The sole purpose of higher education should be to develop and mentor students in knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world in intellectual and practical skills in personal and social responsibility and in integrative and applied learning. This approach to teaching should be fundamental to the objectives of educational institutions and must remain fully integrated with research and knowledge production.
This argument flows from my first two articles in these pages in a series essentially on the political economy of higher learning. The first dealt with the trade-offs between research and teaching and the second with the privatisation of education.
It is unacceptable for research to run in a different direction from instruction, and even more so for academics to fob off teaching as a "distant second" in order of priority, as one head of department has told me. There is a drastic change in emphasis needed; as the creators of new knowledge staff should be in the vanguard of this change.
While one has to assume that they are dedicated individuals who would, necessarily, embrace change, it is also true that in many places around the world academics tend to be "fierce guardians of the status quo," as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus wrote in their 2010 book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It.
The evidence from the United States is especially significant, because it is precisely "the American model" of privatisation and deregulation that is peddled on the business pages of South African newspapers. At a time when higher education in the United States is going through changes that are devastating for students, in terms of access, pedagogy and graduation rates, we should be cautious about replicating the mistakes made by colleges and universities in that country.
In what they described as "the professorial campus", Hacker and Dreifus found a fundamental misalignment between faculty incentives and institutional goals. They found that in most cases staff were rewarded as individual performers for their research and for their contribution to their field, but they had few incentives for institutional loyalty, accountability or for student success. Of course, these incentives should not always be pecuniary; we should, at least, expect intrinsic motivation to drive academics.
Nonetheless, on the "professorial campus" successful academics are the ones who are best at working the system for their own research. This becomes the prime desideratum of academics and distances them from undergraduate teaching, according to the former dean of Harvard College, Harry R Lewis, in his 2006 Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education.
Indeed, one unintended consequence of the tenure process in the US is that faculty are rewarded for research and publication, which is, effectively, decreased contact with students. "Universities have forgotten that the fundamental purpose of undergraduate education is to turn young people into adults who will take responsibility for society," as the publisher of Lewis's book, Public Affairs Books, said.
I want to suggest that instruction should be significantly strengthened by means of institutional intervention and that the temptation toward a corporate-utilitarian approach to teaching be avoided at all costs — an approach that sees students as "consumers" who have to be prepared for "the market" and that has the danger of imbuing students too narrowly with the culture of corporations and their attendant fixation with profit maximisation and with atomised individualism and crude careerism.
Education ought to be about more than simply preparing students to be diligent employees who are concerned exclusively with market efficiency. In South Africa, today, we need deeply committed teachers who are dedicated to mentoring and development of students across the curriculum; from the humanities and social sciences to the natural sciences. "Too many students are adrift in a sea of courses having little to do with one another," said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, in a speech delivered at the Rice University in Texas in February this year.
Earlier this year I met a graduate student in the natural sciences at one of South Africa's pre-eminent universities who did not know what left wing and right wing politics meant. She also did not know who South Africa's deputy president was. In her late 20s, this student had never read a newspaper. In my last teaching position I insisted that students read the Financial Times every day and The Economist every week; it was a course in international political economy. I was stunned speechless, therefore, when the student in Cape Town told me that she had never read a newspaper. If ever there was a role that teachers and parents could play, very well, in the education of the next generation of people who will take responsibility for society, it is in encouraging reading and writing.
Rawlings's criticism of education in the US is especially pertinent. For most of the past 100 years the US has had some of the finest institutions of higher learning in the world. Only since the rise of neo-liberal orthodoxy in the wake of Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 have colleges and universities in that country gone into decline. It was Reagan, after all, who declared, while he was governor of California, that the state "should not subsidise intellectual curiosity" — and then went on to slash the federal budget for education when he became president.
Since then, for several reasons it must be said, the US has gone from the country with the largest segment of the population between the ages of 25 and 35 with a bachelor's degree to 12th among 36 developed countries surveyed in 2010, according to Ann Kirschner, dean of William E Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. In terms of undergraduate degrees awarded in science or engineering, the US had slipped to 27th among developed countries by 2009, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. We in South Africa would be best advised to avoid the "American model" of deregulation and privatisation.
The argument for better instruction and significant institutional change should not be dismissed as straight forward liberal or left-wing opposition to budget cuts, corporatisation and privatisation.
Writing recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ann Kirschner, hardly a left-winger, explained: "It would indeed be a sad world if the lofty goals of creating and transferring knowledge were reduced to the rhetoric and mechanics of the marketplace."
It is too easy, Kirschner suggested, for teachers to raise, as a ruse, the pressures of privatisation, and so decrease state funding, as a way to conceal their own pedagogical failures. This may be especially true in South Africa, where the state already spends a lot of money on education, and there is constant pressure on to reduce expenditure and "do more with less".
The problem in South Africa is, therefore, as complex as it is elsewhere. Privatisation will not readily ease the problems of teaching — for reasons explained previously.
Rawlings explained the complexity of the problem as follows: "The combination of drastic state disinvestment in public universities, student careerism, and pedagogical failings of our own has serious consequences for the country … We now know that more than 50% of the students starting college with a stated desire to major in science or engineering drop out of those majors before graduating … A substantial body of research demonstrates conclusively that the problem is frequently caused by poor undergraduate teaching in physics, chemistry, biology, math, and engineering, particularly in the freshman and sophomore years."
Teaching is a calling
The belief that teaching is a calling, that teachers teach because they love teaching and that, through this, they make a progressive contribution to society is a noble one. But in higher education the noble task of teaching is constrained and conditioned by several internal and external factors.
Externally, teachers face the demands both of having to produce peer-reviewed research and of increasingly limited budgets as part of reduced state funding. These pressures contribute significantly to the internal conditions and constraints; it becomes easier, for instance, to treat students as commodities, to redirect funding from the social sciences and humanities to "business" and "administration" and, more dangerously, for teachers to reproduce students as clones of themselves.
The latter has more to do with the dominance of particular ideas and prevailing orthodoxy, and the management of discursive boundaries.
It is easier, more convenient, in other words, to churn out students who will not challenge the status quo and remain in lock-step of prevailing orthodoxy. Get them through the turnstiles as fast and with as little fuss as possible.
In the coming years South Africa has to make significant changes to education at all levels. While the state can and ought to drive this process, and while we cannot wish away private corporate interests — they have a vital role to play in society in general — teachers are, ultimately, responsible for one thing only: teaching. We should never forget that.
This is the third and final article in Ismail Lagardien's series on the crisis in South African higher education. Trained at the London School of Economics, Lagardien holds a DPhil from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and taught political economy and international affairs in the United States for six years. He now works in the secretariat of the National Planning Commission. The views expressed in the series are his own