/ 11 July 2014

Government’s new plan for student success

Graphic: John McCann
Graphic: John McCann

That South Africa’s education system at all levels is under severe stress is widely acknowledged. Adopting the time-honoured approach that attack is the best form of defence, each level or phase blames the one below.

So business, industry and the professions complain about the competencies of graduates, higher education bewails the educational under-preparedness of school leavers, secondary schools blame primary schools, and they in turn pass the buck to the erratic provision and quality of preschool education.

Although this is understandable, it is not helpful. Within each level or phase the major variable, and the only one over which serious control can be exerted, must be the educational processes within that phase.

The sheer size and pervasiveness of the challenge is daunting. In the case of higher education, even though the participation rate (the age-appropriate proportion of citizens accessing higher education) is low for a country of South Africa’s size and developmental status, attrition rates are high. Only about one in four students in contact institutions complete their undergraduate curricula within the intended time, and only half graduate.

“Fruitless expenditure”
The expansion envisaged in the National Development Plan and the recently released white paper may involve the admission of students even less well prepared, because the sector currently absorbs a very high proportion of those who are eligible for admission. Clearly, unless more effective teaching and learning approaches and perhaps structures are introduced, failure rates will rise, representing billions in “fruitless expenditure”.

In response to these challenges, the government and its agencies have embarked on several ambitious schemes to encourage and steer more effective teaching and learning in the system.

One of these, the Council on Higher Education’s quality enhancement project, is being launched. This essentially developmental initiative is the successor to the first round of institutional quality audits conducted by the council, which raised serious concerns about the state of teaching and learning in our universities.

Another, the department of higher education’s teaching development grant scheme, has been running for several years. Through the use of earmarked funds, projects aimed at incentivising and enhancing the educational process have been ­supported with the expectation that this would have a positive effect on teaching and learning outcomes.

In the early years of the teaching development grant, however, only institutions with the lowest graduation rates were awarded these funds.

Perverse incentive
In addition to providing a perverse incentive in that improved institutional performance could endanger continued funding, the types of developmental activities funded were not clearly defined.

Although several undoubtedly very worthwhile initiatives were undertaken, a sizeable proportion of the funds was used for “business as usual” teaching activities rather than developmental work targeted at addressing specific challenges. Given the very broad criteria in place to guide the use of the grant, it was difficult for the scheme to be monitored and managed, and its impact was almost impossible to assess.

After extensive consultation within the sector in 2013, the minister of higher education and training approved a new version of the teaching development grant that was introduced this year. Its criteria set out five priority programme areas: the development of university teachers and teaching, tutorship and mentorship programmes, enhancing the status of teaching at universities, and researching teaching and learning. For the first time, too, a percentage of the funds was set aside for collaborative projects that would involve more than one institution.

Despite these improvements and refinements, and recognising that it still early days in terms of implementing the new approach, several challenges remain.

First, the teaching development grant plans submitted by institutions reveal considerable differences between what is understood as “developmental” and those regarded as “routine” activities. Given the historical and continuing equities between universities, this is not surprising.

Different understandings
Tutorials (small-group timetabled sessions to complement lectures) provide an example of these different understandings. Some institutions take for granted the provision of tutorials and fund them as an integral part of their budgets; others are only beginning to embark on tutorial schemes and view them as highly dependent on additional funding.

More fundamentally, the use and approach to tutorials as learning spaces reveal quite different conceptions of student learning and consequently of curriculum design. At one extreme there is the notion of tutorials as revision, “content catch-up” opportunities, and at the other they are seen as providing a context in which a different kind of learning can take place.

For grant-makers such as the higher education and training department (in this case), the dilemma is obvious: Should development funds be put toward practices that are commonly accepted and require long-term sustainability?

This is not an argument against the need for the provision of adequate levels of funding to support such widely accepted approaches, but simply a question about whether development funds are the most appropriate way to do this.

Significant achievement
In the short term this is not an issue. If the teaching development grant funds are enabling the introduction of more effective learning opportunities for students through supporting the training and payment of tutors, this is a significant achievement. The challenge will lie in the extent to which all universities recognise the centrality of tutorial programmes and begin to plan for these in a sustainable rather than a grant-reliant manner.

Second, the plans reveal widespread confusion in the system about mentoring. Although it seems universally embraced as “a good thing’”, little consensus is evident on what mentoring actually is or who should mentor, what training or support should be provided (or is required), or from where the number of mentors the system has planned for will be sourced, particularly in relation to institutions with relatively low numbers of postgraduate students.

In many instances, it seems that the roles of tutors and mentors are conflated and that training, where offered, is not always systematic.

The greatly increased attention being paid to student support through mentoring and other holistic approaches such as “first-year experience” projects is a welcome sign of the development of more effective learning environments for students. At the same time, the issues suggest an urgent need for the department to work with the sector to develop common understandings and approaches to ensure that the benefits of mentoring and other forms of student support are maximised.

PhD issues
Third, although it is generally acknowledged that South Africa has a major shortage of PhDs (23 per million of the population compared with 43 in Brazil, 157 in South Korea and nearly 200 for Australia) given its ambitions in relation particularly to innovation and research, the big national push to increase the number of PhDs has created a set of issues for effective teaching.

Opportunities for permanent academic staff currently in the system, over half of whom do not have PhDs, to obtain PhDs is most commonly achieved through the release of staff from their duties for a period or by allowing reduced teaching loads.

This increases reliance on replacement teaching, often brought about through an increase in temporary and contract staff who tend not to be included in institutional teaching development activities. This is an international phenomenon but does raise some possible quality flags that need to be monitored and addressed.

The department needs to pay attention to the needs raised through the teaching development grant initiative. This can be done through careful monitoring and support and the development of capacity through, for example, the new collaborative programme’s teaching development grants.

Large-scale programmes are being developed to establish such initiatives as a national resource centre for “first-year experience” initiatives; on a national basis, the development of a number of courses designed to cover key teaching and learning areas that could be offered at various levels to meet the needs of tutors as well as lecturers; and guidelines and resources for the recruitment, training and support of mentors.

However, perhaps the most fundamental challenge is whether project-based funding can, in the long term, bring about systemic changes in relation to teaching and learning. It is clear that there is no easy transfer from traditional research funding models, which are to some extent at least based on quite discrete outputs that incentivise individual effort.

Matter of survival
Teaching needs a generalisable, integrated approach that starts from the premise that ongoing and meaningful development opportunities are not a “nice to have” offering for staff who happen to be interested in teaching and willing to invest particular effort, but a matter of survival for modern universities in an age when greater access is needed not only for individual goals but also for societal and economic needs.

So, in the long term, is it back to the drawing board for the teaching development grants? Clearly a reflective approach needs to be taken so that the lessons from this cycle of implementation contribute to the effective deployment of this considerable resource.

One possibility is that fewer but larger and more focused national projects be initiated with the sector, and supported with longer timelines.

Another is that sustainability will need to be treated as a more fundamental part of the scheme. As the underlying aim of the teaching development grant scheme is to seed and nurture new and effective approaches to teaching and learning, successful initiatives will need to be incorporated into recurrent funding provided by the state to universities. If this is not achieved, the benefits of the teaching development grants will be dissipated and undermined.

Much will depend on the outcomes and needs identified through the quality enhancement project. The department of higher education and training is working closely with this, because it will assist in pinpointing key developmental needs.

Whatever the decisions, however, the increased attention and importance given to teaching, learning and student support in its broadest sense is very welcome.

Professor Nan Yeld is director of university teaching and development in the department of higher education and trainingNew plan for student success