Response of the HELTASA Executive Committee to the CHE Framework for enhancing academics as university teachers
Compiled by Dr Kershree Padayachee on behalf of the HELTASA executive committee
In January 2018, the Council on Higher Education (CHE) released to universities a draft of a National Framework document for enhancing academics as university teachers, for comment and feedback. The Framework emerged out of a national workshop on strengthening university teaching that was jointly convened by the CHE and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) on 24 – 26 May. Deliberations by workshop delegates (from 24 of the 26 South African universities) resulted in a document titled “Towards a national framework for strengthening university teaching in South Africa”, which was subsequently developed into the document called the “Framework for Enhancing Academics as University Teachers”.
Given that a core mandate of HELTASA is to support the continuous transformation and enhancement of teaching and learning in Higher Education (HE) in South Africa, the HELTASA Executive committee deliberated on the Framework. We appreciated the intentions of the Framework and acknowledged its relevance and importance in the HE sector. We found it to be a well thought-through and comprehensive contribution to the development of academics, noting the consideration given to the deeply complex (and messy) issues of professional development of academics as well as the challenging contextual issues facing the sector at the present time. We felt that the Framework has the potential provide strategic direction for HE institutions, associations, and societies to improve teaching and learning and to transform policies and practices across the sector, especially if implemented in an inclusive manner.
Whilst we acknowledged the significant potential benefits of the framework to drive the enhancement of teaching and learning at South African Universities, we highlighted some areas that we believe require further consideration, which we grouped into a few broad areas, viz., the role of academic development (AD) and professional development (PD) staff in achieving the goals of the Framework; resources and long-term funding (i.e., issues of sustainability); approaches to collaboration, including national teaching and learning awards; monitoring and evaluation.
The role of academic / professional development staff (and the role of HELTASA)
We found that the Framework implicitly acknowledges the important work of AD / PD staff in enhancing the role of academics as teachers. However, we believe that this acknowledgment needs to be emphasised more explicitly, and that AD/PD staff should be recognised for the pivotal role they will play in the fulfillment of the imperatives of the Framework. We also felt it necessary to highlight the need for ongoing professional development of AD / PD staff, alongside the development of mainstream academic staff.
Funding and resource sustainability
The Framework considers issues of funding and resources for achieving the major imperatives. However, we noted that this initiative is being introduced in a climate of ever decreasing budgets and austerity measures, which are already impacting academic development initiatives. We cautioned that if the sources of funding for the implementation of the imperatives of the Framework are external to South Africa, or derived from an ever-decreasing national pot, then the initiatives may be short-lived. We therefore suggested that universities should be compelled, through the CHE, to show how initiatives emerging from the Framework will be institutionalised and sustained in the long term.
We also suggested that human resources be considered more carefully. Experts in the field should be recognised and their knowledge and skills leveraged to build and improve the capacity of universities to enhance teaching and learning. This is perhaps an area where HELTASA could contribute directly, by drawing on the existing network of established academic developers to mentor and support newer AD staff.
National collaboration between universities is named as a key activity in the Framework. Among the different strategies outlined for achieving national collaboration is the enablement of a pool of resources at the national level to support collaborative teaching and learning development activities, the development of open education resources (OERs) for the development of university teachers and support for HELTASA to become sustainable in the long term. We support these, but we recommended that this should be expanded to include collaboration in term of building institutional, regional and national capacity for Academic Development, through the pooling and sharing of resources, knowledge and skills. In this respect, we strongly believe that it is time to address the fragmented and siloed approaches to strengthening university teaching and learning, within institutions, regionally and nationally. We believe that a more tightly integrated and collaborative approach will result in greater gains for all in the long term.
Also included under collaboration are national teaching awards. While the achievement of a teaching award may be a strong motivator for some, we believe that this instrument usually only affects a very small pool of academics. There are also several other well recognised challenges in the evaluation of teaching awards, including the questions of broad scale applicability of the award criteria amongst different institutions as well as amongst different categories of staff (from emerging to established teachers, for instance). We therefore, suggested that it might be useful to problematize teaching awards as the primary way in which to advance university teaching and learning, especially given the limited buy-in for these awards from staff across institutions. We think that there are greater possibilities for extending the acknowledgement of good practice in more diverse and imaginative ways which should be explored.
Monitoring and evaluation
While the goals of the Framework are laudable, and indeed, overdue, we believe that the goals will not be fully realised without a rigorous, fair and transparent system to monitor and evaluate progress at institutional, regional and national level, so that continued enhancement can be informed by a solid body of evidence. In this regard, we recommended the inclusion of the development of a national database for tracking activities.
In summary, we find the Framework to be an audacious but a completely necessary initiative that has enormous potential to transform the HE sector, and we look forward to continued collaborative engagement with the CHE, academic developers, HE managers and academic staff to ensure the effective implementation and success of the goals and activities presented.