balance in the tension between equal access (section 9 and 29.1(b) of the Constitution) and the right to education in the language of your choice (section 29.2).
What does this mean? In short, by using English as a language of tuition we ensure that we are accessible to more people and it opens doors for our students – locally and internationally. But there remains a significant need for teaching in Afrikaans, therefore we continue providing it.
Room for Afrikaans
The SU Language Policy makes provision for three modes in undergraduate learning and teaching – each with a place for Afrikaans:
- Parallel medium: separate lectures in Afrikaans and English where it is reasonably practicable and pedagogically sound to have more than one class group;
- Double medium: both Afrikaans and English are used in the same class group, while all information is conveyed at least in English and summaries or emphasis on content are also given in Afrikaans; and
- Single medium: lectures are offered in one language only, supported by simultaneous interpreting into the other language as well as facilitated learning opportunities in both languages.
In addition, all SU module frameworks and study guides must be made available in Afrikaans and English and students may answer all assessments, tests and examinations in Afrikaans or English.
It sounds complicated because it is – and costly. This may explain why some other former Afrikaans universities opted to switch to English. However, SU remains committed to inclusive multilingualism, because we “take into account the diversity of our society, including its linguistic diversity, and the intellectual wealth inherent in that diversity."
We are prepared to incur significant expenses but not to divide small classes into parallel medium streams – especially when students in their senior years have very little need for this. The Language Policy also refers to the variety of learning support that is offered in Afrikaans in addition to lectures.
Our Language Policy explains that “SU uses English routinely, but not exclusively, in its academic, administrative, professional and social contexts because speakers of the various South African languages use English to communicate with each other, and English has significant academic, business and international value."
But Afrikaans is also used, as this language “has developed an academic repertoire over decades, to which SU has contributed significantly. Applying and enhancing the academic potential of Afrikaans is a means of empowering a large and diverse community in South Africa."
Admittedly, this is only the policy. What happens in practice? Let me consult two sources to find out: implementation reports and student surveys.
Implementation reports are a mechanism to ensure the proper implementation of the Language Policy. These are submitted frequently by each faculty, support service division and the SRC – for final review by SU's highest body, our Council.
The latest report was considered in June this year. The Language Committee of the Council was “impressed by the maturity" with which our faculties implemented the Language Policy. There were some unintentional deviations, but faculties handled and resolved these themselves.
Regarding surveys, three have already been conducted since the implementation of the new Language Policy – the latest being in August this year. The majority of the participating students indicated that Afrikaans was their home language (52%), followed by English (35%). However, most indicated that they preferred English lectures (66%), tutorials (63%) and learning materials (71%). And most of the remaining students said they preferred to be taught in Afrikaans and English.
The majority felt comfortable using the language of their choice in their living, co-curricular and administrative environments (more than 80% agreed or agreed strongly) and felt included in communication in these environments.
The accusation that SU is set on becoming an English-only institution, is untrue. We do use English to make SU accessible, because our vision is to be Africa's leading research-intensive university, globally recognised as excellent, inclusive and innovative.
We strive to be an integrated academic community that celebrates critical thinking, promotes debate and is committed to democracy, human rights and social justice – an institution with an outward, international and future focus. Our multilingual policy enables SU to remain relevant to our region, our country, our continent and to the world.
We believe this how we can best serve our country – as a national asset that is accessible to all; not as an insular enclave behind a language curtain. We strive to be a world-class university with a first-class academic offering, equipping its graduates to prosper in a diverse world.
I am currently attending an international conference in China – a country with more than 2 000 universities and colleges of which many are ranked among the best in the world. It is significant that English, together with Chinese, is increasingly used as a language of research, teaching and administration.
At SU, Afrikaans remains one of our two languages of tuition – based on valid pedagogical reasons. Annually, approximately 8 000 students still indicate Afrikaans as their preferred medium to gain access to SU's knowledge sources and that is why we continue our Afrikaans offering. We do this in innovative ways that do not exclude anyone. The accusation that we are stabbing Afrikaans in the back, is therefore also unfounded.
The fact that SU also uses English and isiXhosa besides Afrikaans, does not mean that we have pulled out our roots. On the contrary, the more accessible we become, the deeper we are putting down our roots in Africa, becoming part of a global forest and bearing fruit for all “our people", inclusively defined.
* Prof Wim de Villiers is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University. He was recently appointed for a second five-year term, commencing in April 2020. This is a translation of his op-ed published in Die Burger on 19 October 2019 (https://www.netwerk24.com/Stemme/Aktueel/us-en-afrikaans-die-feite-20191018)