Thursday 4 June 2015

The pace of transformation in higher education is very slow: Brickbats, bouquets and pearls from students

On the 29 May 2015, I had the opportunity to attend the bi-annual colloquium hosted by Wits Centre for Diversity Studies (WiCDS) in association with the Anti-Racism Network in Higher Education (ARNHE) called Transforming Transformation? The Changing Landscape of South African Institutions of Higher Learning that took place at the Emoyeni conference venue in Parktown, Johannesburg.

ARNHE began in June 2008 as a response to a painful, shameful and scary incident that occurred at the University of the Free State in the Reitz Residence. In this incident a group of white male students urinated in food given to elderly black female general workers at the university. Footage of the incident went viral on social media highlighting just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the challenges that face transformation in higher education including racism.

The purpose of the gathering was to explore how the transformation agendas of universities have been challenged by recent developments in the country and on its campuses and to produce a report from the deliberations. I will highlight some of the comments made by student leaders from higher education institutions in the country.
The programme began with a few words of welcome from Professor Melissa Steyn, the director of the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, about the role of ARNHE- being a platform for stakeholders in higher education on the vital subject of transformation. Next participants broke into workshop commissions, covering areas such as institutional culture, staff experience, student experience, curriculum, leadership and governance.

I was the only teacher in higher education that chose the student experience and these are some of the brickbats, bouquets and pearls I gleaned from the local and international students at this commission.

·         Funding and financial problems were highlighted with some students saying, “money will buy you anything”. In addition some practical challenges of students receiving their National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) book allowances after the university teaching had commenced was raised as this practice placed students at a compromised position
·         International students lamented about the struggles encountered in obtaining visas and study permits  
·         The underpreparedness of students in the first year and the poor academic throughput rate from students coming from resource scarce schools (Badat  & Sayed, 2014; CHE, 2010; Cross, Shalem, Backhouse, & Adam, 2009) was noted as an area of concern  
·         The lack of early warning systems in many higher education institutions to identify students who are a risk of failing and dropping out of the system. An example of an early warning system that was provided by one institution was that letters were sent to parents when the student failed the first test
·         The managerial style of interaction adopted by some of the university staff to address concerns of students when compassion is required
·         The culture at student’s residences that leaves students feeling alienated and not “at home” and extends to students being racially segregated. Students indicated that (more that 20 years post the dismantling of apartheid) there are still certain residences that are reserved for only white students. When the students questioned the reasoning behind these rules they received responses that it was being done for safety reasons
·         Feelings of being alienated from the curriculum in some courses were raised
·         The slow pace of transformation within the leadership of higher education institutions
·         Student leadership saw themselves as being in a vulnerable position due to issues of power dynamics and some members of the Student Representative Councils (SRCs) were disparagingly called the puppets of management

·         NSFAS was praised for the opportunities granted to students to attend higher education institutions
·         Programmes that target talent and mentor students from school to university were seen as helpful. The Student Equity and Talent Management Unit (SETMU) at the University of the Witwatersrand was cited as an example
·         Students learning from being exposed to the cultural practices of others who were different from themselves by sharing food, song and dance was seen as helpful in addressing diversity issues
·         Support for student leadership and creating spaces for dialogue were positively regarded
·         Campus clinics that have extend services to members of the neighboring communities was seen as a best practice
·         Higher institutions that are marketing their programmes to the rest of Africa were supported and encouraged
·         Staff members from higher institutions who have committed their own funds to support students were praised
·         The development of a corruption hotline to raise issues anonymously was lauded  
·         The Leadership for Change Programme initiated by the University of the Free State that gives first year students international exposure to universities across the globe to encourage integration across the lines of colour, culture and language, was seen as a best practice
·         The provision of food for student who are hungry was regarded as essential
·         The practice at some institutions that allows international students to pay 75% of their fees at the beginning of the term instead of 100% offered some relief to students and their families
·         Assistance provided by some institutions to help international students with obtaining study permits and visas from the Department of Home Affairs
Pearls of wisdom
These were some suggestions made by students to improve aspects at higher education institutions:
·         Support staff need to be retrained so that they are better able to understand and support students when they begin at higher education institutions
·         Higher education institutions need to share best practices at various levels and have open conversations regarding issues of transformation
·         Students need to play a bigger role in monitoring transformation plans
·         First year programmes should be credit bearing and be better designed to develop responsible public good professional capabilities  (Walker & McLean, 2010) and should be discipline specific 
·         The students need to support and help each other to protect the rights of minorities and stand up against various forms of discrimination. Thus students can liberate each other and free others from oppressive and unjust actions and practices
·         There is a need to pay attention to not just the big picture of transformation but to also consider the small issues that stand in the way of transformation

Concluding comments
These brickbats, bouquets and pearls of wisdom indicate that issues around institutional culture and climate are not new and while there have been some structural changes there was a lack of agency expressed on the part of students. No doubt, there is a need for the student movement to be part of these uncomfortable discourses around transformation in higher education. Nevertheless, despite the challenges I am hopeful because the participants in this commission were not despondent and discussion flowed amicably. Matters raised did not only include the constraining factors. It is important for stakeholders to realize that the academic project is inextricably linked to the student project. I believe that higher educators need to hear the views of the people they teach in order to adopt a student-centred holistic social justice approach when working in the higher education space. I look forward to reading the report that emanates from this important event. Comments and additions to this list of brickbats, bouquets and pearls are most welcome.

Badat , S., & Sayed, Y. (2014). Post-1994 South African Education: The Challenge of Social Justice. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 652(127), 127-148.
CHE. (2010). Access and Throughput in South African Higher Education :Three Case Studies HE Monitor No.9. Pretoria Council on Higher Education
Cross, M., Shalem, Y., Backhouse, J., & Adam, F. (2009). How undergraduate students 'negotiate' academic performance within a diverse university environment. SAJHE, 23(1), 21-42.
Walker, M., & McLean, M. (2010). Making Lives go better: University Education and 'professional capabilities'. SAJHE, 24(5), 847-869.
Roshini Pillay is an early career academic after being a social worker for more than 20 years. She teaches social work at the University of the Witwatersrand. She writes in her personal capacity as a member of SoTL@UJ