Real barrier is academic inertia

Graphic: John McCann

Graphic: John McCann

Schools and universities differ in many ways, but one of the most important is the freedom the latter enjoy with respect to the curriculum. 

Schools work with a curriculum developed centrally by a ministry of education — as in the case of South Africa's "national curriculum statements" — or by an examining board. Universities, on the other hand, have the freedom to decide for themselves what they will teach, how they will teach it and how they will assess their students. 

In a university, curriculum development is a messy business bound up in disciplinary values, departmental and faculty politics, individual preferences and, sometimes, demands from professional bodies. 

Although some constraints — such as the number of credits a course can carry or the amount of time available to teach it — do exist, "academic freedom" is often invoked to justify choices made about what to change and what to retain in teaching and assessment. 

In spite of all the hazards associated with what might be termed the "cultural politics" of curriculum development in universities, it is to this fraught space that a task team appointed by the Council on Higher Education has turned its attention as a way to address the tragic wastages and inefficiencies of South Africa's university system. 

The task team's recently published report provides damning evidence of the problems in higher education. Based on analyses of students admitted to higher education in 2006, it would probably be fair to say that, of the students admitted to South African universities in February this year, 33% will shortly exit the system, probably never to return. 

The same set of analyses show that, over all three- and four-year qualifications, only 27% graduate in "regulation time" — that is, in the time officially allocated to complete the qualification.
Forty percent have been lost to higher education altogether by the time the regulation time has elapsed. 

The wastage in terms of the hopes of individual students, the money they have spent in funding their time at universities as well as to the country more generally as lost graduate outputs is terrible to contemplate.

The solution the task team has proposed is to extend the time taken to complete undergraduate qualifications by one year while, at the same time, offering a "fast track" for those who show that they can finish in three years — currently only the 27% noted above. 

The thinking behind the solution — that more time and more tuition in a carefully designed curriculum structure are needed by those deemed to be "underprepared" for tertiary study — is one that has been espoused by the field of academic development for many years. For many, then, including me, the question is not whether the solution is a good one but whether it can be made to work. 

As the exemplars of the proposed flexible new curriculum structure provided in the task team report show, theoretical considerations in curriculum design are complex. 

Progression in the sciences is dependent on the development of highly structured conceptual know-ledge. A gap early on in concept formation means that more complex understandings cannot be built — although arguably this is less the case for the environmental and biological sciences than for the physical sciences. 

In the humanities, the situation is somewhat different. It is not the progression in knowledge building that is so important but rather the development of a disciplinary "gaze" — a particular way of looking at and exploring issues and problems.

The development of this "gaze" is often associated with academic literacy, the ability to read, write, speak and, indeed, behave in ways underpinned by disciplinary specific values about what can count as know-ledge or how it can be known. 

Perusal of the exemplars contained in the report clearly shows that the expert groups who developed them mastered the sort of understandings necessary to design coherent curriculum structures. 

But there is much less chance of these sorts of understanding being widely available in the corridors, tea rooms, seminar rooms and faculty boards where much of the proposed curriculum development will take place.

One might not expect the expertise to be able to design sophisticated, pedagogically sound and educationally informed curricula aimed at meeting the needs of "underprepared" students to be available among academics in the mainstream disciplines. However, many universities have established teaching and learning centres to assist with such tasks. 

Over the years, failures in the field of academic development, which has traditionally provided staff members for such centres, have meant relatively few have stayed the course and developed the expertise, knowledge and qualifications necessary to work with mainstream staff in these areas. 

The outcomes of debates with academics about curriculum and pedagogy are inevitably influenced by power, and a mere "Mr" or "Ms" from the teaching and learning centre is unlikely to win in a situation where a "Dr" or "Professor" from a mainstream discipline is insistent on a particular set of beliefs about teaching or curriculum design. 

Even worse, it is likely that the Mr or Ms is a relative newcomer to the field of teaching and learning in higher education and more reliant on commonsense understandings of student development and curriculum construction than on well-theorised accounts.

The task team acknowledges this lack of capacity and proposes the deployment of a high-level national unit that would mobilise experts in the system to work across the country. The idea has merit, but the need to provide support for curriculum development at their own institutions can be expected to leave these experts stretched. 

This raises questions about their availability to work at a national level, especially as good curriculum development work takes many meetings and a lot of time. 

However, it is probably not expert capacity that is the greatest problem. Rather, problems will lie with the will and understanding required of mainstream academics to make changes.

The academic workplace places more demands on academics than ever before. In my own university, progression up the academic ladder through personal promotion procedures demands evidence of academics' contributions to research, teaching and learning and community engagement. 

It also demands that individuals demonstrate that they are involved in their own professional and disciplinary communities and contribute to the leadership, management and administration of the units and departments in which they work. 

When the whip is cracked for research production — as it is in many universities seeking either to increase the subsidy that accrues from research "output" or to improve their status in world ranking systems — what chance is there of individuals making the time available and directing their attention to the complex changes needed not only at the "bottom" of the curriculum but also throughout the entire curriculum structure? 

Even when the will to change is there, as conversations with my colleagues have revealed, it is often difficult to conceptualise what the introduction of a new "year zero" will involve and how this can be built on. 

Questions such as: "Yes, but if I do that then, what will I have left to teach the year after?" are indicative of the difficulties associated with understanding how complex content can be reorganised and repackaged in ways that support and develop meaningful student learning. 

Caution other than those discussed above has been identified at the gatherings that have taken place to discuss the proposal in the past few weeks. 

As the University of Cape Town's Ian Scott, co-ordinator of the research that went into the report of the task team, has pointed out so forcefully, however, the restructuring of the undergraduate curriculum is a necessary condition if we are to effect an increase in the number and quality of graduates produced by our universities. Managing other issues will then be essential to create sufficient conditions. 

Perhaps it is here, then, in leadership and management, that the answer lies. Without support and direction, and without a willingness to make and implement the hard choices necessary to ensure that sufficient conditions are created, the proposed extension of the time taken to complete a qualification from three to four years will not be enough. 

What is clear is that an additional year of "more of the same" will not bring the changes we so badly need if the life chances of our students are to be improved and the number of graduates available to our country is to be increased. 

Professor Chrissie Boughey works in the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning at Rhodes University 

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