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Radical ideas needed for radical results

South Africa is embarking on a programme to increase its PhD output. This strategy is an important effort to boost the entire educational system.

There is a need for a radical re-think of university training and it will not be possible to achieve what is being planned by a slight tweaking of our current system.

The long-term success of our education system will be measured by the quality of the undergraduates we produce. We are far below par, but must continue to work towards strengthening our undergraduate programmes. The focus on greater PhD output should be an incentive for us to do this.

At the undergraduate level, we should do away with an elite honours degree. I suggest a four-year bachelor’s degree programme with greater diversity of choice. For example, science students should have the opportunity to take some subjects in the humanities and vice versa. Students should choose two subjects — a major and minor — at fourth-year level and there should be ample opportunity for projects and self-study throughout the four years.

Small group tutorials are critical. We need greater use of technology in the lecture room and students need more access to computer LAN facilities to enable them to work at their own pace using computer-based teaching methods. More rigorous testing methods are needed to combat the growing scourge of internet-based plagiarism.

There is a need to focus on a solid foundation of basic and transferable skills and a greater effort to nurturing critical thinking.

With high unemployment rates, there are pressures for more vocational training at our universities. We should resist this at all costs. It is more important that we develop intellectually capable graduates with broad-based training who are able to adapt to a changing work environment, rather than those who can only slot into solitary places in the economy. Employers must be prepared to deliver on-the-job training for particular advanced skills, and there should be tax incentives.

The quality undergraduate teacher should be given more credit for his or her work. There is too little appreciation for good teachers by way of promotional prospects and scholarly recognition. There is an opportunity for a new generation of researchers to turn undergraduate teaching into a more scholarly pursuit.

Academics should have greater incentives and recognition for publishing quality papers on issues related to the teaching of their disciplinary subjects. How does one infuse emerging research topics with greater regularity and more effectiveness in the undergraduate programme? Which demonstration models are helpful? How should we structure our laboratory programmes? How can we introduce more computational methodologies into our teaching? Which teaching methods work or don’t work and why?

The real question is how we can create more scholarly legitimacy around these questions that impact on undergraduate teaching.

Turning to the graduate level — and especially with increasing PhD production in mind — a system of graduate schools is a more effective means of training graduate students than the rather nebulous system (or non-system) we have now.

I advocate a four-year graduate programme following on the four-year bachelor’s degree. The prerequisites for graduate school should be minimised so that schools can routinely draw on students from other disciplines. The first year of graduate school should be intensive course work that includes a substantial project which could be a part of an internship programme. Industrial and commercial experts should be recruited to teach specialised courses in the graduate programme.

The private sector should increasingly be seen as a source of new graduate students and incentives should be put in place to make this a reality.

Foreign students, including foreign African nationals, should also be attracted to our programmes if we are going to attain the numbers the planners have in mind.

The graduate school should have responsibility for the well-being of students — in terms of recruitment, funding, infrastructure, networking, housing, counselling, internships and employment opportunities. This frees up the time of the supervisor to focus on the academic project. The most productive researchers who are working on cutting-edge research should be primarily involved in teaching and supervision in the graduate school programme.

The Department of Science and Technology is ideally placed to help drive the funding of the graduate school programmes.

I would suggest that the basic National Research Foundation funding instruments are already in place to make the establishment of graduate schools a reality.

The ethos of the graduate school is much more likely to help us increase graduate student output.

These are radical ideas for the South African higher education system, what is important at this stage is that we begin a serious debate on the merits and demerits of them.

Nithaya Chetty is associate professor of physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and president of the South African Institute of Physics. He writes in his personal capacity

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