Education for Development in Hard Times—Part I

By Sheldon G. Weeks, Saches eNEWS

“Education for Development in Hard Times” was the theme of the annual Saches (Southern African Comparative and History of Education Society) conference held in Stellenbosch in November 2009. A surprising number of the 85 presentations over the three days of the gathering at the Devon Valley Hotel stuck to this theme. It was a pertinent topic that challenged the hundred or more people gathered from across Southern Africa and from Europe, Asia, North and South America.

The opening keynote address brought home the stark realities of the global financial crisis as it has impacted on a university in East Africa and efforts to promote meaningful research. Professor Karen L. Biraimah of the University of Central Florida recently spent a year at Kenyatta University north of Nairobi.  In her paper she surveyed the “current fiscal and academic challenges facing universities in a cross-national perspective, with particular emphasis on neo-colonial and centre-periphery paradigms evident in East African institutions”. She then explored ways research agendas could be developed that would be “valued, evaluated and rewarded by university administrations”. Improved research agendas can help to “facilitate movement from the academic periphery to the academic centre”. She then considered the role of heads of departments in this process, as mobilizers of “grantsmanship” through encouraging both quantity and quality in research and “positive reinforcement and rewards built into systemic faculty evaluation schemes. They should embrace the fundamental goal of “rewarding research which serves their own mission and vision, and not that of academic centres located elsewhere”.

To bring home her points Professor Biraimah presented a case study of Kenyatta University. It began in 1965 in a former military barracks—some of the old buildings are still in use. Today it has 23,000 students of whom forty percent are women. It began as an education college but is now a full university. The School of Education is now about half of the students. Hard times have always been there as shortages of staff have continued over the years. Lectures are to between 800 and 1,600 in specially built halls, with some students lined up outside too. A general shortage of books dictates the mode of teaching and learning: mass lectures and rote note taking. Where there are no books it becomes the perpetuation of verbal exchanges. There is a tendency for the lectures to be “dumbed down”. So-called “tutorials” may have 300 students. How can staff promote research papers with such numbers? There is too much marking. Final examinations dominate the system and there is an absence of validity and no reliability. Is learning ever measured in such circumstances?

A few months ago, when 200 students who had not paid their fees were terminated the students rioted in solidarity. The riot police killed one and hurt ten and arrested 35 students. This led to further riots, five buildings being burned—one, Harambee Hall was a giant lecture hall—and the eventual closure of the university. “How do you build a viable research agenda in such a declining situation?” Staff salaries are still low and staff need two or three jobs to survive. The hierarchy of the university is rigid and as a consequence full professors do not have to mentor others. The new Vice Chancellor has, overcoming difficulties, been pushing research, trying to find ways to set sustainable research agendas, to evaluate and motivate and to reward staff who do quality research using new standards of excellence developed locally. Against all odds some things have changed including building a new library and computer centre with over 700 computers. Professor Biraimah showed slides of the university, including the destroyed Harambee Hall.

She concluded: “To expand institutional research and development KU has established a Centre for Research and has launched an annual research conference.  Moreover, the Vice-Chancellor has initiated an internal research grant scheme while continuing to expand research partnerships.  To increase access to the university KU has also established multiple regional campuses and has expanded student access to computers and distance education programs ….  And finally, Kenyatta University has chosen to enrich its academic and research agendas through international linkages and partnerships”.

This opening keynote followed a welcome from Professor Harold Herman, of the University of Western Cape, organizer of Saches2009 and founding President of Saches in 1991. To Professor Herman Saches was an “organization that helped academics to re-connect with Africa after the long years of apartheid”. Others who welcomed participants were Dean Zubeida Desai of UWC who opened the session and Professor Thobeka Mda of the Human Sciences Research Council who gave the Saches Presidential Address. Professor Desai called attention to “hard times” being greater than economic considerations. Education systems that by default favour the small elite, while the majority fail, are inappropriate … in South Africa 86 percent at the end of primary school are failing Mathematics. Similarly high failure rates in Mathematics are found across Southern Africa. Professor Mda traced the history of Saches, recognizing past annual meetings held in Zambia, Botswana (twice), Namibia, Tanzania and Lesotho. She also acknowledged those who had worked over the years to keep Saches going. She welcomed delegates who had come from outside Southern Africa (embracing Kenya and Uganda as part of Saches) from Brazil, Canada, China, England, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Norway, The Netherlands and United States of America.

