HE Watch: International Funding for Teaching and Learning Development

For almost as long as AD has been a player in South African higher education, various international funding bodies have offered funding for its work. In the 1990s, for example, the forerunner of HELTASA, the South African Association for Academic Development (SAAAD) received money from USAID.

More recently, other funders have come to the party. The European Union for example has offered money for higher education initiatives and other organisations like the British Council and NUFFIC have also been active in the field.

While funding is always welcome, it never comes without strings and internationally funded projects often have many of them.

One of the main effects of globalisation is the attribution of economic value to knowledge. In the global economy, knowledge and the knowledge workers who have produced it, are critical to the processes of reinvention, sourcing, manufacture, marketing and distribution involved in, say, the design of an upgrade to a cellphone in Silicon Valley, the sourcing of the raw materials to make it from all over the world, the creation of a demand for the new product through marketing, and its eventual distribution to consumers.

Universities are understood to be implicated in this process because of their involvement in knowledge production. This has allowed for reductions in state funding (if a university can raise money by ‘selling’ knowledge, why should public funds be used to sustain it) along with a host of other negative consequences. One of these is the shift to the loss of permanent positions for academics who are increasingly being required to fund their own work by i) raising research funding or ii) selling their expertise outside their own institutions.

What does all this have to do with international funding? First of all is the idea that money identified for ‘international aid and/or development’ is being linked to the funding of universities. In the higher education arena this has particular effects.

As noted earlier in this Higher Education Watch, universities are key to the production of knowledge and knowledge workers needed to drive the global economy. The global north needs stability if the world order is to be sustained. It therefore makes sense for some of this aid/development funding to be directed at universities in the South. This is coupled with development discourses where there is pressure on nation states in the North to participate in projects aimed at improving conditions in the South.

Importantly, at the same time, a significant portion of this very funding is used to employ consultants from universities in the north to project manage and facilitate and generally do the ‘development work’. The payment of salaries from such development projects to academics in the North who are increasingly having to fund their own jobs leads to a win-win situation for Global North funding agencies and Global North higher education institutions.

The picture painted here is deliberately cynical and critical and takes no account of the many, many academics in the north who have a real desire to interact with colleagues in the south in relationships that are respectful of the need for mutual learning. However, the ‘case’ has been stated baldly in this Higher Education Watch because we also need to be aware of the way we might become implicated unintentionally in processes which, for ideological reasons, we would never support.

It is in this context that we move to a project, funded by the European Union, that HELTASA has agreed to become involved in. The project, led by colleagues at Frederick University in Cyprus and the University of Crete is called the ‘Professionalisation of Undergraduate Academic Teaching’ (PUAT) and is focused on the infusion of knowledge and skills related to the achievement of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) Sustainabilty Development Goals (SDGs) into curricula at three South African universities (University of Venda, UKZN and Rhodes University). HELTASA is a full partner in the programme because of its work on teaching and learning.

HELTASA has become a member of the project with its eyes wide open but, so far, has been very happy to participate not least because the project draws on critical social theory (and more specifically the work of Habermas) for its work on infusion and because the issue of sustainability must concern us all. The effects of global warning and the abuse of the environment are evident everywhere alongside other social ills such as poverty, disease and hunger. Looking at the way awareness of the SDPs can be infused into undergraduate curricula can only be for the good of humankind provided we are aware of the potential for injustices to occur in this process.


From another direction entirely, involvement in an international project can work to raise the status of HELTASA more broadly. Interaction with people from other parts of the world, provided we maintain a critical stance, can only be for the good of us all.

HELTASA is a member of the International Consortium for Educational Development (ICED) and was represented at the ICED Council meeting held in at the University of Reyjavik in Iceland recently. In South Africa we have some of the best work in the sphere of academic development in the world and the PUAT project offers another opportunity to do exactly this.

HELTASA will keep its members aware of progress on this project as it proceeds.