For all the debates and dialogues on ‘massification’ and revitalising higher education in Africa, little attention has been afforded to the state of the teaching skills of academics. Most academics are not trained to teach – and are expected to catch up on the job. It is on this premise that we undertook a multi-country and multi-institutional study on early career academics.
The research has just been published in Studies in Higher Education as a special issue themed “Early Career Academics in Africa: Policies and experiences in the teaching praxis”. The articles examine the experiences of induction of early career academics in a number of African universities.
Supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and led by myself at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, the study took some two years of research, review and production.
The state of affairs
The process of doctoral training is a preparation for undertaking research; it is an induction to the complex scholarly culture of research. Therefore, a PhD is not typically a teacher training endeavour and holding a PhD does not guarantee, contrary to the popular perception, the requisite skills and abilities to teach.
More so, a typical early career academic in an African context is not a PhD holder and is thus highly unlikely to be endowed with either research or teaching skills.
What is even more daunting is that a typical university classroom is fast growing in terms of volume of students while their preparation and basic skill levels (in language, academic calibre and technology) are increasingly lacking.
The changing professional interests and experiences of and demands on African academics seem also to have direct implications for the teaching and learning processes from recruitment to promotion. Universities, however, have largely continued business as usual without taking into account many of these developments – especially in areas of teaching.
As the need to expand academic staff numbers in African universities is mounting, their skills and preparedness for the task – matters which have so far garnered little attention – are increasingly important.
Across the world, academic development and training opportunities to equip academics for the teaching profession have grown in significance. A potentially positive consequence of formalisation such as this is the expanding number of university teaching development initiatives.
According to a study based on 82 institutions in the United Kingdom, 63.4% (52 institutions) had a policy making successful completion of a postgraduate certificate in teaching mandatory for new academic staff, while 19.5% (16 institutions) had a lower requirement ranging from 20 to 40 credits or a non-accredited course.
There is a similar trend toward formalisation in Australian universities, although only a small number require new academic staff to gain formal qualifications.
The research questions
The study, conducted by researchers at multiple institutions – including the universities of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Ghana, Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, Ibadan in Nigeria, KwaZulu-Natal and Pretoria in South Africa, and Makerere in Uganda – was guided by the following objectives:
- Determine how early career academics in African universities learn to teach.
- Understand how early career academics are inducted into the academic profession as a whole and teaching in particular.
- Establish the extent of requisite tools, support and incentives that universities provide to early career academics for their preparation.
- Document the needs of early career academics in their preparation for the academic profession in terms of teaching.
In undertaking the study, the researchers employed a host of methodologies including survey questions, interviews and focus group dialogue. These multiple methodological approaches enriched the outcome of the study.
University Education Induction Programme
The study reveals, in a number of cases, the existence of programmes and initiatives dedicated to enhancing the calibre of teaching of early career academics, sanctioned nationally (and centrally) as well as institutionally. In a number of cases, however a systematic effort that inducts early career academics into the profession is lacking.
The University of KwaZulu-Natal, the coordinating institution of the study, is singled out to demonstrate such a programme known us the University Education Induction Programme or UEIP.
In this study the four academics conducting the UEIP, all based in the Higher Education Training and Development unit at the university, contributed a joint critical narrative underpinning the pedagogical discourse and constraints of mandated time, unregulated selection of participants and attendance of modules, driven by institutional needs.
In order for the University of KwaZulu-Natal to achieve its strategic goals, especially with regard to teaching and learning, a policy integrating human resource development and performance and talent management was developed, complemented by a policy on teaching and learning. An induction programme was made mandatory through a senate resolution.
The UEIP was designed to support the personal and professional development of academics by inducting them through four specialised modules – on supervising research, assessing learning, designing and evaluating curricula, and teaching and learning.
A rich description of each UEIP module in the article provides a meaningful context for the theorisation of the development of early career academics.
While recognising the importance of the programme to the continuing intellectual development of academics, we also want to point out the value of alternative means of knowledge transfer including mentoring and peer support processes, in recognition that learning occurs through multiple avenues.
Hence mentoring programmes, where new entrants are paired with more established staff who can provide support in practices as well as insights into disciplinary and-or institutional culture and procedures, are as much of value to academic development as the UEIP.
We observed that the combination is particularly useful where this occurs over time and even more so inter-institutionally.
The study has policy and academic tractions that may help trigger interventions by academic leaders as well as other relevant entities.
It is anticipated to enlighten diverse constituencies including policy-makers, development agencies, external stakeholders and academic institutions about the importance of qualified and well prepared early career academics in the service of teaching – and much-needed quality of education.
The study sufficiently demonstrates the increasing realisation among African institutions of the importance of inducting early career academics to the profession. It also argues that academic institutions will increasingly pay attention to the teaching knowledge and skills of early career academics.
In the era of ‘massification’ and fast dwindling senior academics, the systematic and strategic enhancement of the calibre of early career academics – who now dominate the academic landscape – is paramount.
Given the demographic projections in Africa, and for that matter other developing and emerging countries, higher education systems will continue to be under relentless pressure to expand for many years to come. This entails high demand for academics to satisfy the massive need – and in this case early career academics.
Thus systematic, relevant and appropriate interventions in the induction of early career academics into the profession – in aspects of teaching and learning – in a time of massifying higher education systems and diminishing quality, cannot be over-emphasised.
* Source: Studies in Higher Education, Volume 41, Number 10.
Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education and leader of Higher Education Training and Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is also editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education.
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