The university is a completely new world to scholars from high school, a seemingly complex one which “involves adapting to new ways of knowing: new ways of understanding, interpreting and organising knowledge” (Lea & Street 1998:157). The world of university is one whereby students are constantly constructing new processes, new identities and giving academic and social life new meanings across space and time (Ivanic, Edwards, Satchwell & Smith, 2007; Gee &Green 1998). Today, students in higher education are expected to produce “knowledge which is social accountable, reflexive, trans-disciplinary and problem-oriented” (Waghid 2002:461). Furthermore, university landscapes have been complicated further by the irruption of social media in higher education. The unwavering interest in technology-based teaching and learning especially in universities of technology means students have to deal with the chaos of the mediated world on a daily basis (Ehlers & Schneckenberg 2009). To this end, socialising into the culture of university depends on a co-dependent partnership between students, academic staff and the management of the university. For a student to succeed in a university they must take ownership of the learning process while tapping into with professional expertise of academic staff. Here, academics provide mentorship to students while they embark on the quest for knowledge. Students should also be provided with adequate facilities and/or infrastructural support by the university.
In the same token, for the quality of academic writing to improve, students must take ownership of the writing process, receive guidance from staff and they should be provided with the right facilities and infrastructural support (Arkoudis &Trans 2010; Yong, 2010, Bailey 2008).
However, the unpleasant facade of the massification of universities especially in the context of South Africa is that universities now have to deal with students with a “wide range of life experiences and interests as well as different reasons for wanting to participate in higher education” (Lillis 2003:192). Today, CPUT is a microcosm of the diverse South African higher education landscape in terms of race, class, ethnicity and schooling experiences (Pineteh, 2012). And the debates on the poor quality of academic writing here have been racialised or framed around the discourse of second or third language speakers of English. These debates presuppose that CPUT students cannot write effectively because of their English Language deficiencies. While the mastery of English language can enhance academic writing, academic writing is more than just stringing sentences (Yong, 2010). It is part of a specialised discourse of higher education, which involves critical, analytical and reflective thinking skills which can be learned regardless of the linguistic background of the student (Archer, 2010). The poor academic writing skills of CPUT students is largely a direct consequence of lack of cognitive skills stemming from poor literacy backgrounds as well as their attitudes towards academic writing (Leibowitz, 2004). For many students leaving South African high schools today, university entry is simply the next sensible thing to do, a response to ‘university education for all’ promise by the black leadership. This means that many prospective students are not always intellectually and emotionally prepared for higher education and they often spend months struggling to adapt into this new learning space. At this stage in their lives, they respond to university life and challenges as if they were still in high school (Leibowitz 2004 & Pineteh 2012).
Higher education is not for the faint-hearted, given that it requires emotional and intellectual preparedness. In higher education, students are expected to “integrate identified information with previous knowledge, connect information across sources, and organize the information for presentation in a written or [oral] report” (Perin, Kesselman and Monopoli 2003:20). Quality academic writing therefore involves the interplay of myriad cognitive skills which “facilitates both academic learning and later workplace competence” (Perin, Kesselman and Monopoli 2003: 20). But many students lack the emotional readiness and intellectual maturity that often enable university students to take control of their learning process. These deficiencies severely affect the way they approach the whole learning experience and the way they handle academic tasks including academic writing. Often, the students do not accord writing tasks the respect they deserve and consequently become dependent on Communication lecturers “to perform most of the regulatory and reflective functions desired in the learner” (Kinsler 1990:304). Or they simply approach academic writing with negativities and misconceptions, which stem from their imaginations of a university of technology. For them, the practice-oriented focus of the university devalues academic writing as a critical practice in the learning process. Here, they do not understand that “academic writing is designed to be an enriching learning experience” (Yong 2010: 471). Instead they approach writing with disinterest and often “regard it as a time consuming and unpleasant chore” (Yong 2010:147).
Moreover, CPUT like many universities of technology places significant emphasis on virtual teaching and learning. Notably, this generation of students is technologically savvy but this affinity for technology also impacts negatively on their academic writing. The internet provides easy access to an avalanche of information which students can use to conceptualise writing topics. But because of student attitudes towards academic writing and their lack of cognitive ability to process the bodies of knowledge available online, they end up plagiarising the information. They lack critical thinking skills and “prior knowledge [which] may also impede the ability to compose from sources” (Perin, Keselman & Monopoli 2003:20). Although technology has provided unrestricted platforms to access knowledge, the culture of reading seems to be dissipating. Today, students spend hours networking and constructing multiple identities on the internet but they do not read the rich academic information available to them. They are often disinterested in reading academic books. Despite their ability to perform multiple tasks at once and critically evaluate information they do not bring these skills to bear on their academic writing projects (Elhlers & Schneckenberg 2009). Their writings are usually fraught with patches of information downloaded off the internet simply because they do not have the time and patience to read, analyse and synthesise information. The lack of commitment and the overly reliance on patched writing, articulate the strong culture of consumption which has propelled students to imagine “the university as responsible for delivering education to the student” rather than students actively involved in the process ( Asworth, Freewood & Macdonald 2003: 259).
