Let's move beyond talking about quality of teaching at South African universities and do something about it

07 October 2018 | Opinion Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe. Read time 10 min.

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It’s time to stop talking about the quality teaching at South African universities and make coherent proposals on how to assess teaching-quality and, if found wanting, change it. Rather than trying to address the matter nationally or provincially, I focus on what could be done about the quality of teaching at my and Assoc. Prof. Suellen Shay’s beloved alma mater, the University of Cape Town. I do this by commenting on her recent piece that calls for still more “talking”. One might have expected UCT-specific solutions from Prof. Shay since she has been involved with teaching educationally deprived (by Bantu Education) and ‘disabled’ (by current Basic Education) high school graduates and researching language and curriculum development at UCT for nearly three decades. Moreover, her research has had a specific focus on the assessment of what constitutes knowledge and relevant curriculum and staff and institutional development as social practice. Her achievements in this regard resulted in her promotion to Dean of UCT’s Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) in 2014. CHED is a cross-faculty structure with ‘roots’ stretching back to 1980. It was designed to provide a single space in which the academic and service needs of UCT's diverse student body can be met by working in the broad field of higher education development, especially in the development of educational opportunities for “disadvantaged students”.

However, rather than elucidating what Shay concludes is, or isn’t, high-quality teaching at UCT, she starts her piece by talking about “reproducing and disrupting inequality” and Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Her main concern is that UCT’s ranking as Africa’s top university does not reflect the quality of its teaching because “assessment of the learning environment” accounts for only 30% of a university’s overall ranking and this component focuses on “input factors” (e.g. staff-to-student ratio; doctorate-to-bachelor’s ratio; the ratio of doctorates awarded to academic staff and institutional income) and not “outputs” (e.g. course success rates, time to completion and graduate employment). She seems to suggest that, since UCT’s rank is due more to its status as a “research-intensive, well-resourced university”, this might be at the expense of quality teaching. But, all this “depends what is meant by quality of teaching”.

What is quality teaching?

Instead of answering this question from her own academic perspective and ‘lived experience’, Shay cites the research and views of three British academics. They maintain that what is really at stake is eliminating “social inequality” by providing students with “powerful knowledge” that takes graduates “beyond their experience in a way that their parents can trust and value” and downplays “skills” as “an adequate basis for a curriculum”. Powerful knowledge is blend of “theory and everyday common sense” and “enables students to meaningfully traverse the gap between theory and lived experience“. Demonstrating the value of powerful knowledge requires ”redefining quality and inequality”.

Shay says that this redefinition is necessary because universities (UCT?) “value what we can measure, instead of measuring what we value”. What needs to be measured is not performance in class tests and examinations. The desired metric must reflect “dropout and retention, student experience” assessed by “surveys and graduate employability”. Although few might challenge measures based on “employability”, knowledge-hungry students, caring parents and academics appointed on merit (rather than primarily on ‘self-identity’ or ideology) might fear that teaching aimed at maximizing the probability of getting a ‘job’ might not generate critical, innovative, out-of-the-box thinking that characterizes UCT graduates. My (and I suspect other academics’, parents’ and donors’) real concern relates to what Shay means by dropout, retention and experience surveys. If the goal is to minimize failure and teach things (or change the way things are taught) that are popular or identified in ‘surveys’ (by students only?), doesn’t this increase the danger of replacing societally-acceptable academic excellence with populism and produce poorly educated, less competitive graduates? In short, are Shay and her British colleagues suggesting that UCT should follow the ‘high throughput strategy’ currently employed in South Africa’s dysfunctional Basic Education System, and won’t this increase, rather than eliminate, societal inequality? 

