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Universities ‘look beyond the potholes’

More funding and attention are being given to professionalising university teaching in South Africa, in line with international trends. So why all the fuss about quality teaching, what does it entail and will it make a difference?

Since the early 2000s, the department of higher education and training has ring-fenced funds to universities in the form of teaching development grants. Initially, the funds were allocated to institutions that had low throughput rates, but in 2011 they were allocated to all universities – which had to “bid” to obtain them.

In a forward-looking move, the department decided in 2013 to use this fund to make grants available on the basis of partnerships formed by at least three universities. This should encourage universities to work together to find solutions to the multifaceted challenges facing teaching and learning in higher education.

Among the most visible activities associated with the professionalising of teaching are certificate and diploma courses as well as short courses. Preservice qualifications for teaching in higher education are now required in countries such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Sweden.

In South Africa, the postgraduate diploma in higher education in teaching and learning is not legislated, but it is offered at at an increasing number of institutions. The universities of Rhodes, Pretoria and KwaZulu-Natal are among those who have offered it for about a decade.

The universities of Stellenbosch, Western Cape and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology instituted a jointly taught diploma last year. The University of the Witwatersrand will offer such a diploma this year and the University of Johannesburg has applied to the Council on Higher Education to offer one in the future.

Why is there such a rise in popularity of these preservice and in-service programmes? Why is so much attention paid to the professional development of academics as teachers?

Different stakeholders advocate these courses for different reasons.

Learning tacitly
One often advanced is that teaching is a professional activity, for which academics are not as prepared as they would be if they were to become dentists, lawyers or schoolteachers, for example. Until fairly recently, it was assumed academics would learn tacitly, from the way they had been taught by their professors, peers in the academy and possibly by trial and error.

But with universities’ increasing managerialism and their instrumental view of academics, they now have strategies to enhance their own stature, with targets for all the roles an academic is supposed to perform, such as research, teaching, administration and raising funds.

Global university ranking systems measure a range of performance indicators, and student success is beginning to feature in these. Academics are now expected to perform a greater, more complex and even more ambitious range of tasks than ever before, and many see professionalisation as one way for academics to strengthen their expertise.

Another reason many advance is that, given the increasing burden on academics to perform according to a plethora of policies, quality assurance systems and competitive forces, they suffer from diminishing autonomy and require a quiet space to reflect, nurture their self-development and engage in dialogue with others.

A well-developed professional development programme can be one source of nourishment for academics who are enthusiastic about teaching.

Some answers to the question “What does professional development entail?” are provided by a National Research Foundation project that eight South African universities started in 2011 and is ongoing. Entitled The Interplay of Structure, Culture and Agency: A Study on Professional Development in Higher Education, the project has so far surveyed the views of 130 senior managers, heads of centres for teaching and learning and academics at institutions across a range of types and socioeconomic settings.

Professional development
Academic developers responsible for the professional development of academics at the eight institutions have participated in the project. There was a common understanding among the researchers that the “professional development” of academics regarding their teaching roles refers mostly to workshops, grants for teaching innovation and research, short courses and academic programmes.

However, the data from the interviews shows that academics see their professional development in far broader terms – and they rely on chats with colleagues in the tea room, reading articles on teaching, the reflective use of student feedback, and trial and error to promote their teaching skills.

This implies an expansive view of the professionalisation of teaching in higher education, and suggests that the enhancement of teaching requires attention to a host of environmental factors, of which formal provision, including workshops, short courses or academic programmes, comprises only one.

The project grouped the full list of the levers that respondents believe influence academics’ participation in formal and informal professional development activities. These included:

• National and international networks, initiatives and policies – for example, the Council on Higher Education’s quality assurance mechanism;

• Institutional policies and processes, including reward and recognition processes, or their absence;

• Informal learning in the faculty or department;

• The organisational climate;

• Student responses;

• Workload; and

• Teaching and learning resources.

How these levers influence academics to enhance their own teaching is further heavily influenced by political, historical, socioeconomic, historical and geographical factors – and these cluster together to shape differences in student success rates.

High staff turnover
At rural universities, for instance, in locations where there are few amenities such as shopping centres, libraries or schools, it is reported that there is a high staff turnover and a limited stability, institutional memory and accumulated store of knowledge about good teaching.

On facilities, respondents at all the universities complained about limited resources for good teaching, but respondents at historically disadvantaged universities described this in more extreme terms – for example, a large lecture room for first-year students where there is no microphone working.

The respondents’ testimonies suggest further influences on the quality of their teaching. These include:

• The quality of management at all levels, which influences how academics co-operate with each other, and the kinds of strategies that they therefore put in place to support good teaching.

Managers such as deputy vice-chancellors, deans and vice-deans responsible for teaching and heads of department appear to have a significant influence on teaching quality. They encourage staff to attend teaching and learning events, or to engage in curriculum renewal. Or they block these initiatives, or suggest what respondents believe are inappropriate actions.

• The knowledge of what good teaching implies, including its purpose. From vice-chancellors to deans and lecturers, the data showed instances of a strong sense of the purpose of higher education and an understanding of current approaches to teaching, as well as instances of outdated or parochial views.

• The credibility of professional or academic development staff at the university, including how well trained they are, their ability to work in discipline-specific settings and whether they have academic status.

• Individual commitment. In the data there are examples of lecturers who believe they do not have enough time to attend professional development opportunities because their workload is too heavy, and of others who report that they “make the time”. There is also strong evidence of academics who go against the grain, as it were: despite immediate circumstances that discourage efforts to enhance teaching, they continue to give the best of themselves. One academic at an urban, historically disadvantaged university of technology put it this way: “Look, it’s hard to say the environment is conducive, but I think we have the attitude to make it conducive. We look beyond the potholes.”

Making it more formal
In sum, the research suggests that there is an important role to play for formal professional development activities.

They acquaint managers and teachers with the purpose of teaching as well as appropriate approaches and techniques. But alone they are not sufficient to enhance the quality of teaching. Environmental factors such as the overall management of a university, faculty or department, teaching facilities and socioeconomic conditions external to the university remain crucial.

At a conference on teaching and learning at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in September last year, curriculum expert William Pinar, based at the University of British Columbia, argued that the Council on Higher Education’s proposal last year for a four-year undergraduate curriculum as a way to enhance student success in South Africa is inadequate because it is a simple answer to a complex problem.

The same can be said about funds to enhance teaching quality.

At the same conference, former University of the Free State academic Reitumetse Mabokela, now based at Michigan State University, made an impassioned plea for all South Africans involved in managing higher education or in teaching to do what they can to improve the culture of teaching and learning, as well as student success.

We should hear her plea.

Professor Brenda Leibowitz is chair of teaching and learning in the University of Johannesburg’s education faculty

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