An extra year?

Education Minister Naledi Pandor is considering making the undergraduate degree a four-year degree, but this depends on conditions at each university.

So said Pandor’s adviser, Nasima Badsha, who was among the participants at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Teaching and Learning’s international conference, titled “Opening conversations on first-year success”.

The first conference of its kind in Southern Africa, it was attended by 280 delegates from South Africa, Botswana, Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Professor Ian Scott of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town made a strong argument for changing the three-year undergraduate degree to a four-year degree, as a minority of students pass within three years. According to Scott, about 30% of first-year students drop out or are excluded in their first year.
This works out to 25 000 of all “contact” students. Reasons for exclusion and dropping out are lack of money and poor schooling, which are factors outside the control of universities, as well as factors within the control of universities, such as the educational process—how students are taught.

His suggestions for curriculum reform include: allowing diversity through flexibility; allowing space for balancing depth and breadth, local and international; allowing space for development of contemporary skills; and addressing the “basics” in sensitive ways. Of key concern is that student success remains racially influenced. Scott said fewer than 5% of blacks succeed in higher education in South Africa.

Presentations on the work being done at universities to make learning at first-year level more engaging included tutorial programmes, where students go over academic material in smaller groups, often with senior students, who are closer in age and in experience to the first-year students. Others focused on the growing use of electronic or web-based learning, multimedia learning environments and generally learning that is up to date with the experience of the modern student.

Zien Kruger and Marian Peterson-Waughtal from Unisa presented a paper on a multimedia module that they have developed in partnership with the South African Police Service. They emphasised the importance of focusing on the student experience and of using sound research: “Our journey on the road of reinventing the Unisa classroom and learning experience has shown us that [when] addressing student and industry demands and needs, [—] our teaching practices must be informed by sound scholarly educational principles and experiences.”

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