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Common sense fails our students

As members of the South African academic development community, we read your recent exchange of open letters in the pages of the Mail & Guardian with enormous interest — and not a little concern (Peter Vale, "May I suggest, Deputy Minister", July 6; Mduduzi Manana, "Age is no impediment to doing my job", July 20).

What you both term "academic support" died an intellectual death in the late 1980s. Its demise began with challenges to the universities made by academics such as Merlin Mehl, Herbert Vilakazi and others who argued that it was not students who were "underprepared" for higher education but rather the other way round: universities were underprepared for the task of embracing the diversity that would characterise student populations following a shift to democracy.

Educational philosopher Wally Morrow followed with questions about what it meant to provide the "epistemological" access — or access to the academic ways of knowing that sustain the universities — rather than the merely formal access needed to register as a student.

A further blow to "academic support" came from within as increasing numbers of practitioners came to realise that their efforts to develop students outside mainstream teaching and learning simply were not effective. Attendance at the tutorials and special classes intended to address the deficits identified by the universities was poor and academics complained that even when students had completed, say, a compulsory language course, they still could not read or write in ways appropriate to higher education.   

Sadly, this observation tended to be blamed on the academic support movement when what was needed was an intellectual grappling with the reasons why stand-alone courses did not teach students to read, write and know in the ways they were meant to do.

Thankfully, some lecturers did begin to recognise their responsibilities to teach the practices of their ­disciplines and seek out innovative approaches that could help them to do this.

A rebirth of academic support
Engagement with theory, fostered by the likes of Nasima Badsha and Melanie Walker, who now holds a chair in higher education at the University of the Free State, led to a rebirth of "academic support" as "academic development". In this rebirth was a commitment to research that would try to understand students' experiences in higher education using critical social theories — a stance that is familiar to you both given your own disciplinary backgrounds — and a shift towards working with curriculums and staff rather than only with students.

Examples of older academic support models, in which "gaps are filled", "bridges are built" and missing "skills" are somehow "added on" to students who are deemed to be poorly equipped for university study — the ones who (in your terms, Professor Vale) cannot "read, write or count" — sadly persist.

But additive models of academic support have never had the backing of intellectuals in the academic development movement — they have steadily and rigorously opposed them, often with tears.

Nevertheless, naive common-sense understandings of what it means to read, write and learn in the universities continue to dominate. Even within the humanities, whose critical theoretical traditions would suggest that they should know better, academics have struggled to take on ideas of academic ways of reading, writing and knowing as situated culturally and socially laden, and thus more accessible to some than to others.

Although we agree with you both that our school system is failing us, we would also argue that reading, writing and knowing in the disciplines require more than schools can teach. This is because academic practices emerge from values and understandings related to the production of knowledge associated with the disciplines themselves. Schools are consumers of knowledge rather than producers, and questions need to be asked about the extent to which these values and understandings are available to schools.

In addition, schools teach for a wide array of pathways through life and not only for one beginning with a higher education. Thus, there is a role to be played by academics in teaching their students to read, write and know in ways acceptable to the universities that goes beyond sending them to support classes and units, or calling on schools to do better.  

Over the years, the field of academic development has drawn on disciplines such as critical language studies and linguistic anthropology, social and educational psychology and different traditions in sociological theory and realist philosophy to understand students' experiences at university. These understandings are represented by a vein of research that, we would argue, can rival and even better the best in the world on student learning — as those of us who review for highly rated international journals will attest.

Although the field of academic development is inclined to be generalist and strongly focused on social justice — an orientation that sometimes compromises the foundations from which it can itself begin to know — the best research generates productive and highly complex debates across theoretical and disciplinary perspectives. This, Professor Vale, is hardly the activity of a "cottage industry".

Inadequate financial backing
As we have observed in our own academic writing, however, there has often been inadequate or short-term financial backing for work by the deeply committed teacher-intellectuals who have staffed academic development centres. Despite high ideals and carefully honed craftsmanship as teachers, many researchers, theorists and practitioners became frustrated by the insecure working conditions that have dogged the field, as well as the disdain directed at them by some academics, and moved away into more traditional roles in education. In this way intellectual capital and capacity have been lost to higher education.

A recent shift in policy has moved funding for work at foundation level in our universities to a more secure footing. We welcome this, Deputy Minister, not least because it offers the potential for universities to offer more secure working conditions for those employed to teach at foundation level along with encouragement to pursue doctoral-level work. We began our own academic careers by working with students and have only been able to develop as researchers and thinkers thanks to our pursuit of qualifications at this highest level.

But like many others in the academic development movement, we are getting old. Retirement threatens, and who will fill the shoes of those who have spent 20 or more years researching and thinking about students' experiences in South African universities?

This year, universities have been required by new policy to use teaching development grants to improve student success. But money alone is not the answer, as work on large group teaching, led by Jeff Jawitz at the University of Cape Town's centre for higher education development, has shown.

If teaching development grants are to make an impact, research-based expertise developed in the field of academic development, rather than the common sense that often prevails in thinking about student learning, is going to be needed.  

Where is that expertise going to come from, Deputy Minister? We, along with many others in the field of academic development, would welcome the opportunity to talk to you about the development of the next generation of academic development practitioners and researchers.

Our students are owed more than common-sense assumptions about their inability to read, write and know in ways acceptable to the academy. They are the future of our country and we cannot relegate their development to the secondary schools or the pedlars of dubious "skills".

Serving our students will require commitment from the highest levels to build a cadre of practitioners and researchers to continue the work begun three decades ago. We look to you, Deputy Minister, for this commitment.

Professor Chrissie Boughey is dean of teaching and learning at Rhodes University and director of the university's centre for higher education research, teaching and learning.

Dr Penny Niven is a research associate at the centre

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