The poor academic writing in higher education is a global problem and academics are likely to be haunted by this problem for a very long time especially given that university education is not for the elites any more (Shore 2010; Lea & Street 1998). In CPUT, this endemic problem will continue to riddle the scholarship of teaching and learning even longer because of the quality of students attracted by the university. Whether we like it or not, the poor quality of academic writing skills of CPUT undergraduates, has visible implications for the scholarship of teaching and learning. The significantly low throughputs and the increasing dropout rates at CPUT can be blamed on one level on students’ lack of essential academic literacy skills that can sail through their diploma programmes.
For me, the first step to addressing this problem is to accept that given the schooling and literacy experiences of CPUT students, academics will continue to deal with students with very mediocre literacy skills and severe lack of university preparedness. So, instead of incessantly mourning and groaning about the quality of student, we should refocus our energies on socialising and acculturating them into higher education. Part of this process of socialisation and acculturation entails reiterating the value of academic writing in higher education. It also involves redesigning academic development curricula in such a way that they are more responsive to the needs of students (Pineteh, 2011).
Because subject like Communication are supposed to develop academic writing skills, the contents and teaching strategies should be responsive to the writing needs of CPUT students. The curricula should “give young people the productive skills of design to make texts which fully match and express their needs and conceptions” (Kress 1996: 195). They should be able to develop students’ cognitive skills through academic literacies, problem solving and creativity and innovation. Such curricula will ensure that students use writing to “remake their systems of representation and communication, in productive interaction with the challenges of multiple forms of difference” (Ibid: 1996).
For this to happen, the university should provide the technical and human resources to help with the development of these curricula and academic skills. One way of doing this, is for CPUT to emulate the example of traditional universities like UCT, Stellenbosch University and UWC, Wits University by investing in Writing Centres and Online academic literacy programmes (Archer 2010; Leibowitz; Goodman, Hannon & Parker, 1997). It should recruit more lecturers for courses like Academic literacy, English for Academic Purposes and Communication. If they recruit more lecturers with the right qualifications and experience, it means they will have small number of students and more attention to their writing needs. An alternative approach which I have proposed to the IT department is to introduce a tutorial model if the university cannot employ more lecturers. This will provide space for more practical writing activities facilitated by tutors under the guidance of the lecturer. By enhancing the academic writing skills of students, they would be able to handle other courses with more confidence. This is likely to enhance the overall performance of students and ultimately increase throughput rates and research outputs.
Also, for academic writing skills of CPUT students to improve, academics irrespective of the discipline should collaborate with academic development and communicative skills lecturers and not repeatedly blame them for students’ writing misfortunes. Content lecturers should include assignments that require the application of writing skills. These assignments should carry instructions that clearly outline the expectations of the lecturers. After assessing the scripts, lecturers should provide meaningful feedback, which can help to improve the student’s writing skills (Rowe & Wood, 2008; Rae & Cochrane, 2008). This is an arduous task and therefore should be managed in collaboration with lecturers teaching the adjunct courses like Academic Literacy and/or Communication. The lecturers mandated to help with the development of the academic skills of students should engage more with student writing, providing clear instructions and feedback that can guide students to improve on the quality of their writing (Hounsell, McCune, Hounsell &Litjens, 2008). These lecturers should focus more on a continuous developmental process, which orients students into the academic culture of reading and writing. This should be informed by the writing process, which involves drafting, revision and redrafting. Here, lecturers should attempt to re-ignite the culture of reading in students through exposure to different academic and non-academic texts. This will perhaps revitalise their confidence and minimise the ethos of ‘writing to pass’ which invariably puts tremendous pressure on students and ultimately increases the amount of plagiarism in academic writing in this context ( Bailey 2008; Bacha 2002; Kinsler 1990).
The role of students in the development of academic writing skills is critical in this process. Firstly, they should take ownership of their own learning, ensuring that they prepare adequately for academic tasks and understand the role of academic writing in their success. Essentially, students in CPUT should learn to take responsibility for their shortcomings, including their lack academic literacy skills. This will help them to understand that effective academic writing is a process which requires effort and commitment. Also the mastery of English language plays a role in shaping our thoughts during a writing process and given that students in CPUT are second and third language speakers of English, the university should ensure that students immerse themselves “ in a language learning environment” (Al-Khasawneh 2010: 3). This means attaching more valuable to courses like English for academic purposes and providing students with online interactive language programmes.