The uncomfortable truth about finances and academia

Can an average South African afford an academic career?

Every time Stats SA releases the country’s economic statistics, it is always a harsh reminder of how bad and unequal our economy is. A shocking statistic found by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group shows that 55.5% of our population lives below the upper-bound poverty line, which is currently at R1,227 per person per month. The discussions sparked by the 2020 first-quarter stats made me reflect on how finances are one of the leading systematic barriers to entry in the academic field.

I have had a first-hand experience of how finances could lead to choosing a different career path, even when one is a passionate academic.

In the final year of my MSc, I was faced with a financial dilemma; my mother was unemployed and desperately needed to purchase a bigger house that could accommodate our family. Being the eldest daughter, I really wanted to help her. Yes, I had a scholarship, but banks would never consider giving me a housing bond. As passionate as I was about science, my upbringing propelled me to assist my mother. My job applications were successful, and hence I was employed. This would have been the end of my academic career; fortunately, my mother secured a job, which paid enough for her to be able to buy a house. As a result, I was able to resign and continue with my studies. Unfortunately, most people never make it back to academia. 

I was also fortunate to receive a scholarship for my PhD studies, meaning that I would be able to assist at home financially. However, some of my colleagues are self-funded; this is another harsh finance reality. Most of these colleagues are at an age where families expect them to contribute financially, or they have families to look after. Ultimately, they have to rely on the income from tutoring, teaching and lab assistances. The time consumed on preparation and teaching compromises the quality of their research while the privileged students are able to solely focus on their research.

A major highlight from the Black lives matter movement conversations is how the prevalent inequalities are deeply rooted in the systems. The Department of Science and Innovation’s White Paper lists various strategies on how the department plans to transform the field of science, but will their approaches be successful? The National Research Foundation (NRF) has played a significant role in diversifying the post-graduate space; currently, the bulk of their scholarships are received by learners coming from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. But does their funding model suit our economic climate?

The truth for this generation is that most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first to attend university. Families sacrifice a lot with the hope that an educated child is destined to improve their living conditions. This means that as soon as the student graduates, there is a financial expectation. Many label this as ‘black tax’ but I believe that the spirit of ubuntu that is engraved in our upbringing drives us to lift others as we rise. Unfortunately, current funding models do not cater for such students.

My ideal funding model would be one where the student signs an ‘employment’ contract which is recognised by South African financial institutions. The universities could also offer tutoring or lab assistance posts with an extended timeframe; not the usual annual contracts. This would allow post-graduate students to carry out similar responsibilities as peers in work environments. The major game-changer, of course, would be if financial institutions realistically catered for all the different economy populations. Countries like Colombia have been leading in the global financial inclusion rankings as their finance sector is able to equally cater for people at various income levels. A study showed that these were the main drivers for financial inclusion:  the government developed financial inclusion indicators and reports, the innovative establishment of bank access points, and custom-made products aimed at different segments of the population with a special focus on low-income individuals.

Transformation in the academic sphere is non-negotiable. However, it has to be more than just diversifying on the surface. True transformation is one that will change the current systems that are major barriers to entry. These changes would enable students to make career decisions that are based on passion and not biased by financial circumstances.

What student teachers learn when putting theory into classroom practice

by Dr Nhlanhla Mpofu

(Repost by The Conversation

The preparation of student teachers is a critical aspect of their journey to being professional teachers. And teaching practice – real-world experiences that students acquire from actual classroom teaching before they are qualified teachers – is one important characteristic of this preparation process.

During this process, student teachers entering the profession are supported to realise that teaching is not just about applying learnt theories. It also requires practical problem-solving expertise that leads to effective teaching. Simply put, it’s not adequate for student teachers to only observe and read about teaching if they don’t also practise it.

According to research, mentorship from experienced teachers and systematic reflection in practice helps student teachers to cultivate knowledge of the subject, learners and teaching communities.

