Deans must be adequately resourced to perform their multi-faceted functions at universities

Published On: 15 June 2023|

A good look at South Africa’s education budget raises questions about whether the State resources this sector adequately, while another glimpse into universities raises the question whether institutions afford Deans of Education the support they need to perform their functions holistically.

Professor Puleng LenkaBula, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of South Africa, made these remarks at the 2023 opening meeting of Universities South Africa’s Education Deans Forum (EDF), that was hosted at UNISA during early March. The meeting coincided with the EDF’s annual colloquium, that gathers education deans to deliberate on pre-agreed topical issues of common interest in education. This year, the deans focused on assessment post-CoViD-19, to draw lessons from the pandemic era and to share them across the sector.

Deans’ core and extended responsibilities

Professor LenkaBula stated that deans, although being academic leaders by nature, holdresponsibilities way beyond academic. Deans, she argued, also carry programmatic, managerial and fiscal responsibilities for schools or faculties, the verification of adequacy of instruction, the monitoring of academic integrity, and the conferment of degrees.

Education deans also play a role in the recruitment, admissions, programmes, and assessments. They are responsible for creating competitive teachers out of education students, and, by implication, for resourcing learners in education. By extension, education deans resource Africa’s intellectual future and resource Africa in the world.

“If you do not discharge these responsibilities in your day-to-day functions, I must ask: are we [universities] resourcing you or giving you the adequate support that you need, to perform all these functions?”

More responsibilities, according to the CSSR

“I appreciate especially the counsel that has been provided by the Council for Social Sciences Research on the continent, that reminds us that the roles of deans are not limited to the institutions that they serve. In the context of the developmental trajectories of countries such as South Africa, and the continent within which we articulate our teaching, learning, research, innovation, and the global impact, resourcing of the future becomes an important role of leadership of the colleges of education.

“As leaders in your own right, you are not just the custodians of the teaching and learning; you also shape the people who will aspire to make a difference in different areas and disciplines.”

Deans’ engagement commended

As she welcomed the education deans to what she called the University of the Land, Professor LenkaBula expressed appreciation that USAf had created a platform for deans from the sector to meet and engage on matters of critical importance in the provision of teacher education in SA and beyond. “Your mission is not just limited to our country, for South African universities are global players in knowledge production, in research, and must ensure a global impact in the resourcing of knowledge production,” the UNISA VC said.

She, nonetheless, expressed a desire to see this USAf-led engagement “looking at how we, as a university system, can work with SAQA [the South African Qualifications Authority] and the CHE [Council on Higher Education] to create systems that give deans direction in managing education and training resources, the implementation of national and international regulatory systems, and enable them to work with interdependent environments within and outside universities.”

Education challenges still facing South Africa

  • NSC results are wanting

On challenges still confronting South Africa’s higher education, Professor LenkaBula cited National School Certificate results. “None of us is comfortable with the successes that have been communicated [regarding the Class of 2022], precisely because we recognise some of the challenges in the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] subjects – and in Humanities. Writing skills and critical reflections are areas that we need to strengthen. How then do we interface with Basic Education, the TVET college system, to strengthen the pool-valued processes of the education system? I think you are the people best placed to help us, as the collective leaders of the university system, to look into these interfaces.”

  • Universities not meeting SA’s teacher demand

She also pointed out that despite the growing numbers of teacher graduates in the past 10 years, South Africa’s universities are regrettably not reaching the numbers of teachers aspired to in the National Development Plan. “We graduate at least 18,000 students annually. This is below the 25,000 students’ target specified in the NDP. The Department of Basic Education has little more than 400,000 teachers in about 25,000 public schools across the country. The teachers are tasked with the responsibility to teach 12,9 million learners. These numbers reveal that we all still have a long way to go in training more teachers, if we are to reach the NDP targets as set out for 2030.

“I think it is an indisputable fact that the demand for well-trained teachers continues to rise. As a matter of fact, it is expected to double in 10 years. While universities are expected to graduate more students, the policy and finance systems are declining. Creativity and sharing of resources therefore become what we should compel one another to work with.”

  • Mitigating the risks of 4IR

“We just learnt, colleagues, that Turnitin and other proctoring systems, are now not the most efficient systems if we think around machine learning and AI [artificial intelligence]. Some of you might have seen the discussions about CHATGPD, and how our students may seem to have written what they have not written, as an outcome of Artificial Intelligence. How do we, as a collective, set out to optimise the digital system? How do we draw on each other as faculties or researchers, and how do we ensure exchange of resources?

“As the Deans of education, you are the people best placed to look at modalities of our systems, to help us to mitigate some of the risks of these important aspects of 4IR. Intelligent robots, mobile supervision of students, virtual reality, AI machine learning, have all come to redefine and reconfigure our world. Therefore, we would like to ensure that the quality of teaching, of research, of innovation, are not undermined, and that the issue of assessments, which is one of the key issues, is really strengthened. And I hope we will get insights from you, on how we deal with these developments as they threaten the quality, the validity, and the authenticity of the place of HE in the global arena, as they do also enhance education, and knowledge.”

  • Online teaching and learning

Professor LenkaBula also mentioned challenges of teaching in a virtual environment. “A lot of people during CoViD-19 uploaded materials online and they said they were online teaching. UNISA, which has been in this space for a long time, really struggled as well, to try to distinguish what online, distance and virtual education is. I think we need to create criteria that enables us to maintain the quality of teaching. Just because people have uploaded material on Whats App or whatever platform, does not translate into online or virtual education.

“In light of these digitalised education systems, how do we interact with some of these environments to ensure that higher education remains meaningful? Amina Mama reminds us that ordinary people on the poorest continent embrace higher education as a key means to upward mobility, a route out of debilitating deprivations of poverty. Do we conceive of higher education as just utilitarian, or as something that ignites excitement about ideas and commitment to the academy?

We value the work of deans

As she drew her welcome address to a close, Professor LenkaBula said “I thank you, deans. We value the work that you do, understanding that the production [by UNISA] of 50% of teachers in the country cannot be meaningful if we do not have a relationship with you, and with USAf. We do not only produce 50% of student teachers, but I think it is very important for me to say in this year, we have 100,000 registered students who need quality education.”

She once again invited the deans to wrestle the question of financing education — at least for UNISA. “We need to partner with your universities to ensure that we, together, strengthen the quality of teachers. Let’s work together in ensuring that we resource our country with the best teachers, committed to changing the world for the better.

Professor LenkaBula (left) with Professor Loyiso Jita, Dean of Education at the University of the Free State, and Professor Mpine Makoe, Acting Executive Dean of the College of Education at UNISA.

The 2023 EDF Colloquium went on to explore digital assessment broadly, and as it pertains to mathematics teaching. Attendees heard research reports on a review of collaborative assessments in the e-learning environment and emergency remote learning for physical education students. They also explored the lessons for the future, drawn from online assessment during the CoViD-19 era.

In 2024, the EDF Colloquium will explore the theme: Languages across the curriculum, with a special focus on African languages in the foundation phase – including the issue of supply & demand.

The EDF has over the years benefited from information exchange and collaboration across the sector.  One outcome of the EDF’s colloquium held in 2018 to explore 4IR and Decolonisation, was a scholarly compilation of all the meeting presentations which culminated in a book (left) titled Higher Education in the melting pot: Emerging discourses of the 4IRand Decolonisation, accessible via:

‘Mateboho Green is USAf’s Manager: Corporate Communications.