Higher Education Monitor 14: Learning to Teach in Higher Education in South Africa

CHE > Media and Publications > Higher Education Monitor > Higher Education Monitor 14: Learning to Teach in Higher Education in South Africa
Council on Higher Education
April, 2017
Council on Higher Education


“Teaching and learning are never neutral. Every aspect is ideological in nature: from the admission of students, to the
selection of curriculum content, to the adoption of learning materials, to the pedagogical approach, to the mode of
assessment and the quality of the feedback. The form of disciplinary knowledge may vary from the more subjective
and contentious to the more objective and broadly accepted, but teaching and learning remain highly political acts
across all institutions, faculties and disciplines. So it is unsurprising that when a country undergoes major social
change, ideological demands are placed on teaching and learning.” (HE Reviewed, CHE 2016 p.143)

There are many and diverse influences on teaching and learning as a political act, from broad social movements that
challenge what is taught, to the ways in which resources have historically been allocated, to the values and goals of
different disciplines, and the more immediate institutional and faculty contexts in which they take place. Learning to
teach in higher education in South Africa is a timely and well-researched contribution to understanding the influences
of that more immediate layer, that is, of institutional contexts, on the professional learning of academics in their roles
as teachers. It explores questions of whether it matters to the professional learning process whether one is teaching
in a context in which resources are scarce, or whether the departmental leadership style is authoritarian, or whether
an institution has a strong drive to increase research output. And if it matters, what are the implications for facilitating
opportunities for academics to ‘learn to teach’ in higher education?

Undertaken by a team of academic staff developers across eight institutional contexts, this research report offers a
comprehensive, nuanced and theorised set of insights into the role that context plays in the ways in which academics
learn to teach. Such insights can inform the development of professional learning initiatives at both the institutional
and national policy levels. The report is one of the outcomes of a large-scale study carried out between 2011 and
2016, made possible by funding from the National Research Foundation. It has spawned many research articles, books
and PhD studies (see Appendix One) and has thus in itself provided a vehicle for the development of further research
and researchers on the subject. The team chose to work collaboratively, with all the possibilities and difficulties that
that entails, as reflected on in Chapter 7. Thereby, it also offers an illuminating reflection and insights into such
research methodology.

While the report does not specifically set out to offer anything new or surprising about the cultural and contextual
differences between institutions, it does offer a coherent interpretation of such complex and intersecting conditions
examined through a single theoretical lens. Indeed, the concepts of ‘structure, culture and agency’ as developed in
the work of the social realist, Margaret Archer, formed the theoretical canvas for the study. The theory allows for
the analytical separation of different domains for the purposes of understanding the interplay of relations, but it
also offers a hope of bringing about social transformation through exercising particular modes of reflexivity. As the
report argues, quoting Archer, transforming our positions in society is possible, but “their transformation depends
partly on the subjective reflexivity of primary agents in seeking to play an active part in reshaping society’s resource
distribution”. The researchers may not always have found it easy to apply a single theoretical lens, but the theorybased
study provides a coherent representation of the differences and similarities between the institutional contexts of
the eight universities, throwing into relief their different influences on professional learning, and points to pathways
towards the improvement of teaching and learning in South African higher education.

A major contribution of this report that is likely to influence the discourse on teaching and learning significantly, is
the conceptual shift from ‘professional development’ to ‘professional learning’. As an external reviewer noted, “in
the context of the decolonization debate, [this shift] has the potential to offer a more flexible continuum in which to
position different learning opportunities”. It also recognises the importance of group and individual agency and the
importance of informal contexts in learning to teach.

The publication of this research report takes forward the CHE’s ongoing endeavours to improve and enhance the
quality of teaching and learning in higher education. It serves to complement the more practical implementation
of quality assurance in higher education, which for the CHE has largely entailed a focus on teaching and learning,
whether in accreditation, audits or the Quality Enhancement Project (QEP) that began in 2014 in which one of the
four focus areas that universities were asked to engage with was “enhancing academics as teachers”. Participation
in the QEP over the past three years has contributed to a heightened awareness across the sector of the importance
of academics developing competence in university teaching, particularly given the increased emphasis being placed
on student success by both the government and higher education institutions themselves. As a result, universities
are becoming more intentional in their efforts to help academics develop this competence. The release of the
study is therefore timely, as not only will it add to our collective understanding of the complexities and nuances
in the interrelationships between structure, culture and agency that inform and influence academics in their roles
as teachers, but it will serve as a useful resource for institutions in their efforts to enhance university teachers and

The Higher Education Monitor series, as was elaborated in the first issue in 2003, “aims to stimulate research and
the production of knowledge and interpretive frameworks that could contribute to better theorisation of higher
education, more rigorous analysis of higher education complexities and more effective strategies for change and
progress”. It is our hope that this report will do exactly that.

We thank the National Research Foundation for funding the project that made the study and the ensuing report
possible, Professor Brenda Leibowitz for leading the team of researchers, our external reviewers, and the individual
authors who took the time to present drafts of their chapters to Dr Webbstock of the CHE at a workshop in May

Professor Narend baijnath