Good, Bad and No News: Teaching at UCT

Even the title of the 84-page 2017 UCT Report on Teaching and Learning creates concern. Just what are teaching and learning at a world-leading African university?  If teaching is meant to be ‘pluriversal’ instruction and training, and learning is the acquisition of ‘multi-truth-based’ contextual knowledge...

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Even the title of the 84-page 2017 UCT Report on Teaching and Learning creates concern. Just what are teaching and learning at a world-leading African university?  If teaching is meant to be ‘pluriversal’ instruction and training, and learning is the acquisition of ‘multi-truth-based’ contextual knowledge or skills facilitated by teaching, there may be no point to reading the report. If what is intended is education (the acquisition of knowledge that prepares one for life as a rationally-thinking professional) and understanding (the action of grasping and evaluating knowledge and skills with intellect and comprehending how to integrate them in a way that complements and challenges what is already known), then one might read on. Sadly, the presumed authors and co-ordinators of this document, A/Prof Lis Lange (DVC: Teaching and Learning) and unnamed members of the Teaching and Learning Committee, never convey their views on what these two key activities are, and how they need to be adapted to justify UCT’s existence, let alone resurrection from the ‘Troubles’ of 2015-2017 (see here and here).

But, let’s read on anyway.

For those who fear the worst elements of social engineering, the first chunk of the report is a long, long list of acronyms, most of which refer to committees, working and task groups that should be delivering the academic goods. This does not augur well.

But, let’s press on.

VC Phakeng’s part of Introduction fosters more concern about the report by identifying the existence of marked student and staff anxiety about “social protest” on campus. It calls for harnessing what has been learned during this period of protest and for “performance information to develop a clear sense of the direction in which the institution is moving in this core function”.

DVC Lange’s contribution immediately associates the events emanating from protests with her predecessor interim DVC Prof. Daya Reddy, but also “introduces changes in the organisation and structure of previous reports” and promises to provide information on “how UCT thinks about teaching and learning”. Most “notable among these changes are that we [Lange et al.] have cut out individual faculty reports and replaced them with an institutional perspective”. In short, the control of teaching and learning at UCT is now vested within the ‘institution’ and not faculties/departments/academics. The transformed (decolonized?) teaching has to be effected by academics and learning by students are to be directed from the ‘top’ and its executive-appointed task/working groups.

Then comes a powerful statement that what is to follow makes no “sense without sufficient contextualisation”. However, rather than emphasising transforming what is taught and how this is done, the “main issues” that provide contextualization for Lange et al. in the report are: “the decolonisation of the university, free education and the insourcing of previously outsourced services”. So, politics, finances and labour relations take centre stage when considering “the quality of teaching and learning at UCT”.

It’s the UCT Community that had to endure the protests’ “less beneficial outcomes [my emphasis]: a drop in student performance, the normalisation of deferred examinations and a loss in enrolment numbers and therefore in funding”. This suffering is all necessary to pursue Lange’s “hope that it will initiate a series of serious conversations [my emphasis] about teaching and learning”.

This strategy will provide little succour to academics at UCT who actually educate (rather than manage) students while they both pursue the elusive ‘truth’ (or best obtainable evidenced-based version thereof) that withstands pedagogical and epistemological challenges. These key members of the UCT Community want to engage in rational debate. They are no longer willing to settle for “socio-cultural and political contestations” and endless “conversations” (however “serious” they may be) in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style or you can muster or power that one can impose.

The balance of the report documents the continuing, largely bad, news vis-à-vis teaching and learning at UCT.

  1.    Many (>50%) of the ‘people-of-colour’ (POC) students admitted never obtain a degree certificate.
  2.    Most of those who do so take longer than the allocated period of study, end up with less than sterling marks and may be burdened with enormous debt.
  3.    The academic ‘gap’ between POC and ‘white’ undergrads is increasing.
  4.    Too many POC undergrads seek deferred exams as a standard strategy and are prone to mental health problems.
  5.    Few POC graduates continue their studies at postgraduate level and take longer to complete their research, again often resulting in more debt.
  6.    The number of ‘no show’ admittees is increasing. They choose to study elsewhere in South Africa or overseas.
  7.    There has been a steep decline in the numbers of revenue-bearing international undergrads in the Semester Study Abroad (SSA) program.
  8.    The University is losing academic staff at an alarming rate.
  9.       There remains a dearth of POC and ‘progressive’ academics, especially ‘black’ women at the professorial level.
  10.   This has a harmful effect on the staff:student ratio, well above the recommended national norm and, more importantly, above UCT’s historic ratio.