Professor Birgit Brock-Utne of the Institute for Educational Research, University of Oslo, Norway, presented a keynote on, “Education for Development in Hard Times: the implementation of language of instruction policies in Africa”. She has over a number of years been heavily involved in research projects in a number of countries. She has recently published a book, “Can Schools Save Indigenous languages? Policy and Practice on Four Continents” (Palgrave, 2008). She began by emphasizing that; “the times are much harder for some people than for others. The times have become increasingly harder for the poor people, especially for the poor in developing countries”.

The focus of her presentation and of a panel that followed, was on a joint project between Tanzania and South Africa called “LOITASA (see or “Language of Instruction in Tanzania and South Africa”, a project that links the University of Dar es Salaam, the University of Oslo and the University of the Western Cape. So far four monographs have been produced. The highlights of the two sessions emphasized that “English is not our motherland”, that in Africa the language of education and the language of employment have been confused. Schools teach English, but why should a person apply in English when that is not the language of work? Most people in Africa speak a multiplicity of languages. Research has shown that in certain contexts they can perform better in the mother tongue. An example was given from Tanzania of making people who applied to be night watchmen have Form V and apply in English—yet there are 120 languages in Tanzania and Swahili is used universally. There is a misconception about language and learning. In Tanzania they want to introduce English in pre-schools and make it the language of instruction from Standard 5. “The Minister of Education is here mixing up the learning of a foreign language with having the language as a language of instruction. Having English as the language of instruction does not promote understanding of what is learnt in the majority schools of Tanzania and South Africa”, says Professor Brock-Utne. In a study in South Africa children understood science concepts better if they learned them in isiXhosa. During the panel a DVD and a slide show on the work of LOITASA in the Western Cape were shared and discussed with the participants.

The third keynote address was by Professor Patricia Kubow of Bowling Green University, Ohio, USA. She looked at concepts in the context of national cultural ideas and their implications for comparative education. Contexts like levels of identity from national through to world identity were examined, exploring the local/global dichotomy and the implications of the indigenous knowledge movement.  She drew on her work in Jordon on the relationship between the knowledge society and the knowledge economy.  Communities and nations are imagined concepts. Ones place in a homeland is also imagined. In the future whose knowledge will be valued? “In what ways do global economic hard times impact the kind of education for development sought by nation-sates?”

Saches2009 closed with a high-powered panel, “The Poetics, Politics, and Pragmatics of Education Academic Publishing” organized by the new editor of the Southern African Review of Education (SARE), Dr Aslam Fataar of Stellenbosch University. It provoked intense debate and concern over the high rate of rejection of submission by journals. In his opening presentation Dr Fataar described poetics as “scholarship in pursuit of intellectual integrity, rigour and conceptual illumination”. He said that, “Academic journal publishing is under the ‘performative cosh’. Academics are pressurized to publish or perish. This had led to an article writing and publishing scramble, which arguably has had corrosive effects on academic work.  Editors mediate and balance the various tensions that emanate from this performative imperative. Publishing quality work is paramount. Academic journals aim to be a forum for cutting edge, incisive and meticulous debate”. The panellists were two former editors of SARE, the editors of the South African Journal of Higher Education and the South African Journal of Education. Beverley Thaver of Higher Education Studies at the University of Western Cape was the respondent.

Dr Mino Polelo of the University of Botswana summed up the conference saying; “Saches2009 could be described as an academic ‘buffet’ for the participants. There was something on offer for all of us: a medley of papers and activities and both highly abstract and more practical papers. The conference exposed us young researchers to the intricacies of publishing, including the shocking statistics of rejection rates of different journals, interpreted as an indication of quality. The sessions by journal editors were insightful and interesting. Although the programme stretched into the night, most of the papers were worth the time. I am looking forward to SACHES 2011 in Kampala, Uganda.”

The next part is on some of the debates on higher education and teacher education will be presented including “Hard times, hard choices—how can universities weather the global recession?” by Dr Patricia Walker of the University of London.