Higher Education

, Volume 69, Issue 2, pp 315–330 | Cite as

Institutional context matters: the professional development of academics as teachers in South African higher education

  • Brenda Leibowitz
  • Vivienne Bozalek
  • Susan van Schalkwyk
  • Christine Winberg


This study features the concept of ‘context’ and how various macro, meso and micro features of the social system play themselves out in any setting. Using South Africa as an example, it explores the features that may constrain or enable professional development, quality teaching and the work of teaching and learning centres at eight universities in varied socio-cultural settings. The article draws on the work of critical realists and their explication of the concepts of structure, culture and agency. The research design was participatory, where members of teaching and learning centres at the eight institutions defined the aims and key questions for the study. They collected the data on which this article is based, namely a series of descriptive and reflective reports. The findings clustered around six themes: history, geography and resources; leadership and administrative processes; beliefs about quality teaching and staff development; recognition and appraisal; and capacity, image and status of the TLC staff. These features play out in unique and unpredictable constellations in each different context, while at the same time, clusters of features adhere together. Whilst there is no one to one, predictive relationship between university type and outcome, there is a sense that socio-economic contextual features are salient and require greater attention than other features.


Professional development Context Critical realism Teaching South Africa Inequality 



The National Research Foundation provided funding for the project titled “Context, structure and agency” (reference ESA20100729000013945). The authors acknowledge the contributions to the data by the members of the Context, Structure and Agency research team.