In South Africa, all initial teacher education institutions are mandated through policy to include teaching practice as part of the Bachelor of Education programme. I recently conducted a study about teaching practice at one South African university.

At this institution, teaching practice begins in the first year of enrolment. In the first two years, the students are sent to schools for a time to observe an experienced teacher in the actual process of teaching. In the last two years of the study, the student teachers began the actual teaching under the mentorship of an experienced mentor teacher.

I wanted to know how student teachers in their third year deal with what are known as “critical incidents”. These are defined as unplanned and unanticipated events that occur during a lesson or outside the classroom that provides important insight to the practitioner about teaching and learning. For example, a high school teacher might plan to have learners debate on a topic, but discover that the learners are unable to construct a comprehensible English sentence. This incident will serve as a future reference to the teacher not to assume the learners’ level of proficiency.

In my study, I found that the student teachers used critical incidents to notice, reflect and reshape their teaching practices. Such reflection is critical as it enables them to question their practices, the initial process to their professional development.

Three key areas

In my study, I examined the critical incidents that the 38 student teachers who were being prepared to teach English in high school encountered during teaching practice. These incidents resulted from situations in which student teachers were puzzled about how to maintain an effective teaching environment.

Three key areas emerged from the study. One related to discipline; the second was about student teachers’ professional identity; the third outlined how student teachers grappled with differences between theory and practice.

Firstly, the student teachers felt challenged in maintaining classroom discipline. They found that there was a mismatch between the theories of classroom management they had studied at university and the realities of the classrooms where they had been placed.

Classroom indiscipline was largely a result of large classes and limited learning resources. Learners also often struggled with the English language – they came from multi-lingual backgrounds and were learning English as a second language.

The student teachers seem to have learnt that the failure to match subject knowledge and the actual context of the classroom caused ill-discipline among learners.

Secondly, the student teachers learnt that the way they chose to groom themselves as professionals, especially in dress, influenced how learners assigned credibility to them as teachers. The student teachers became aware that their developing professional identity was shaped in interactions with others – including the learners during various activities of teaching and learning.

While the student teachers had only focused on the classroom as a source of practising their professionalism, they came to realise that sites of instruction were multiple and, at times, informal.

Thirdly, the student teachers experienced estrangement between the theories of second language teaching and the practical instruction needs in the classroom. Although the student teachers have theoretical knowledge of teaching English, the realities in the classroom did not align to their preparation experiences.

Perhaps the most significant “incident” that all the student teachers described on this point was that their learners lacked the prior knowledge they’d expected to be in place at those levels. They filled the gap by developing remedial programmes to help their learners. But they told me they weren’t certain they’d be able to continue with this sort of support when they actually became full-time teachers. They worried doing this would add to an already heavy workload.

What does this mean?

These findings lay bare just some of the wide range of experiences to which student teachers are exposed when they work in classrooms and schools. The study also shows how student teachers responded to these incidents: they saw them as a learning process that caused them to act, respond and reflect so they could maintain quality teaching.

These descriptions are important as evidence of the way student teachers reframe, rephrase, reshape and ultimately transform their teaching practices to reflect both context and diversity in English Language teaching.

Nhlanhla-pixDr Nhlanhla Mpofu is the Director for Teaching, Learning and Programme Development and a Senior Lecturer at Sol Plaatje University. Nhlanhla received her PhD (Humanities Education) from the University of Pretoria. Her research interests are in the area of knowing sciences positioned within the socio-cultural and cognitive perspectives. Through her research focus, Nhlanhla seeks to gain a strategic, epistemological and pragmatic understanding of the nuanced discourse of knowing how to teach. Her research and professional perspectives are drawn from multi-paradigmatic trajectories that seek to locate teaching knowledge in the empowering epistemic metaphors embedded in context, reflection, problem-solving, critical thinking, experiential and transformative spaces. Following her research foci, Nhlanhla, is at the moment the principal investigator of two research grants.
Twitter handle: @MPO12