A restructured teacher education system: a call for consolidation

The teacher education system plays a pivotal role in producing and developing South Africa's teachers. Glenda Kruss investigated the nature of institutional restructuring, and the impact on the ability of the teacher education system to produce the kinds of teachers required for quality schooling.  


Any contemporary analysis of development and growth prospects in South Africa quickly moves to highlight the low levels of education and the shortage of critical skills among the population - which in turn shifts the focus to the poor quality of the schooling system. Analysts and activists ponder why it has not been possible to transform more substantially the legacy of the apartheid schooling system. 

Explanations are sought and strategies have been initiated in relation to unequal financing, the controversial change to an outcomes-based curriculum or the quality of teachers. But what is the crucial role played by the teacher education system in providing quality teachers? 

The task of initial teacher education is now the primary responsibility of 22 universities faced with multiple demands - from a new higher education qualification structure to new programme and curriculum frameworks, from shifting student demographic profiles to new funding and financing models and from new educational approaches to new higher education challenges. 

Decade of institutional restructuring takes its toll 

Perhaps the greatest challenge is that the very institutions facing these demands have been shaped by a decade of institutional restructuring, both internally driven and externally mandated. Their engagement with new policy frameworks, with qualifications and curriculum change, with the professional development of new teachers and of serving teachers - all occurs on a base of profound institutional change and considerable organisational instability. 

Such analysis provided the impetus for the initiation of a research project to investigate the nature of institutional restructuring, and the impact on the ability of the teacher education system to produce the kinds of teachers required for quality schooling. 

An initial analysis of the policy and legislative context suggested that restructuring had four main trajectories, in distinct periods: 

  • In the mid to late 1990s, many universities restructured internally in response to changing higher education imperatives. In many cases, the status and position of education faculties was considerably diminished within the institution; 
  • In 2001, colleges of education were legislatively incorporated into higher education, driven by state concerns about the cost, efficiency and quality of colleges; 
  • From 2004, a process of mergers and partial incorporations was initiated to restructure the higher education landscape, impacting in distinct ways on education faculties and schools; 
  • Some institutions experienced these multiple waves of restructuring cumulatively in rapid succession, over an extremely short period of five years; and 
  • A fifth trajectory was evident, in that some institutions restructured internally once again to deal with the effects of incorporation or merger more effectively. 

The role of global forces 

These institutional changes in South Africa were driven in complex ways by a double dynamic that is operating globally to re-shape teacher education. Teacher policy, standing at the heart of the education system, is being reformed, remodelled and transformed. 

Debate about the most appropriate policy and mechanisms for producing and distributing educational services, about a new relationship between government, schools and teacher educators, has become vigorous globally.

At the same time, internationally, teacher education has typically been shifted from the specialised college sector into the university sector, making it subject to the multiple new demands of globalisation and the knowledge economy on the higher education terrain. 

For teacher education providers in South Africa, as across the world, institutional change is thus inevitable, driven both by shifting education policies and relationships and by shifting policies and relationships within their new higher education location. 

Merging of institutions shows complex results 

But the form of change is not inevitable - or the same - for different universities in South Africa with distinct historical legacies. In the present, they experience the trajectories of restructuring in different combinations. 

So, while the policy intention is to create a single teacher education system, institutional mediation leads to complex outcomes. The outcome is that schools, departments and faculties of education are positioned differently within their institutions and in relation to the national teacher education system. These institutions face the challenge of integrating diverse bodies of academics from merged and incorporated institutions in different ways. 

Emerging from this analysis is evidence that the desirable and achievable balance between teaching and research, between initial teacher education and in-service education programmes, between professional education and post-graduate education programmes and between professional education programmes oriented to different phases of schooling, is strongly contested - both within education faculties, schools and their universities, and between universities and the National Department of Education.

In a large number of instances, restructuring had a strong direct impact on the nature of initial teacher education programmes. These universities have to develop new approaches and curricula on the basis of complex organisational dynamics that include multiple academic voices with potentially contrasting histories and identities, potentially giving rise to contest, and requiring considerable energy to negotiate and create synergy. 

A typical challenge is to establish working relationships between groups of staff who have come from a college, a historically advantaged university with two geographic locations, and a historically disadvantaged university, each with its own distinct ethos, focus and programmes. 

The high toll of restructuring on teacher education

In other instances, restructuring has a ‘medium' degree of direct impact on initial teacher education. A single institution dominated incorporation and merger, and only a small number of academics from one or more of the other parties were retained. 

This means that the structures, curricula and staff of the dominant party tend to determine the approach and practice in the new institution, but academics from the ‘legacy' institutions maintain a subordinate voice that needs to be accommodated. They may add to and complement what is possible in initial teacher education programmes, or they may potentially undermine new programmes in practice. 

There are significant common issues of contest between groups of academics from incorporated colleges or merged universities, which present a challenge for initial teacher education in the new university. Examining the substance of the (contrasting) approaches to teacher education that academics with different institutional identities bring to the proverbial programme and curriculum design ‘table', and the lines of debate and contest that may ensue, can contribute to the task of building synergy within institutions. 

The toll on individual academics is high, both personally and professionally - and this impacts significantly on the conditions for teacher education. If those responsible for carrying out institutional mandates are not fully focused on their task because of personal stress or professional dissatisfaction, it has a negative impact on what is possible. It is important to understand the points of contest and their impact on personal and professional lives, in order to manage change more effectively, and lessen the impact on individuals. 

In South Africa, we have the potential to build a quality teacher education system, based on sound policy frameworks. Now, the most pressing requirement is not more change nor new structures or programmes, but a period that allows the emerging new system to consolidate. Teacher education academics, faculty and school managers and university leadership all need time and space to consolidate in order to rise to the challenges of their new responsibilities and opportunities, and to build new relationships with the provincial and national departments. 

Download or order the publication, Teacher Education and Institutional Change, by Glenda Kruss, a chief research specialist in the Education, Science and Skills Development research programme, from www.hsrcpress.ac.za.