  1. Archer, M. (1982). Morphogenesis versus structuration: On combining structure and action. The British Journal of Sociology, 61(Supplement 1), 222–252.Google Scholar
  2. Archer, M. (1995). Realist social theory: The morphogenetic approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Archer, M. (1996). Culture and Agency: The place of culture in social theory. Revised edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Archer, M. (2000). For structure: Its reality, properties and powers: A reply to Anthony King. The Sociological Review, 48(3), 464–472.Google Scholar
  5. Archer, M. (2007). Making our way through the world: Human reflexivity and social mobility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Archer, M. S., & Elder-Vass, D. (2012). Cultural system or norm circles? An exchange. European Journal of Social Theory, 15(1), 93–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Badat, S. (2012). Redressing the colonial/apartheid legacy: Social equity, redress, and higher education admissions in democratic South Africa. In Z. Hasan & M. Nussbaum (Eds.), Equalizing access: Affirmative action in higher education in India, United States, and South Africa (pp. 121–150). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bamber, V., Trowler, P., Saunders, M., & Knight, P. (2009). Introduction: Continuities, enhancement and higher education. In V. Bamber, P. Trowler, M. Saunders, & M. Enhancing (Eds.), Learning, teaching, assessment and curriculum in higher education (pp. 1–6). Maidenhead: Open University Press and McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
  9. Berliner, D. (2001). Learning about and learning from expert teachers. International Journal of Educational Research, 35(5), 463–482.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bhaskar, R. (1998). Philosophy and scientific realism. In M. Archer, R. Bhaskar, A. Collier, T. Lawson, & A. Norrie (Eds.), Critical realism: Essential readings (pp. 16–47). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  11. Blackmore, P., Chambers, J., Huxley, L., & Thackwray, B. (2010). Tribalism and territoriality in the staff and educational development world. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 34(1), 105–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Boughey, C., & McKenna, S. (2011). A meta-analysis of teaching and learning at five historically disadvantaged universities. Pretoria: Council on Higher Education.Google Scholar
  13. Boughey, C., & Niven, P. (2012). The emergence of research in the South African academic development movement. Higher Education Research & Development, 31(5), 641–653.Google Scholar
  14. Bozalek, V., & Boughey, C. (2012). (Mis) framing higher education in South Africa. Social Policy and Administration, 46(6), 688–703.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Candy, P. (1996). Promoting lifelong learning: Academic developers and the university as a learning organization. International Journal for Academic Development, 1(1), 7–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. D’Andrea, V. M., & Gosling, D. (2005). Improving teaching and learning: A whole institution approach. Maidenhead: SRHE and Open University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Department of Education. (2001). National Plan for Higher Education. Accessed 6 Mar 2001.
  18. Elder-Vass, D. (2010). The causal power of social structures: Emergence, structure and agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gosling, D. (2009). Report on the survey of directors of academic development in South African universities. Stellenbosch, South Africa: HELTASA.Google Scholar
  20. Kane, R., Sandretto, S., & Heath, C. (2004). An investigation into excellent tertiary teaching: Emphasising reflective practice. Higher Education, 47(3), 283–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Lave, J. (1996). Teaching, as learning, in practice. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 3(3), 149–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Lave, J. (2012). Changing practice. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19(2), 156–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Le Roux, P., & Breier, M. (2012). Steering from a distance: Improving access to higher education in South Africa via the funding formula. Johannesburg: Friedrich Ebert Stigting.Google Scholar
  24. Leibowitz, B. (2012). Understanding the challenges of the South African higher education landscape. In B. Leibowitz, L. Swartz, V. Bozalek, R. Carolissen, L. Nicholls, & P. Rohleder (Eds.), Community, self and identity: Educating South African university students for citizenship (pp. 3–18). Cape Town: HSRC Press.Google Scholar
  25. Leibowitz, B., & Bozalek, V. (2014). Access to higher education in South Africa: A social realist account. Widening Participation (in press).Google Scholar
  26. Leisyte, L., Enders, J., & Boer, H. (2009). The balance between teaching and research in Dutch and English universities in the context of university governance reforms. Higher Education, 58(5), 619–635.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Mathieson, S. (2012). Disciplinary cultures of teaching and learning as socially situated practice: Rethinking the space between social constructivism and epistemological essentialism from the South African experience. Higher Education, 63, 549–564.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Maxwell, J. (2012). A realist approach for qualitative research. Los Angeles: Sage.Google Scholar
  29. Porpora, D. (1998). Four concepts of social structure. In M. Archer, R. Bhaskar, A. Collier, T. Lawson, & A. Norrie (Eds.), Critical realism: Essential readings (pp. 339–354). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  30. Quinn, L. (2012). Enabling and constraining conditions for academic staff development. In L. Quinn (Ed.), Re-imagining academic staff development: Spaces for disruption (pp. 27–50). Stellenbosch: Sun Press.Google Scholar
  31. Ramsden, P. (1998). Learning to lead in higher education. London: RoutledgeFalmer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Scott, I., Yeld, N., & Hendry, J. (2007). Higher education monitor: A case for improving teaching and learning in South African higher education. Pretoria: Council for higher education.
  33. Soudien, C. (2012). The promise of the university: What it’s become and where it could go. In B. Leibowitz (Ed.), Higher education for the public good: Views from the south (pp. 31–44). Stellenbosch: Sun Media.Google Scholar
  34. South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR). (2012). South Africa Survey 2012. Education. Unit for risk analysis.Google Scholar
  35. Trigwell, K. (2001). Judging university teaching. International Journal for Academic Development, 6(1), 65–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Trowler, P. (2008). Cultures and change in higher education: Theories and practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.Google Scholar
  37. Trowler, P. (2011). Doing insider research in universities. Kindle edition.Google Scholar
  38. Volbrecht, T., & Boughey, C. (2004). Curriculum responsiveness from the margins: The case of academic development. In: H. Griesel (Ed.), Curriculum responsiveness: Case studies in higher edcuation (pp. 57–80). Pretoria: SAUWCA.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brenda Leibowitz
    • 1
  • Vivienne Bozalek
    • 2
  • Susan van Schalkwyk
    • 3
  • Christine Winberg
    • 4
  1. 1.Education FacultyUniversity of JohannesburgJohannesburgSouth Africa
  2. 2.University of the Western CapeCape TownSouth Africa
  3. 3.Centre for Health Professions Education, Faculty of Medicine and Health SciencesStellenbosch UniversityTygerbergSouth Africa
  4. 4.Fundani Centre for Higher Education DevelopmentCape Peninsula University of TechnologyCape TownSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations