UJ researcher of academic development explores restructuring in Higher Education

Senior researcher of Academic Development and Support at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Dr Graham Dampier explores restructuring in Higher Education.

He recently penned an opinion editorial Higher Education needs restructuring, published in The Mercury on 5 November 2015.

Higher Education needs restructuring​

EVEN though a small contingent tried to find their vindication through violence, the students who marched on the Union Buildings on October 23 2015 showed the country that our democracy is changing. The youth will no longer accept empty political platitudes. They will shape the country collectively. They will do so in a measured manner that is indicative of their learning.

This is both comforting and long overdue. But is the system of higher education in this country flexible enough to adapt to the demand for cheaper, perhaps even free education? As it stands, the academics charged with enlightening our youth are spread very thin. This is true for virtually every institution in the country Academics are faced with teaching great numbers of students each year and are required to meet the targets of knowledge production. Many cannot cope with delivering quality teaching to the hungry young minds before them, while at the same time producing research worthy of publication in accredited journals.

Every academic has a set of performance criteria to adhere to. Some institutions define these quite explicitly and expect individuals to meet targets that are contracted each year. But the division of labour is unequal. Junior members of staff are expected to teach more than their senior colleagues, who have the luxury of focusing almost all of their efforts on doing research. While junior academics are contracted to publish comparatively fewer units each year, meeting the minimum criteria is very challenging in the face of the many students they are expected to teach. Advancing up the academic ladder is a long, hard slog. The pressure placed on junior staff is likely to become even harder to bear, as economic access is opened up to a greater number of students. The expectation to produce accredited research will increase as tuition fees are reduced. The government subsidises research and teaching. It is only reasonable to assume that part of the shortfall for decreasing fees will have to be covered by the institutions themselves. Academics will have to cover the cost through publications. Junior academics will find it very difficult to cope with the pressures associated with delivering a quality product in the lecture venue and the academic journal.

It is also necessary to mention that many academics only do research because they feel the pressure to. For some, teaching to university students is the reason for entering the academy, and not the modest salary or ominous institutional pressure. These academics tend to be the most inspirational and effective teachers. They provide their students with the best support. They are engaging in the large group and in person, and they know how to get the most out of their students. But when they don’t meet research targets they are told by the managerial hierarchy that they aren’t doing their jobs, because they aren’t drawing further subsidy from the government. Unless this situation changes dramatically, the business of teaching university students will remain a secondary focus of the system as a whole, when it should be the overriding concern. And it is likely that we will see a high turnover among the junior members of staff, who will find academia to be a precarious profession that pays far too little. To this end, two options present themselves as solutions to the problem.

Open up the teaching track for promotion, by allowing academics who want to focus on teaching alone to climb the ranks based on the quality they produce for the lecture venue. Or rearrange the entire sector of higher education by differentiating between re- search intensive institutions, comprehensive institutions and teaching universities. As it currently stands there is no clear definition within the system. It is a chaotic free-for-all. All institutions are expected to cater for a transformed student body they aren’t adequately equipped to support effectively, while being responsible for elevating the stature of the country’s higher education sys- tem within the global framework of universities. Without clear distinctions between institutions it is virtually impossible to achieve both of these imperatives. Institutions consequently lack focus because they are being pulled in two opposite directions. The junior members of staff feel the strain the most, because they are told that their basic purpose is to teach, but their legitimacy as academics is judged and measured by the amount of research units they produce. Their senior colleagues are more or less exempt from extensive teaching and have the luxury of spending proportionally more time on conducting research.

Opening up the teaching track should not be seen as reducing the importance of research or of making it optional within the system. Rather, it should be seen as a way of focusing the efforts of academics. Academics who are more suited to teaching are not necessarily good at producing new knowledge, and the same applies to those who are good at conducting sound research. A good researcher is not by implication a good teacher. Institutions could reclassify their academic posts by allocating a certain proportion to teaching wherein individuals will be evaluated and appraised on the basis of the quality of their teaching alone. This will allow institutions to prioritise domains that attract large student cohorts. Similarly, a clearly differentiated higher education system allows for a more clearly defined funding model to be devised and instituted. The present conception of the academic as equally focused on teaching and research, and of institutions satisfying these imperatives equally is not sustainable. It is archaic, poorly conceived and unbalanced. The result may well be a large scale brain drain, in which case free education will come to naught.

Dampier is a senior researcher of Academic Development and Support at the University of Johannesburg.

*The views of the opinion editorial are those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Johannesburg.

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