Two faces of change

Since 1994 the emphasis in South African higher education has been on transforming the system.

Policy documents guiding this identify a number of purposes for higher education and have led to many structural changes intended to allow the universities to achieve them.

According to the 1997 White Paper on Higher Education, one of the purposes of the university is to be a “key allocator of life chances” and a “vehicle for achieving equity in the distribution of opportunity and achievement among South African citizens”.

The restructuring of the system since 1994 has been aimed at allowing the universities to fulfil this purpose.
As a result, large numbers of students from a wide range of social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds have entered higher education.

But what happens once they are at university is a different story. Research shows appalling patterns of failure at undergraduate level, regardless of the type of institution, area of study and type of qualification. Even more disturbing is the fact that the students most affected are black South Africans.

What is it within the universities, then, that undermines the structural work intended to allocate “life chances” more fairly? My own experience working on teaching and learning in a wide range of contexts suggests that most academics and most institutions understand the ability to succeed in higher education to be dependent on attributes innate to the individual—students need talent, potential, intelligence, motivation, aptitude and so on.

As many of those who work in the South African academic development movement will testify, however, many enormously motivated students with huge talent simply cannot make sense of the learning that is required of them and the teaching offered to them. Their failure is not a matter of lacking personal attributes but rather of simply not being able to access the university as a particular kind of learning and knowledge-making space.

In spite of all the transformation of the past 16 years, is the purpose of South African universities still to serve a social and cultural elite who, by virtue of their previous experiences both at home and in school, have an inside track on what can count as knowledge and on how that knowledge can be known?

If this is the case, what of the purpose developed in consultation with many stakeholders in the White Paper? Is this intended purpose subverted by an actual purpose that emerges from an underlying value and belief system or, as sociologists might say, a “cultural system” within the universities themselves?

Another purpose of the university identified by the White Paper involves addressing the “development needs of society” and providing the labour market with the highly skilled workers a “knowledge-driven and knowledge- dependent society” needs. To a large extent the identification of the “university of technology” (UoT) as a new institutional type emerged to fulfil this purpose.

They developed out of the former technikons, which had always enjoyed much less autonomy than the traditional universities that aimed to produce very different kinds of the UoTs. Technikons also differed from the traditional universities in other ways, most notably with regard to the amount of research they produced but also in relation to the way curriculums were developed.

In developing curriculums technikons used a convener system—one was given the responsibility for developing a curriculum that was then delivered by others offering the same programme of study. A number of observations can be made about this.

First, the fact that most staff members were not involved in curriculum work on an ongoing basis meant that the capacity to think critically and reflectively about the “what, how, who, when and where” of teaching was not developed.

Second, the need for staff only to deliver a curriculum and not to research and think in order to develop it meant that heavy teaching loads could be imposed. This then impacted on time available for research.

To meet development and labour needs, the new UoTs arguably need to do two things. In the first place they need to create the time, capacity and culture for staff to engage with the development of curriculums that can produce the kinds of graduates envisaged in policy documents and elsewhere.

In the second, they need to foster creative thinking and reflection on the use, meaning and teaching of technology in a developing country in a globalised world. Moreover, this needs to consider what technology means to the kinds of students they enrol—students who might only have had very limited interactions with it.

This quality of thinking and reflection is likely to be fostered only by academics’ own engagement with research—and a culture of research is what many UoTs, by their own admission, do not have. In spite of the best efforts of policymakers to identify purposes for our universities, there is always likely to be a difference between the intended purposes and the actual results that emerge from the structural and cultural conditions in the institutions themselves.

Structural conditions are, in many ways, easier to fix. Changes in access policies brought large numbers of students previously excluded from higher education flooding into our universities.

The cultural conditions, or belief and value systems necessary to allow these students to thrive are much harder to address. In the same vein, in principle it would be possible to inject sufficient funding to reduce the teaching loads of academics in the UoTs.

The development of a culture that promotes thinking about technology and the teaching of technology is a more difficult matter. Since 1994, much has been done in the way of transformation of higher education at a structural level. Perhaps the hardest work is yet to come.

Professor Chrissie Boughey is dean of teaching and learning at Rhodes University

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