Welcome to the first HE Watch of 2019.
Since the mid 1980s, ‘critical’ voices in the field of South African Academic Development have argued for wide-scale institutional change, involving staff and curriculum development, in order to address students’ negative learning experiences.
The earliest staff development initiatives tended to be ad hoc and focused on ‘teaching skills’. Over time, those working with staff in their capacity as professional educators have increasingly drawn on theory and research to inform their practice in a very complex area.
Some key South African texts informing staff development work include Lynn Quinn’s (2012) edited collection entitled ‘Reimagining staff development; Spaces for disruption’ and HELTASA President Kasturi Behari-Leak’s (2016) article, ‘New academics, new higher education contexts:A critical perspective on staff development’, published in Teaching in Higher Education.
One of the points made by Behari-Leak is that one-size-fits all staff development courses reduce the capacity of academics to work across contexts that can differ enormously even within the same institution. A second point is that the focus on staff development as a means of addressing the many ills confronting contemporary higher education is unrealistic given the extent to which individual academics can actually mediate system level problems through their individual practice as teachers. This second point mirrors other observations about student focused initiatives which cannot hope to address problems which are structural in nature.
Cautions offered by Behari-Leak and others notwithstanding, professional development for academics in their capacity as teachers remains a priority for many tasked with ‘managing’ teaching and learning.
In 2017, attempts to bring in a framework that would involve accreditation for teachers in South African higher education from the UK based Higher Education Academy were set aside in favour of the development of a framework to guide staff development activities more generally.
The final version of this framework, entitled, ‘Enhancing Academics as University Teachers’ was published by the Ministry of Higher Education and Training in November 2018.
The framework can be accessed here.
The purpose of the framework is to try to coordinate and improve collaboration amongst those working with the development of academics as educators. It does this by identifying the following six ‘imperatives for action’:
Enable continuous professional development for university teachers;
Establish and maintain teacher development structures, organisations and resources;
Ensure that academics are recognized and rewarded for the work they do as university
Advance university teachers through leadership development;
Promote knowledge production and knowledge sharing about university teaching and
Develop expectations of academics in their role as university teachers.
Activities within each of these imperatives are then identified at i) institutional ii) inter-institutional/regional and national levels.
The framework is an extremely useful resource for anyone working in Academic Development. For example, it could be used as a means of checking what is in place at any one institution and of seeing how resources could be better shared with neighbouring institutions. It could also be used to ensure that the needs of academics for professional development at different stages of their careers are met. This is really important as the needs of a university teacher at the outset of a career are very different to those of a person in a more senior position stepping into a leadership role for the first time.
As always, however, it’s necessary to read any framework and any initiative ‘in context’ and this is what this HE Watch hopes to support you to do.
Staff development is a key function for South African academic development but we need to be very careful not to assume it can do more than it can or that it is easy to plan and implement.