Modern universities are “shifting from elite to mass higher education system where there is a greater cultural, linguistic and social diversity than in the past” (Lillis 2003: 192). The massification of and the ensuing shifting vision of universities today is the direct consequence of increasing government influence and pressures of globalisation (Shore 2010; Kreber 2003, Lea & Street 2006). This has shifted the core business of modern universities from the development of educated citizenry to the “commercialization of teaching and research… [reinventing them] into transnational business corporations operating in a competitive global knowledge economy” (Shore 2010:15/17).
In South Africa, the shifting vision of universities is espoused strongly by the governments envisions to redress the ills of the apartheid era, democratise the education system through the promotion of racial and gender parity, and the development of skills that are responsive to needs of the new South Africa ( Pineteh 2012; Archer 2010; Leibowitz 2004). The government’s meddling in the way South African universities are managed has resulted in the irruption of infamous educational policies and curriculum documents aimed at restructuring schools and universities as well as fostering the social changes promised by the new political dispensation (Leibowitz, 2004; Ensor 2004; Waghid 2002).
The implementation of outcomes-based education (OBE) curriculum in 2005 and the National Qualification Framework (NQF) as well as the Higher Education Qualification Framework (HEQF) exemplify the new government’s political will in addressing the challenges in schools and universities (Chisholm 2007, Jansen 1998, Leibowitz 2004 and Young 2005). For example the NQF was mandated to “to steer South Africa along a high skills, high growth path of economic development [which] would lay the foundation stones of a new democracy society” (Ensor 2004, p.341). OBE was intended to forge a teaching and learning framework which privileges outcomes rather than content and process (Jansen, 1998; Ensor, 2004). However, these policies have only exacerbated the educational challenges in South African partly because they were implemented hastily, often without due consideration of the uncharacteristic diversity of the new South Africa and different configurations and challenges in schools and universities (Leibowitz 2004 and Pineteh 2012). Moreover, although the government is pressuring universities to increase their student intake annually, it still expects the same universities to maintain high quality research, teaching and learning. This is untenable because massive enrolment and quality outputs are a serious mismatch especially in a university of technology like CPUT. Also, the disproportionately amount of subsidies from the same government has had visible implications for the quality teaching and research (Pineteh, 2012).The South African government’s approach to addressing the challenges in schools and universities illustrates the “embeddedness of education institutions and practices in the wider society and the enormous constraints that such embeddedness places on educational reforms fulfilling their more ambitious goals” (Kraak and Young 2001:1).
Additionally, in the process of addressing its domestic problems, the new South Africa also wanted to position itself strategically in the global marketplace. Schools and universities were therefore pressured “to prepare South Africa for participation in a sophisticated global economy” (Ensor 2004, p.341). Despite all the attempts to deracialise universities and after almost two decades into democracy, South Africa is still grappling with issues of race, gender, class and ethnicity, particularly in the higher education sector. In this context, teaching and learning is only about imparting knowledge but also about negotiating space, identity and power. Despite the pressure meted on South African universities to transform, many of these universities are still elite and exclusive institutions in terms of the quality of their students, their staff composition and financial demands. This means that South African universities are still “increasingly being challenged in terms of their responsiveness and relevance to societal problems” (Waghid 2002, p.457). This responsiveness to societal problems includes inter-alia forging a representative higher education system which realistically depicts the racial and gender demographics of South Africa while at the same time preparing South Africans to face the challenges of global markets (Jansen, 1998 & Waghid, 2002).
The pressure on South African universities to transform and to perform has had far reaching implications for teaching and learning in general and for student academic writing in particular. Universities like CPUT now have to deal with even more under-privileged and unprepared students with mediocre academic literacy skills, matriculating from very dysfunctional high schools (Pineteh, 2012). They are now burdened with the responsibility of developing the skills neglected by schools, in order to prepare their students for postgraduate studies and for the workplace. Moreover, “the commodification of education [in the South African context] is increasingly expressed in a new currency of transferable, portable outcomes and qualifications that provide the logic for qualifications and outcomes-driven approach to educational reform” (Young & Gamble 2006, p.3). Here, the specificities of course contents and teaching strategies focus on the outcomes rather than on the process of cognitive development and knowledge acquisition engrained in the academic writing process. In the case of CPUT, the situation is disturbing because the institution is actually a product of unusual merger of two erstwhile Technikons [Technical colleges] whose main preoccupation was to prepare their students for the South African workplace. So, even though CPUT is branded as a full flesh university of technology, it still operates in a nuanced way, like a Technikon, with its staff clinging to the academic culture of Technikons (Pineteh 2012).