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Where are South Africa’s great teaching universities?

April 21, 2010

There are many in the higher education system who are deeply committed to teaching and learning. And yet we have no great teaching universities. Where is the institution that has as it’s mission to provide the best undergraduate learning experience? Where is the institution whose mission is to be the institution of choice for undergraduate students seeking a well-rounded education with exceptional levels of support for their learning?

The South African higher education is primarily an undergraduate teaching system. For every person studying towards a postgraduate qualification, there are 6 completing undergraduate qualifications. Undergraduate qualifications are also the area in which we have to start to address access and improve the racial balance of skills in the country. We can’t increase the number of black postgraduates (and hence lecturers and other high-skilled professionals) until more black students get through first degrees. We ought to be putting more effort into doing undergraduate education well.

If we could get more students through reputable, high-quality undergraduate degrees, we would address the problem of increasing access to more South Africans. It is possible to do this without stringent entry requirements. The Open University in the UK has proved this. So, despite our problems with schooling, it should be possible to admit those who are eager to learn and focus on getting them in flexible ways to the same exit levels. This can be done in institutions that are focussed on teaching and learning and that can be flexible in how they work with individual students.

Instead we insist that, in order to be a university, an institution has to be doing disciplinary research – in other words research other than research into teaching and learning. This because of the “Humboldt tradition” that insists that good teaching can only be done by good researchers. Well von Humboldt lived a long time ago, and not in South Africa. Good teaching that is going to reach a wider range of students than just an exceptional elite, requires people who take teaching seriously and who are not distracted by the need to build their research careers.

This is not to say that their teaching should not be informed by disciplinary research. A good teacher will take pains to learn about and communicate the frontiers of research, where they are accessible to undergraduates, and even where they are not accessible, in order to inspire students. But that teacher need not be doing the research herself. (I’m not suggesting that teaching staff be less qualified – they should be encouraged to complete research degrees, but not necesarily to continue in disciplinary research.)

A great teaching university would partner with research universities to expose senior students to research. Researchers would be invited to give guest lectures. Such an institution would prepare students for further study at research universities. Perhaps a research university would see value in such a partnership – it could in turn reduce the undergraduate teaching burden on researchers and give them space to do more research and work with postgraduate students.

Strong teaching universities would be able to focus on teaching without having to provide the infrastructure and support for research. They would be able to focus on the student experience. They would be able to attract qualified staff who are dedicated teachers and who prefer not to be doing research. They would be able to experiment with teaching methods and technologies because staff would have time to devote to innovations in teaching and will get recognition and rewards for doing so.

Our system mitigates against the emergence of such institutions. First, there is the assumption, enshrined in policy, that without discipline-based research, institutions cannot be universities. This is not the case in other countries. It might well have been a good model in the past, but it’s not helping now and we need to change. Secondly we have a funding model that rewards research and encourages institutions to pursue research. If these two elements could be changed, it might be possible for excellent undergraduate teaching universities to develop and to be PROUD of their status as teaching universities. I’d be the first to sign up to work there.

(These are my personal views and not those of the organisation at which I work.)

From → Higher Education

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