Universities South Africa (USAf) News Update

USAf's Teaching and Learning Strategy Group kicks off 2021 with a comprehensive agenda

Dr Sizwe Mabizela
The 2021 inaugural meeting of the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG) kicked off with the Chairperson of the Group and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University, Dr Sizwe Mabizela (left), congratulating Dr Whitfield Green (right) on his appointment to the Chief Executive Officer position at the Council on Higher Education (CHE). Dr Green had served the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) for many years as Chief Director: Teaching and Learning Development within the DHET's University Education Branch. As at 18 February, Dr Green had been in the new position for just over two weeks.
Dr Whitty Green

Speaking in his multiple capacities as the TLSG Chair, a member of USAf's Executive Committee and also of the Board of Directors, Dr Mabizela stated that "we value and treasure our relations with the CHE. We share a common goal of ensuring that our young people have access to quality higher education that equips them with the knowledge, skills and competencies that enable them to contribute to the advancement of our society." He added that, in its preamble, our national Constitution of 1996, enjoins us "to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of every person" to contribute to the betterment of our society and humanity. "So USAf, DHET and CHE have a joint responsibility in that regard. We are all working towards a common goal and therefore can only rejoice when a highly competent candidate like Whitty takes up this important position within the CHE."

Dr Green expressed appreciation for this endorsement.

Priorities for 2021 re-visited

The Group revisited their four focus areas for the year as approved by the USAf Board in October 2020.

  • Transforming the curriculum

Notwithstanding the importance of the call by students to decolonise the curriculum, the Group emphasised that curriculum transformation has a much wider remit in South Africa. It was agreed to look at local and global drivers as well as impediments to curriculum transformation across the board. As agreement was being reached in this regard, Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf's Chief Executive Officer, suggested that a position paper be prepared on this issue, that would be presented at the second Higher Education Conference envisaged in October 2021. The Conference would thus become a launching platform for a sector-wide debate and guide this discourse beyond 2021. The USAf Office would coordinate the development of the position paper, and Professor Chrissie Boughey, Professor Emeritus, Centre for Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University, who remains a member of the TLSG, and Professor Francois Strydom, Director at the University of the Free State's Centre for Teaching and Learning, volunteered to work with Professor Bawa in this regard.

Other priorities of the TLSG for 2021 will be:

  • Optimising technologies to improve the quality of teaching and learning

This project takes into consideration the increased use of technologies in teaching and learning, especially in the context of CoVID-19. The project will look at the data footprint produced by students in their course of study and the diagnostic insights that the data could generate on student experience at the university. The work towards building a national digital teaching and learning platform needs to be accelerated and the TLSG will work with USAf's Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme to facilitate the development of academics and of campus-based technical expertise across the sector to ensure that the use of technology to enhance the quality of teaching and learning is optimised.

  • Understanding and enabling student success and retention

Through this project, the TLSG is seeking to optimise synergies between all programmes and activities being undertaken through USAf's strategy groups and communities of practice to enhance student success across the sector. It also seeks to bring about coherence and uniformity of interventions across the sector to ensure greater equity in student success across institutions, regardless of their history. The establishment of the UCDP-funded Student Success Collaborative Forum project will allow for a concerted, rounded, sector-wide effort to address the issue of throughputs. Perhaps most importantly it will bring together a number of existing streams of work such as the Siyaphumelela Project on data and analytics as an engine to improve student success.

  • Improving the quality and scholarship of teaching and learning through academic staff development

Through the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) Programme, USAf will implement a Masters and Post-Graduate Diploma in Higher Education Leadership in collaboration with institutions already offering similar qualifications in this regard. HELM will also introduce three new programmes in support of teaching and learning. These are: (i) the University Lecturer Development Programme (ULDP) aimed at developing and accelerating digital transformation and technology mediated learning for academic staff; (ii) the Student Success Collaborative Forum (SSCF), whose activities will be guided by an Advisory Committee and supported by experts and specialists from the higher education sector; and (iii) the Universities Learning Futures (ULeFu), a sector-wide facility aimed at transforming and advancing digital learning design and access, as an enabler of the current and future knowledge enterprise in all historically disadvantaged institutions. The detail of project design will be informed collaboratively by appropriate expertise in the sector.

Group update on on-going other projects

Members of the TLSG were appraised on developments regarding various projects aimed at enhancing teaching and learning within the university system.

