The future of South African tertiary education?

The original text of this article in The Daily Maverick.

A Higher Education summit hosted by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, is taking place at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology on April 22 and 23. Much of the focus at the summit will be on “transformation”, one of the more flexible words you’ll encounter while working at a South African university. This is saying a lot, especially since many departments – at my university at least – still seem completely enamoured by the liberating brew of postmodernism, which of course allows for infinite lexical flexibility.

Perhaps this is simply another example of political correctness gone awry – we all know that transformation relates primarily to race, but to explicitly say so may be impolitic, in that colour-blindness is a virtue that we’re all meant to be aspiring to, even in cases where economic inequalities premised on race persist. Instead, transformation becomes code for various social issues, and allows us to collapse concerns around equity, throughput, policies on wheelchair ramps, and whatever else does not currently have its own committee under one handy banner.

For example, the most recent message from the Transformation Officer in my Faculty related to the “Executive Secretaries and Personal Assistants International Symposium”, which I had a difficult time relating to anything obviously to do with transformation. But then, perhaps I’m not transformed myself, or perhaps I’m simply insufficiently postmodern.

Carte Blanche, 15 March

The insert on Sax Appeal and it’s “blasphemy” aired tonight, and even though the show did its best to not offend the fragile, that hasn’t stopped some ranting from occuring – I suppose simply because thinking seems the last thing on some people’s minds in cases like this.

I’m rather disappointed in the segment as aired. The reactionary homophobe Errol Naidoo had a disproportionate amount of airtime, and they cut any comment from Jordan Pickering, who I know was interviewed. For context, Jordan is a Christian who argues strongly – and coherently – against the religious outrage that this episode led to. His comments would have presented some balance to Naidoo’s claims of justified offense.

Further, Naidoo himself was treated sympathetically, and his letter – which surely contributed directly to death threats received by staff on Sax Appeal – was explained away as having been written in the heat of the moment. Yet nothing was said by Naidoo – or any other person of religious persuasion – to lessen the impression that free speech is all fine, unless you say something bad about my invisible friend, who – despite so much financial, spiritual and emotional support – is still surprisingly vulnerable to attack-by-cartoon. If only Satan had known…

A brief word to UCT students: I of course didn’t mean to say that all of you have no idea of what is going on. The students that I asked did not, but there may be many who do. I simply wonder why none of you have said anything about this.

If students are customers, why don’t they do their research?

A discussion I have each semester with new students is whether they consider themselves to be customers or not. The distinction I’m trying to get them to grapple with is that as students, they are themselves a key determinant of how good the “product” ends up being. In other words, they cannot just place their orders and all expect to get the same result in terms of knowledge acquired. While there are certainly some aspects of the relationship between educators and students that are analogous to suppliers and customers, it’s an incredibly poor model to base one’s academic interactions on, as it encourages passivity on the part of the student, as well as a mindset which focuses on the student’s rights, rather than their responsibilities.

Teaching EBMgt: developing better managers, or educating critical thinkers?

On the Facebook group Evidence-Based Management, Laura Guerrero asks:

In terms of the big picture, I wonder what people think in terms of why we ought to teach using EBMgt.

I hear people talk about studies and research. The way they talk about these suggests to me that they do not understand what they are or how to evaluate them. For example, there is a study that says that plastic water bottles leak a substance in to your water and this is bad for you.

Here in Canada, a number of people threw out their water bottles and bought metal water bottles and now city parks want to ban bottled water. A number of stores have stopped selling this type of plastic bottle. I wonder if people have a sense of what ‘bad for you’ means, how this finding was reached, whether they should trust their morning news anchor to deliver scientific news, and so forth.

I wonder if it is my responsibility as a professor-to-be to instruct students on how to be critical thinkers and skeptical consumers of information. In other words, I think that EBMgt is important to develop better managers who will make better decisions. But I wonder if there is also a bigger purpose: to educate critical thinkers.

The students in my Evidence-Based Management course at the University of Cape Town are almost all just out of secondary school, and I suspect that my answer to Laura’s question would be very different if the course was being taught to graduate students in an MBA class. Generally, I’d have to argue that teaching Evidence-Based anything would require the students to have some understanding of what evidence is, when it is needed, and what to do with it. So while we would hope that graduate students know some of this already, we can’t take that knowledge for granted. If your students don’t understand the basics of scientific reasoning, teaching them EBMgt may well end up being a simple installation of various principles that they could proceed to treat as dogma, thereby remaining as uncritical as they were when starting the course. So yes, where students don’t have the knowledge in question, it would be a professor’s responsibility to instruct students on how to be critical thinkers first, before embarking on any discussion of application of principles in critical reasoning, such as EBMgt.

The job is perhaps easier at undergraduate level, such as in my course. There, it’s almost invariably the case that students have not been exposed to the principles of drawing conclusions based on the available evidence, and are quite comfortable with holding contradictory or incoherent beliefs, simply because they have never been exposed to the contradictions or incoherencies. In this context, teaching EBMgt starts with general principles of scientific thinking and critical reasoning, and often ends there too, because as anyone who teaches this material work knows, there is much work to do in terms of undermining the prejudices and lazy thinking habits that permeate the cognitive processes of the average student. It’s only once the fundamentals of reasoning are in place that we can begin to talk, and think, about more complex cases of evidence-based reasoning in professional practice.

A fantastic recent book that I’ll be adding to my course as suggested reading is Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which does a terrific job (as regular readers of his blog and Guardian column will know) of highlighting and explaining some of the obvious ways in which our species makes life so much harder for ourselves, through constantly believing the most crazy things simply because we’re too lazy (and often unprepared) to think about them.

Developing better managers is certainly a positive result, but it pales into insignificance when compared with developing better thinkers more generally. Some of those thinkers may go on to be good managers, but in the meanwhile, we’ve also hopefully helped to produce a few good teachers, plumbers, doctors and parents.