‘Complicating’ this sad situation for the managers and bureaucrats, more and more admittees are refusing to declare their “race” when they register. This “causes a number of administrative and financial implications” for UCT’s social engineers and academic managers who seem unable to deduce why this is happening. Others might conclude that more and more kids see ‘race’ as an irrelevant concept.

The authors then profess a “need to understand why this is the case and what are the drivers to postgraduate education in the different fields of study if we want to maintain and improve our place as a university of choice for postgraduate studies.”

The report offers some explication, answers and solutions.

Poor POC student performance and through-put

This can be attributed to the “considerable” (massive?) change in the demographic student profile of UCT that started after the departure of VC Ramphele and continued during the Price Era. Most of the new undergrads are POC educationally ‘disabled’ by a highly dysfunctional Basic Education System. To help “fill the academic gap” the UCT Executive and management system encouraged/required POC admittees to participate in “academic development”, “extended degree programmes” and “blended learning”. But, after nearly 40 years of this ‘development’, including the creation of the centrally controlled Centre for Higher Education Development [CHED – a large, costly, faculty-like body] tasked with the ‘gap-filling’, many POC-CHED-students still fail. They complain that they are marginalized and stigmatized as academically “weak” and/or inferior.  CHED developed from a small, highly focussed Academic Support Programme in the 1980s aimed at helping POC first-year undergrads to cope with UCT’s internationally respected and challenging educational programme into a research entity that attempts to apply the theoretical frameworks of sociology of education into an understanding of higher education as social practice. Extreme Fallist CHED students describe this CHED-solution as a key component of UCT’s “institutional racism”.

Curriculum change

The report proposes to deal with this race-related academic failure by implementing radical changes (Decolonization) in the curricula sensu lato of functioning Core Faculties. This would involve expanding CHED’s “pedagogical gains of twenty years of experience and research” beyond “the first-year experience to the full [Core] programmes engaging 2000 and 3000 level courses as necessary”. The logical progression for this would be for a CHED-like sociologically-driven educational expansion into post-graduate education.

The key managerial movement in this direction was VC Price’s decision to create the Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG). The CCWG is, by design, led and largely populated by POC staff and students (mainly from the Faculties of Health Sciences and Humanities), highly critical of the current curriculum deemed to be dominated by ‘white’ and ‘Western’ thinking. Its three major achievements so far have been: persuading the late Dean of Health Sciences to accede to demands of Fallists who had illegally occupied his offices; inviting decolonist C.K. Raju to demonstrate how mathematics can be decolonized and adapted to the needs of POC students; and producing a summary Framework. The negotiations with Health Science Fallists collapsed when they reneged on their commitments and subsequently defamed the Dean as a “sell out coconut”. Raju’s decolonization solution was universally condemned, refuted and rejected by most (ALL?) numerically oriented UCT academics (see here, here, here, here). The CCWG Framework document has been exposed by myself and eminent UCT mathematician George Ellis as a “political document that does not face up to the basic fact that UCT must decide if it will continue to do high quality academic work (both as regards teaching and research). It can produce degrees in these topics that make students employable, as at present, or it can produce ‘decolonised’ degrees that are not worth the paper they are written on. The graduates will be unemployable.”

Of course, another solution favoured by some (many?) Core academics, concerned students and their families would be to:

  1.       shift the responsibility and accountability for all curriculum change and education at UCT to Core faculties, departments and individual academic educators;
  2.       do away with the costly posts of DVCs for Teaching and Learning and Transformation;
  3.       disestablish CHED and use the financial benefits to employ more Core academics who see educating POC students as their primary vocation

Then maybe UCT can revert to being a crucible of creativity instead of a cauldron of chaos that needs to be engaged or, if the social engineers have their way, embraced.


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