The makings of a top department

At the centre of the strongest departments at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is its value of “unleashing human potential for a fair and just society” to create an inclusive culture that’s grounded on a set of common values and reflects our status as an African university contributing to the global stage.

Teaching and learning at UCT is increasingly research-led – a pivot point to ensure that our curricula are built on cutting-edge knowledge.

We are developing decolonised curricula responsive to the needs of a new generation of students with varied life-worlds, and we are equipping staff and students to respond to the challenges of the rapidly changing world through their roles in the future workplace and in future knowledge creation.

Such teaching and learning is the ambit of academics driving intentional teaching approaches while advancing knowledge through research that addresses issues of consequence to the continent and globally.

And it benefits from the combined contribution of leading and globally recognised academics, emerging academics building their pedagogies and research impact in tandem, and academics who centre their work on teaching through planning, delivery and research.

These strong departments are a hard-earned balance. To continue building them requires departments to work together to achieve parity across UCT.

True to our ethos, this remains a priority as we continue interrogating our pedagogy and research, and the environment that facilitates these two fundamental pillars.

This includes nurturing the voice and agency of all members of our university, a focus on social responsiveness, and an acknowledgement that the university’s client is society as a whole, and our graduates are a key part of the university’s contribution.

Recent recognition in the 11th Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings by Subject, released on 4 March 2021, puts six of UCT’s subjects among 17 African universities that can claim to be among the world’s best places to study and research their subject.

In our case, anthropology, archaeology, architecture/the built environment, geography and medicine ranked in the 51-100 band, along with a top 10 position for development studies.

Rankings are, of course, but one imperfect way to measure success, and conventional rankings do not touch on some of the most important components and values of universities. But they do give us food for thought.

In top departments, teachers are also researchers

Excellent departments contribute to excellent faculties, and in turn, excellent institutions. From our experience, departments that thrive share several common features:

• Academic staff who are passionate about their subject and sharing it with their students through teaching and learning;

• Academic staff that are naturally research-active at all stages of the academic career;

• Excellent administration with dedicated and diverse professional and support staff, and good systems;

• Appropriate teaching and research facilities that are well maintained; and

• A well-integrated teaching project, where members work together to review, refine and share new teaching paradigms.

In short, UCT’s best-performing academic departments have a research-active staff who are totally committed to teaching and learning.

By its nature, research is novel and ground-breaking, inspiring our lecturers to bring new angles to their teaching – to the students’ benefit.

Cross-cutting, community-driven, context-specific

Teaching and learning and research that are cross-cutting, context-relevant and community-centred contribute to an inclusive institutional culture that is grounded in a common set of values.

Take our department of historical studies, for example. Although it doesn’t show up individually on metrics-focused rankings, it contributes to our excellent development studies ranking and the work of its academics is truly inspiring.

They have changed their teaching approach, embedding it in the decolonisation project in a way that examines how knowledge is generated and interrogated.

By applying this to both their teaching and research, they are developing rigorous historical studies’ graduates who approach the subject with a new mindset and vision.

The department has identified contexts applicable to their student body, reframing the question of how to address historical studies in a relevant way without omitting other approaches. This nurtures students who can handle and feel at home in any context because they identify with it.

Architecture – another subject that QS ranked in the top 100 – is an additional example of a department that focuses on contextually socially and environmentally responsive approaches.

Members of UCT’s school of architecture, planning and geomatics work closely with local communities and explore concepts such as community participation and co-design.

Defined by its geographical position, the school focuses on relevant research and transformative teaching while prioritising the needs of South African communities.

The strong teaching methodology of the school’s academics is built on practice and critique, an approach that builds people by improving both their subject knowledge and approach to practice.

They respond to challenges, including diversity, race, class, access, the legacy of a segregated society, crime and violence, and produce research that is usable in the present and inspires social cohesion and heritage-sensitive enterprises into the future.

Just about every one of these students’ projects, to masters level, focuses on the context of the South African spaces and communities in which we live, forging a deep understanding of the society in which they will work.

Geographical advantage

Geography is another of our top-ranking subjects. Taught in UCT’s department of environmental and geographical sciences, its success lies in the staff’s commitment to research relevant to key global debates, issues and challenges – with a focus on Africa and the Global South.

The department boasts diverse interests and collegiality, and is a place where academics enjoy space to pursue their research interests.

Their international and bilateral funding enables strong collaborations with global and local partners.

Together, these drive postgraduate programmes with large cohorts of students and postdoctoral research fellows who, in turn, further enrich the undergraduate experience.

‘Big-picture’ academics with vision and determination

UCT’s excellent departments are driven by ‘big-picture’ academics at all levels. To secure big-picture thinkers, these departments and research centres foster an attractive entrepreneurial culture that speaks to their vision, determination and drive – and gives them the freedom and support they need to operate optimally.

We actively encourage a culture of academic and scientific rigour premised on questioning and debate, and underpinned by collegiality.

UCT’s department of medicine, for instance, operates from the base of a legacy built over decades, which has allowed it to develop iteratively a depth and breadth in many subject areas.

This enables specialised scholarship and ensures students are exposed to the kind of exceptional skills and expertise expected from the biggest such department on the continent.

Over many years, the department of medicine has deliberately encouraged diverse approaches to scholarship – from population and public health to blue-skies research – and encouraged strong links to other UCT departments and institutes.

This secures students’ access to state-of-the-art facilities, divergent scientific approaches and many of the leading scientists in their fields.

Such research-active teachers are the all-important glue that helps hold departments together, building the confidence of students, postgraduates and early-career staff.

It is enormously motivating to be part of a department whose work is valued globally and where those in their early careers quickly become independent researchers.

This environment also attracts leading people to the institution and further strengthens our relationships with external partners.

These key elements of our strong and successful departments allow UCT to support and learn from partners in South Africa and across the continent, and to play a leading role in global partnerships and collaborations. This opens incredible opportunities for staff and students alike.

It is a combination that allows our staff and students to fulfil their true potential – as individuals and as teams – and enables them to be transformative in their work and lives.

Through this, UCT staff and students play a critical role in “unleashing knowledge in and for Africa”, in line with the university’s new research vision, and in being “resilient agents of change for themselves and society”, in line with UCT’s new teaching vision.

And through this combination they are “unleashing human potential for a fair and just society” to meet the institution’s overarching Vision 2030.

Professor Sue Harrison is the deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalisation at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.