“Higher education is being called upon to be responsive. But the question is: ‘responsive to what? To the needs of the economy, of employers, of the world of work, of what it requires to be skilled professionals, the needs of society, and of national development?’”
Dr Thandi Lewin (left), Acting Deputy Director-General: University Branch in the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) was introducing a session at Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) recent conference on The Engaged University. It was billed as a reflexive conversation of USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG), focusing on the Theory-Praxis Nexus (the connection between theory and practice).
Lewin said higher education’s instrumental role is providing graduates who understand the professional requirements of the world of work, and who provide skills for a growing and developing economy. These requirements are strongly referenced in education and development policy in South Africa.
The question was: What kind of “graduate-ness” is required for effective engagement in the rapidly changing, technologically-driven and increasingly complex world of work and skills development?
She said responsiveness and engagement in higher education in South Africa needs to include understanding the students – who they are, where they come from, how they learn, what their aspirations are, and what they need in the learning environment.
South Africa has a very rich history of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning, she said, and Chrissie Boughey and Sioux McKenna, both from Rhodes University, had recently added value to it with a new book, Understanding Higher Education: Alternative Perspectives (African Minds, 2021). Published in August, she had not read it yet but had read what Mark Patterson had written about the book in University World News.
Patterson had said the book questioned the idea of what the authors called the “decontextualised learner”. That is, the notion of student performance being based on inherent individual characteristics, which he said, “fits in with the idea of universities as meritocracies operating in a kind of sociocultural vacuum”. Instead, the authors suggest universities and the government adopt a model of the student as a social being.
Lewin said this showed there are many ways of knowing, and many ways of learning, which made this conference session so pertinent.
Universities and professional bodies have a common interest
Dr Sizwe Mabizela (below), Chairperson of TLSG and Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, was up next, on the role of universities and professional bodies.
His talk drew on a paper he had co-authored with Yunus Ballim of the University of the Witwatersrand and John Mubangizi of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Titled Professional bodies and quality assurance of higher education programs in South Africa: Towards an appropriate framework, it had been published in the South African Journal of Higher Education in 2018.
“Our starting point is that university education is more than just an accumulation of knowledge and facts, or acquisition of skills, or preparation of work-ready graduates. It is fundamentally a formation of young people. It is a preparation, and development of young people to play a significant role in our society,” said Mabizela.
He said employers constantly complain that graduates are ill prepared for the workplace. He said it was really important to understand that universities are not about preparing young people for the place of work but preparing them to solve problems that have not even been thought of, for an “unknown and unknowable future” and, more critically, universities have to prepare young people to learn how to learn, and how to unlearn, and how to read,” he said.
Mazibela said we all know we live in a world that is constantly changing. So, it would be a futile exercise to prepare young people for today’s jobs because they may not exist tomorrow.
However, some university qualifications lead to professional services. These include the likes of teaching, accountancy, law, pharmacy, and engineering, and some professional bodies such as the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) take a very keen interest in the quality of the graduates who intend joining the profession. Professions such as Accounting rely on their professional body to maintain quality assurance.
“The engagement between universities and professional bodies is both desirable and inevitable, given their shared interest in the preparation of graduates with the necessary educational outcomes that are of appropriate quality. It is in the best interests of parties that the transition from student to professional is made as hassle-free as possible,” said Mabizela.
In turn, professional bodies need to know what knowledge, skills and competencies the graduates have been exposed to at university, if they are to structure their professional training of graduates.
He said professional bodies play an important role in ensuring that graduates are equipped not only with the knowledge of their discipline, but also acquire appropriate technical skills, and develop the right values and attitudes to enter into their chosen profession.
Universities and professional bodies each have separate but complementary roles and responsibilities, and so they can “collaborate and contribute to the development of the knowledge and the skills that a graduate needs for their chosen profession”, Dr Mabizela said.
The SAICA-USAf initiative is an important case study
SAICA had contacted USAf about the need for chartered accountants who are not only technically competent, but also possess critical skills and values for the 21st century.
- non-technical or general skills;
- the ability to work across knowledge domains, for example, to have a deep understanding of digital developments, but not at the same level of knowledge as an IT expert or data scientist; and
- the ability to transfer these abilities to different contexts.
They had now established a joint SAICA-USAf Steering Committee, which comprises members of SAICA and academics who are working together to come up with implementable teaching and learning solutions. These could be replicated for other professions.
A memorandum of understanding mapping out what role should be played by whom, was signed in October 2020. A Collaboration Research Project Proposal, funded by SAICA, was also completed in October, and the committee’s terms of reference were also finalised in November.
“Universities should cooperate and collaborate with professional bodies to ensure that curricula, intended for the education and preparation of graduates for their profession, are regularly revised and updated.
“This will ensure a better alignment between knowledge that underpins the professional competencies and skills required by the profession; and the knowledge, skills and competencies developed by the university,” said the Chair of the TLSG.
A comment from a delegate
Warren Bowles, Head of Programme in the Faculty of Law at The Independent Institute of Education (IIE) in Johannesburg, posted a comment in the webinar’s chat, thanking Dr Mabizela for his insightful presentation. He said the IIE aspires to do the same with its law students to prepare them for the legal profession. “We monitor feedback and developments from the Legal Practice Council to try and align what we teach with what industry requires. It is ongoing work,” he said.
The Teaching and Learning Strategy Group is one of USAf’s five strategy groups providing strategic advice to USAf’s Board on their areas of focus. The TLSG’s mandate is to oversee teaching and learning related matters within the Higher Education sector for purposes of ensuring quality and purposeful teaching; student access and success; attraction and retention of world-class academics and related matters. The move to partner SAICA on the development of accountants aligns with one of the TLSG’s current priorities, of improving the quality and scholarship of teaching and learning in USAf’s member institutions. The USAf-SAICA relationship also demonstrates universities’ engagement with, and responsiveness to their contexts.
Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.