Re-visiting the Purposes of Higher Education in the Time of COVID-19
- By Dr Mlamuli Nkosingphile Hlatshwayo and Professor Carol Bertram
The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting life as we knew it. For academics, this means they need to start teaching remotely and engage in online teaching. In a bid to save as much of the semester as possible, University management is requiring academics to put their content on-line. Our argument in this short piece is that the pressure on academics to teach online with minimal training and preparation will further marginalise the vital thinking work that we need to engage in to transform curriculum and pedagogy in Higher Education (HE). We argue that, while academics should really be thinking deeply about the purposes of HE, and interrogating our curriculum and pedagogy, the urgency to go online will consume our energy and focus our work on measurable outputs.
Dutch education philosopher Gert Biesta argues that there are at least three overlapping purposes of education. The one we are most familiar with is “qualification” which means providing young people with knowledge, skills and dispositions to “do something”. This function of education is strongly linked to the economic purposes of education, which is preparing young people to join the workforce. The second purpose of education is socialisation, which entails the ways in which, through education, we become members of particular social, cultural and political “orders”. Either implicitly or explicitly, we learn the norms and values that we need to thrive in our society, beyond our family and religious community. Biesta argues that the third purpose of education is what he calls “subjectification” which is about young people becoming autonomous and independent in their thinking and acting. In many ways, subjectification works in tension with socialisation. Socialisation is about learning to become a “good” citizen while subjectification is learning how to constructively critique and question taken-for-granted ways of doing things.
While we should ideally keep all these purposes of education in mind, this is unlikely to happen as we try and teach in this time of disruption. Since we are responding to an unprecedented crisis, academics will largely be focusing on how to save the qualification aspect of education, and will have little time to focus on its socialisation and subjectification aspects.
The other key issues we need to interrogate in HE are curriculum design and pedagogy. However, this is unlikely to happen during a time of crisis and reaction. Curricula was at the heart of the 2015-2016 student protests with movements such as the #RhodesMustFall, Black Student Movements and others bringing to our attention the alienating and colonising nature of curricula and the need to re-centre African epistemic traditions and knowledges from the global South. Ideally academics should be reflecting on the kinds of readings, scholars and thinkers that we are legitimating and valuing in our curricula, and those scholars that continue to be marginalised and pushed to the periphery of contemporary thought.
Simply put, is it still necessary for those of us who teach the Philosophy of Education to continue to privilege Plato and the allegory of the cave as a central tenet of education, or can we begin to re-centre and include other African philosophical traditions such Ethnophilosophy, Sage Philosophy, Nationalist-ideological Philosophy and Ubuntu in an effort to reclaim them in curricula as valid and legitimate modes of being, seeing, thinking, and critical inquiry? We need to think seriously about the continuing epistemic injustice that occurs in curricula across the global South, with those who occupy Black bodies still not being recognised as (legitimate) knowers and holders of knowledge in the academy.
While a time of crisis could be the push that makes academics and the academy in general do this deliberative and reflective kind of curriculum work, it is unlikely that the COVID-19 crisis will have this effect. This is simply because our immediate pressure is to put our teaching and learning material online in an attempt to save the semester and pretend that it is still “business as usual” at the different universities. This simplistic and reductionist understanding of pedagogy tends to assume a number of things.
Firstly, it assumes that online learning mediums can replace the often critical debates and discussions that happen in contact classrooms and that facilitate understanding and access to curricula. Secondly, it assumes that students are on a fairly level playing field, with access to a safe shelter, computer, data, conducive environment, food and other critical factors that support their learning. Thirdly, it tends to focus purely on transmitting knowledge rather than foregrounding the importance of deeply engaging and critiquing knowledge. Our concern is that with the increasing push towards “coping”, “grappling” and “negotiating” with our new normal, we may be uncritically adopting pedagogies that may not be properly suited to our context and may potentially exclude Black working class students.
It is worth remembering that the completion rate after four years of Unisa students doing a three-year degree is 11%, while the completion rate after four years in contact universities is 39%. Distance education is likely to deepen education inequality if not done thoughtfully, critically and with the necessary curriculum and pedagogical expertise.
Carol Bertram is an Associate Professor in Teacher Development Studies and Dr Mlamuli Nkosingphile Hlatshwayo is a lecturer in Curriculum and Education Studies at the School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal.