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Growing the Academy: Forging strategies for quality teaching and scholarship in southern African universities

On 14 March 2012 a unique dialogue took place at the University of Johannesburg. Vice-chancellors and thought leaders from 15 countries (mostly from within the southern Africa region) met to discuss how to build the capacity of universities to respond to the growing demand for higher education in all SADC countries. The importance of improving the numbers of doctoral education students emerged as a critical factor in improving the quality of university education, as did the need to consider a coordinated regional approach for accessing more funding to strengthen higher education institutions.

Universities in southern Africa face a difficult challenge: the burgeoning demand for higher education in the region requires more infrastructure and stronger academic capacity in order to improve the quality of teaching in higher education institutions. This requires increased levels of investment in higher education. At the same time, there is a need to ensure that higher education institutions produce enough doctoral graduates so that the Academy in southern Africa can continue to grow sufficiently to meet the developmental needs of the region and to compete in a globalised world. The low turnout of doctoral graduates in the region threatens these mutual goals: higher education institutions are experiencing increasing shortages of qualified and experienced academic staff, which makes quality university education difficult to sustain.

Makerere University, Uganda’s largest and second oldest university, has gone some way to addressing these issues through revisiting institutional policy on developing, supporting and retaining academic talent. One of the ways in which Makerere is developing the next generation of academics is through mentoring doctoral students. Part of their approach is to build communities of scholars that work across disciplines. Jimi Adesina, Professor of Sociology and Head of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at University of the Western Cape, suggests that approaches like these could retain doctoral students in regional institutions once they have graduated.

Lillian Tibatemwa-Ekirikubinza, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic Affairs) at Makarere University, indicates that Makerere has also recognised the need for different kinds of academics, “We need to produce well-rounded academics and individuals. This may mean that academics need to have skills which go beyond what is traditionally expected. The new academic has to learn to communicate to audiences beyond their fields of expertise”.

Ian Scott, Director of Academic Development at the University of Cape Town, put this succinctly when he said that the priorities for higher education in southern Africa should be to cultivate a balance between the need for more good research and the need to produce larger numbers of successful graduates. The renewed emphasis on doctoral education is critical for succession planning but investment in undergraduate students who are part of the pipeline leading to successful doctoral studies must also be considered. Such an approach will focus on improving the quality of university teaching.

Universities must make it their mission to respond to these challenges. One strategy is to review the status of teaching within the academy. Currently, teaching is not considered as a route to academic promotion. However, given the increasing demand for higher education and the aging nature of the existing academic population, the sustainability of the academy relies on building the capacity of staff to teach effectively.

Prof. Rwekaza Mukandala, Vice Chancellor of the University of Dar Es Salaam, succinctly summarised the consensus reached at the dialogue that the way forward for the region needs to be determined as part of a collaborative effort between higher education institutions and other stakeholders, “How to obtain the necessary resources for the achievement of these objectives is a challenge that requires innovativeness and increased collaboration between universities, governments, the private sector and the donor community.”

The next Vice-Chancellors Leadership Dialogue will take place on 21 and 22 June 2012 in the Seychelles, and will focus on “Internationalisation in higher education – Implications for the knowledge project in the global south.”