In any event, at UCT, the output data Shay desires have been available since the 1980s. More than half of the disadvantaged students assigned to the care of the Shay-led CHED and its predecessors dropped out and never earned even a bachelor’s diploma. Most of those who ‘succeeded’ needed four to six years (it took founder-Fallist Chumani Maxwele nine) to complete a third-class, three-year degree.  Fewer still went on to achieve Ph.D. degrees. In short, if one uses a world-ranking measure based on the output measures Shay favours, UCT would fare very poorly and UCT’s failure to deliver home-grown ‘timber’ can be attributed largely to CHED. This failure goes a long way to answering the question: “Why are there so few black professors at UCT?”

Shay’s solution

Once again, instead of offering her own, evidence-based solution, Shay first further decries race- and gender-based inequalities in graduate output and calls for World-Ranking schemes to somehow factor them in when calculating rank status. Then she seeks refuge in someone else’s philosopho-politics and calls for parity of participation to deliver the academic goods. The American-sourced reference cited in support of this position is entitled Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World and its key chapter is: From Discipline to Flexibilization? Rereading Foucault in the Shadow of Globalization. It relies heavily on the philosophy of Frenchman Michel Foucault, described by T.B. Davie lecturer Noam Chomsky as “completely amoral” because he rejects the universal basis for a concept of justice. The underlying theme of Foucault's work is that “power”, rather than truth-seeking research, ubiquitously controls, defines and develops ‘knowledge’ relationally, past and present.  I guess that this is where “powerful knowledge” might kick in. Of late, the ‘power’ at UCT has been in the hands of intimidators carrying bricks and fire bombs, not books.

Shay ends her piece not by providing a solution to UCT’s teaching ‘problems’. She just asks the same question again: “How and to what extent are first generation university, black and minority students being served?” Sadly, she and CHED have yet to provide a coherent assessment of the quality of teaching at UCT, let alone ‘served’ her by providing revised curricula and the necessary high ‘output’ of high-quality undergraduates. Ex-VC Max Price seems to have accepted this conclusion and ‘solved the problem’ by creating a Deputy Vice Chancellor post for “Transformation” and a Working Group for Curriculum Change. This Transformation Team’s only ‘accomplishment’ to date has been a disastrous attempt to ‘decolonize’ Mathematics (see here, here, here, here), denigrated by virtually all STEM academics currently employed at UCT.

What is the real problem vis-à-vis teaching quality?

Based on my 40-year lived-experience as a student and B-rated, highly cited (h-index = 22) academic at UCT who designed and implemented a highly successful, “decolonized”, “transdisciplinary”, “non-racial”, “gender-balanced”, “globalized” educational programme within a nationally and internationally leading centre of excellence, I believe that the following actions need to be taken to regain UCT’s status as a university (not a pluriversity):

  1. reduce the numbers of first-year ‘disadvantaged’ students to levels that allow them to receive comprehensive support – financially, academically and socially;
  2. disestablish CHED and return educational responsibility and accountability to Faculties, Departments and individual academics;
  3. reduce the size, cost and power of the centralized Executive and Administration to levels that [in the words of UCT’s first registrar] “justify its existence by setting standards and methods of procedure of high order. As a department it has no claim to existence in a university unless it can relieve the teaching departments of the responsibility for those duties which can be carried out more efficiently through a central office”;
  4. use the financial savings from 2 & 3 to hire more academic staff sensitive to the needs of “disadvantaged” students and deploy them strategically within Faculties and Departments;
  5. require Faculties and Departments to revise curricula to allow Bachelors- and Honours-level graduates to obtain a rounded discipline education to enable them to provide high-quality education at the high-school level; and
  6. shunt research publication subsidy funds to researchers so they can better support the development of high-quality Ph.D. graduates (especially initially disadvantaged students) who can be fast-tracked to positions of influence.

For more of my thoughts on academia and UCT, see my blogsite - timguineacrowe.blogspot.co.za  You might start by reading one of the more radical pieces: Radical proposals for quality university education.

Hopefully, this piece will elicit a reply from Prof. Shay, the UCT Executive, the Registrar, Faculty Deans and academics interested in high-quality teaching.

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe

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