University of Cape Town: A total commitment to teaching and learning

Heads from 16 of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) academic departments (HoDs) gathered at the Mont Fleur Conference Centre in Stellenbosch from 24 to 26 May for the Heads of Department/Division Enhancement Programme (HoDEP).

Conducted in hybrid mode — 11 HoDs attended in person, while five joined online — the residential retreat focused on how HoDs can enhance current practices to provide effective leadership in their respective academic departments. Outstanding administrative support from Avrill Dawson of UCT’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) ensured the interactive programme was a success despite the difficulties posed by social distancing and COVID-19 protocols.

Presentations from various deans and university stakeholders, as well as participant discussions, outlined how the heads can ensure that their departments flourish as well-functioning academic units. This included research, teaching and learning, social responsiveness and transformation to support UCT’s overall strategies encapsulated in Vision 2030.
Leading the way for UCT

The first day of the programme focused on leadership, particularly how to lead in the current context.

Highlights included addresses from Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Teaching and Learning Associate Professor Lis Lange and the Centre for Higher Education Development’s (CHED) interim dean, Professor Alan Cliff, and Associate Professor Kasturi Behari-Leak, the interim director of Academic and Professional Staff Development at the CHED.

The DVC considered leadership in 21st-century South Africa in the context of higher education. Professor Cliff spoke about why context matters when considering the current and future roles of HoDs, while Associate Professor Behari-Leak explored leadership as an academic and social project, with a particular focus on leadership with integrity.

Presentation topics ranged from leading through a pandemic to how HoDs can create inclusive practices that facilitate capacity-building within their departments.

Professor Saalih Allie and Lisa Wilson reflected on their own experiences of being HoDs during an animated and engaging session. The two also spoke about what they wish they had been told before becoming HoDs.

Following this, the second day of the HoDEP covered the broader role of departmental heads within the university, with input from a variety of deans and other university stakeholders. Of particular interest were presentations from the dean of Humanities, Associate Professor Shose Kessi, and Associate Professor Janice McMillan.


Presentation topics ranged from leading through a pandemic to how the heads can create inclusive practices that facilitate capacity-building within their departments. Photo Supplied.
Associate Professor McMillan’s presentation focused on the role of the HoD in facilitating and enabling responsiveness and engagement. Concluding the second day’s proceedings, Professor Kessi used photovoice as a methodology to engage with how HoDs can lead for inclusivity, change and transformation within their departments.

Growing well-functioning academic units

Cliff and Behari-Leak kicked off the third day of the programme by facilitating a participant discussion around what it means to lead and manage in the context of the teaching project at UCT. This complemented the Design Thinking workshop, led by Richard Perez of the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking, held later in the day. The workshop focused on helping HoDs map the networks of support and stakeholders that can help or hinder their work.

One of the critical roles of HoDs, according to former UCT registrar Hugh Amoore, is to “give academic leadership to the department; to be concerned about its scholarship, its teaching and its standards; to develop its staff; and to grow it into a well-functioning academic unit”.

Pursuant to this, departmental heads should continually consult with academic staff and students to promote intellectual vigour and rigour in the department’s particular discipline. Important issues here include staff planning and development.

An issue raised by HoDs in this regard related to the administrative support needed to execute their function more impactfully in the areas of scholarship, teaching, staff development, as well as the ability to respond to crises.



“Our strong academic departments have a research-active staff who are committed to teaching and learning.”

Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation Professor Sue Harrison spoke to these duties on day three of the HoDEP while leading the participant discussion about the role of HoDs in enabling research in their departments.

Professor Harrison, whose portfolio includes advancing the quality, quantity and impact of UCT’s research, growing and transforming the postgraduate sector and overseeing interdisciplinary research institutes within the university, has a long and varied track record in management and leadership at UCT.

“Our strong academic departments have a research-active staff who are committed to teaching and learning,” she said. “By its nature, research is novel and ground-breaking, inspiring our lecturers to bring new angles to their teaching approach — to the student’s benefit.”

Leading a research-active department

Noting that UCT has several departments that are considered to be in the top 100 in their respective fields in the world, including a handful that fall into the top 50, Harrison explored the particular features that make these departments “strong”.

“In these departments, academic staff are passionate about their subject and sharing it with their students through teaching and learning as well as research. These are individuals who are naturally research-active across all stages of their academic career path,” she noted.



“The research activity in strong departments filters through and shows in all of their activities — it is a way of academic life.”

Adding to this, strong departments have diverse professional and support staff that use an integrated approach to teaching. They are also well administered and maintain appropriate teaching and research facilities.

“The research activity in strong departments filters through and shows in all of their activities — it is a way of academic life,” Harrison added.

To ensure that the various departments overseen by the HoDs remain research-active, Harrison outlined six key areas of focus, namely: keeping research on the agenda, building research critical mass, mentoring the next generation, facilitating research administration, building research capacity and building an active research postgraduate student body.

This measured approach, according to Harrison, will ensure that departments are continuously producing new research. The power of such research-active faculties is not only in the proliferation of information and contributions within a particular field; it is also in the encouragement it provides for faculty members to pursue professional excellence, which is critical for facilitating exceptional education and training.

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