Although, vygotsky prescribes a more student-centred teaching and learning approach, CPUT students still need the writing mentorship of academic staff. Student writing develops from modelling the writings of academics in their discipline or from reading their articles and book or by applying feedback or “talkback” provided by lecturers (Adams, 2008). Academics of a university play an important role in acculturating students in the specialised discourses of higher education and in developing their academic writing skills (Bartholomae 1985; Lea and Street 1998). But at CPUT the interest to develop student academic writing skills seems to reside mainly with a handful of academics driving academic development courses such as Academic Literacy, Language and Communication and English Communication. Ironically these courses still play a very passive role in the academic/ pedagogical processes in the university. And because this is a university of technology, other academic staff especially in mainstream disciplines, are often disingenuous about the role of academic writing in higher education. For them development of academic writing skills in CPUT should be the prerogative of courses concerned with academic development (Pineteh, 2010). Therefore, mainstream programmes do not create space for extended pieces of academic writing in key assessments because the lecturers feel a university of technology should concentrate on providing their graduates with technical skills for the workplace rather than developing academic literacy. Clearly the specialised course lecturers disinterest in the development of academic writing and ultimately the neglect of writing concerns in their course have contributed significantly to the poor quality of academic writing skills.
Moreover, increasing access to tertiary education in South Africa means the class sizes have equally increased and are more diverse (Lillis, 2003; Perin, Keselman &Monopoli 2003; Afful 2007). Here, academics are pressured to publish in order to sustain its research image “in addition to teaching a steadily increasing and diverse student population in times of decreasing resources” (Kreber 2003: 94). This has transformed the classroom into a more complex space with myriads of writing challenges and many Communication lecturers “appear to struggle to accommodate the unfamiliar characteristic and complex needs of a diverse student body” Arkoudis & Tran 2010:170). These lecturers have to deal with even larger classes, equally large number of scripts and conversely limited contact hours.
Teaching large classes under immense pressure to increase throughput rates, research outputs, compromises the dialogic relationship between the student and lecturer. This relationship usually develops from the “social interactive approach to the teaching of writing” (Van de Ven 2009: 2). Here, writing lecturers do not spend time to appreciate every piece of student writing as a developmental process. Changing any literacy as problematic as academic writing, “is clearly an arduous and slow process, and requires much commitment” (Leibowitz 2004: 50). In evaluating student writing, lecturers tend to concentrate on the mechanic of the writing such as on language-syntax, grammar and plagiarism instead of continually recognising academic writing as process which “involves negotiating social relationships, attitudes and values” (Valentine 2006:90). For example, the criminalisation of plagiarism in universities has tended to provide lecturers with a platform to easily condemn student writing even though these students are novice writers without any sense of the complexities of plagiarism (Valentine 2003; Ashworth, Freewood &Macdonald 2003). Although ownership and originality are important, many academics tend to measure these novice writers against the works of seasoned authors whose credibility as good academic writers span over several years of practice. Or they ignore that plagiarism at this level “involves participants’ values, attitudes, and feelings as well as their social relationships to each other and to the institutions in which they” study (Valentine 2006: 89/90). We cannot blame academic staff for the massification of modern universities but at the very least they can be blamed for succumbing to “monologism of institutional practices where control and predictability are emphasised over enquiry, contestation and negotiation” (Bailey 2008:1). Notably, large classes have resulted in the decline in feedback on writing assignments because the focus is on pass rates, which means “end-learning of assessment, formal procedures around quality assurance (marking procedures and external adjudication” (Bailey 2008:2). And because the quality of feedback is compromised significantly, writing ceases from being a process to being a product, where the emphasis is on the finish product. Students are not offered the opportunity to navigate the process of drafting and re-drafting, which is essential for the development of academic writing.
In term of subsidies, academic development courses like Communication generate less money for the university than mainstream disciplines like Engineering, Accounting, Information Technology and so on. Since many universities rely on the financial support from government, CPUT prefers to invest in more courses and programmes that can generate more subsidies for the university. The university understands the role of academic development courses especially in the development of writing skills, but it does not offer them the prestige and value that they deserve ( Archer, 2010; Pineteh 2012). Often, lecturers assigned to teach these courses do not have right qualifications and/or experience and they tend to ignore the academic writing components of the courses because they are not trained to teach the underlying concepts (Daly 1978 & 1977). Some of these lecturers are unfamiliar with basic academic writing principles and do not understand the role of constructive feedback in the writing process. For them, providing feedback especially in large classes is a waste of valuable time. Moreover, the instructions provided by this calibre of lecturers are usually very convoluted and confusing to students who are already grappling with academic writing.
The dwindling of financial supports from government has put immense pressure on universities to maximise any opportunity to attract more subsidies from the government. The politics of skills shortage or the development of critical skills especially in highly specialised technical sectors seemingly positions universities of technology at a more competitive advantage with traditional universities. The only way to enjoy this advantage is to increase throughput rates, at the same time minimising expenditure on adjunct or non-mainstream disciplines. As argued earlier, these courses are usually under-resourced in terms of qualified staffing and facilities that can help with the development of academic writing.
In addition to academic literacy programmes and communication, one main support structure that helps significantly in addressing poor academic writing skills is the Writing Centre. Literature on Writing Centres such as Archer (2010) and Leibowitz, Goodman, Hannon & Pakerson (1997) espouse the strategic roles of a Writing Centre in the process of academic development. One of these roles is the one-on-one consultation with students which “has been used to provide feedback to departments around the ways in which their students are grappling with particular tasks…” (Archer 2010: 503). They also expose students to several types of academic texts, which they can model in their own writing. Additionally, Writing Centres provide and facilitate remedial writing workshops which lecturers with large classes cannot afford to provide (Archer 2010; Van de Ven 2009). Most traditional universities in South Africa invest substantially in Writing Centres but at CPUT, this support structure is still very dysfunctional. Many students are not even aware of its existence. Albeit it functions effectively on one of the campuses, other campuses do not enjoy the same privilege. This is because the coordinators do very little to publicise and sensitise students about the usefulness of a Writing Centre especially in a university whose main disciplines are hardcore science, engineering and business.