  • The Extended Curriculum Programme (ECP)

Professor Chrissie Boughey (right), former DVC: Academic & Student Affairs at Rhodes University, who had undertaken an analysis of the existing ECP using data provided by the DHET, had previously shared findings of this study and was therefore looking for further guidance from the TLSG, in influencing policy change on ECPs. After extensive debates it was agreed that universities had invested significant resources (expertise and funds) in ECPs to enhance student success. In the 17 years of ECPs' existence, universities had learned a great deal. The sector now had to devise a way to share best practices. A decision was made to dedicate a special project on ECPs and for USAf, CHE and DHET to collaborate in this regard. The USAf Office was mandated to think this through and set engagements in motion in this regard.

Professor Chrissie Boughey
Photo: Courtesy of Rhodes University

Meanwhile, the Director: Teaching and Learning at the DHET, Ms Mandisa Cakwe, confirmed that the process of updating the ECP policy was about to get underway. The DHET was looking to the TLSG for inputs in this regard. Professor Boughey proposed that the DHET continue with a cohort analysis started in 2020, on the performance of ECP. She said the analysis could generate useful learnings and insights for further policy development and added that findings of this analysis could also have implications for curriculum reform.

  • Students' Access to and Use of Learning Materials (SAULM) survey
Professor Francois Strydom
Photo: Courtesy of the University of the Free State

Professor Francois Strydom (left), Director at UFS's Centre of Teaching and Learning, presented findings of the survey captioned above. This was discussed previously at the TLSG and the study was commissioned by the DHET in 2020 to explore how students were accessing and using learning materials during emergency remote teaching and learning. The study had focused on students' experiences, paying particular attention to NSFAS-funded students' experiences. Twenty-four out of the 26 public universities participated, and Professor Strydom reported the study findings according to the sub-themes listed below:

  • students' access to learning materials;
  • access to devices, data and connectivity;
  • engaging with educational technology;
  • challenges of technology and learning; and
  • benefits of technology and learning.

We will report on the findings of this study, shortly. Meanwhile, the full SAULM survey report may be accessed via the USAf website. It was warmly received.

  • Proposed Survey on Staff Experience of, and Perspectives on Teaching and Learning and its Future (SEPTLF)

With regard to this study, also commissioned by the DHET, Professor Strydom explained that the purpose is to explore the experiences, during the pandemic, of academic staff and leaders within faculties, and to learn from them to create a more supportive and flexible teaching and learning environment for the benefit of all role players. The study focuses on two perspectives, a) Staff experiences during the pandemic and b) The future of teaching and learning (i.e. the longer-term impact of CoVID-19 on teaching and learning practices, including quality, and training and support needs to enable staff to cope in situations of change). Professor Strydom also shared the detailed questionnaire designed for this study. As the Group commended him for this comprehensive survey instrument, members, especially the Chair, re-assured him of the importance of this study for the sector. Dr Mabizela said he looked forward to seeing the findings of this study in due course.

  • USAf's fundraising outcomes towards students' bursaries and lecturer support

Dr Linda Meyer, Director: Operations and Sector Support at USAf, updated the TLSG on the outcomes of USAf's fundraising efforts that she had taken a lead on, during 2020. Just over R336 million was raised by the Directorate: Operations and Sector Support from a collective of donors, namely ABSA, the Standard Bank Group and two Sector Education and Training Agencies (SETAs). Dr Meyer added that all of this funding was channelled to universities' support by way of student bursaries and the digital transformation and capacity development of academics. The bursary funds had already been disbursed to the benefitting universities. The capacity development programme for academics, which was being undertaken through HELM, would commence in 2021 for a period of two years.

  • SAICA engagements on Accounting Curriculum

Dr Meyer also reported that, following a concern that the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) raised, earlier in 2020, regarding what they saw as a fragmented accounting curriculum in the university sector, and their (SAICA's) intention to produce 21st century accountants, a series of engagements had been held between USAf and SAICA. The TLSG heard that a 17- member SAICA-USAf steering committee had been formed and constituted to support this project, and that a memorandum of understanding mapping out what role should be played by whom, was signed in October 2020. A SAICA-USAf Collaboration Research Project Proposal (funded by SAICA) was completed in October 2020 and the SAICA-USAf Steering Committee Terms of Reference were also finalised in November 2020.

Professor Bawa added that the SAICA engagements were an important part of broader dialogues taking place with a range of professional bodies on their curriculum requirements, with the aim to produce the best professionals there could be in various professional disciplines.

The broad purpose of the TLSG is to provide strategic advice to the USAf Board on teaching and learning related matters within the higher education sector, and to undertake activities that enable USAf to respond effectively to the equity of access and success and teaching and learning challenges. The Group comprises eight members, all experts on teaching and learning drawn from the university sector.

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