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CHE > Media and Publications > Che Events Presentations > The notion of academic standards and integrity and programme design in higher education
Nhlanhla Cele
September, 2005

This paper analyses the way external policy shapes programme design in higher education institutions. It also provides guidelines for meaningful and effective programme design in higher education institutions that have been affected by restructuring processes promulgated by national policy. These guidelines seek to replace traditional notions of academic standards and the integrity of learning programmes informed by poorly paced and sequenced ‘information/knowledge bundles’ presented through an ‘absolute truth’ teaching paradigm that leaves limited space for inserting teaching and learning strategies and ‘public good’ (Singh, 2001) in the design of qualification and learning programmes.

Traditionally, the notion of standards and integrity in teaching and learning has often been confused with the notion of academic standards being confined to polarised domains of knowledge hierarchies strictly defined in terms of discipline boundaries. Academic standards have thus been associated with the production and transmission of knowledge, in many cases extremely specialised, that is closely guarded by agents and scholars in these disciplines (Smeby, 1998) and expressed in the form of routinised syllabuses or standard curricula that change, in a hierarchical fashion, only with the production of new knowledge systems. Despite variations in knowledge types and the degree of specialisation, and a distinction between the natural and the social sciences (Smeby, 1998), highly positivist academic standards have often resulted in general programme design practice that lacks appropriate academic planning and the insertion of public good in teaching and learning arrangements.

Operating under the positivist paradigm of academic standards, subject experts have often designed programmes and presented curricula in the form of absolute truth ‘information/knowledge bundles’ isolated from the social imperatives of teaching and learning, student support and the general public good of higher education. This polarised notion of academic standards has been perpetuated through transmission teaching and ‘regurgitation’ assessment instruments used to separate the high from the low achievers, leading to students being classified as ‘gifted’ or ‘slow’ depending on their pace and ability to assimilate subject content that is in itself a benchmark of academic standards in its complexity, depth and level of difficulty. The central premise in this paradigm has often been a neat separation of the ‘autonomy of science’ from the ‘politics of regulation’ (Kanamori, 1999) and the public good (Singh, 2001) of teaching and learning.

This separation of the ‘scientific order’ from the ‘administrative order’, the ‘moral order’ and the ‘normative order’ in the business of teaching and learning and research and community engagement has seen the ‘scientific order’ reigning supreme in higher education institutions, thus consigning the other orders to the periphery of what academic standards are all about. This practice has often led to academic standards being construed in academia as equivalent to high failure rates (especially in the natural sciences and economic studies). Where failure rates are used as determinants of academic standards, then if most students in a particular module or programme fail, that module or programme is deemed to be of a high standard. This simplistic equation not only means that certain higher education programmes fail to serve the social contract and public mandate in terms of fitness for purpose, value for money and transformation (in relation to the expectation that higher education will mediate the phase of knowledge production with the phase of knowledge distribution – Kanamori, 1999), but also demonstrates the inadequacy of the positivist notion of academic standards.


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