It is the responsibility of universities to create environments conducive to students’ development and success

28-10-21 USAf 0 comment

The Fallist movements of 2015/16 undoubtedly highlighted lived realities of students. They also reflected significant levels of alienation that they were experiencing in the learning environment — Dr Saloschini Pillay, Manager: Student Support Services at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s College of Health Sciences, asserted at the 2nd Higher Education Conference recently.

She said the onus was on universities to formulate means to alleviate the various alienations that students continue to encounter. Whilst at that, universities must continuously strive to create environments conducive to the enhancement of students’ development and success.

Dr Pillay (left) was introducing the second breakaway session of the Transformation Strategy Group (TSG) on Day Two of Universities South Africa’s The Engaged University conference that was held virtually from 6 – 8 October.

“What do universities know about their students?” she proceeded to ask, referring to students’ expectations, realities, indigenous knowledge and aspirations, as well as how they best learn and develop in higher education. “Knowing our students’ needs can only better shape the design, plan and delivery of a higher education experience that is relevant, responsive, rewarding, and meaningful for our students.”

She said the TSG session, titled Student-Centred Universities, had been created as a platform to reflect on “our analysis that universities, given the diversity of students within its spaces, have not designed themselves in line with the principles of student-centeredness.

“These principles include, but are not limited to, social and physical spaces, curriculum, student histories and contexts, the administrative regime, knowledge and research, modes of learning and teaching, extra-curricular arrangements, safety and security, anti and non-discrimination, to name just a few.”

Student-centredness for what?

Dr Sibusiso Chalufu President of the South African Association of Senior Student Affairs Professionals (SAASSAP) and Executive Director of Student Life and Transformation at the North-West University, was the first of two panellists to address this session. He explored four factors concerning student-centredness. These were:

  • the centrality of student affairs and services practitioners in creating student-centred institutions,
  • the role and purpose of higher education and its significance for student-centred universities,
  • institutional cultures, and
  • student engagement.

As he acknowledged the moments of reflection that the current pandemic had imposed on the sector, he took a glimpse at the pre-CoViD period, the time during the pandemic and prospects for a post-CoViD-19 higher education environment.

He said part of the reflection had to recognise and appreciate the shift in universities’ thinking on the critical role that Student Support Services staff, particularly Student Affairs and Services practitioners, fulfil. He added that in the not-so-distant past, Student Affairs and Services practitioners were primarily in the periphery of strategic focus and institutional operations.

“We were referred to as those guys who keep students busy when they are not engaged academically, and whose primary role is just of ensuring students are not engaged in any disruptive protests. We have come quite a long way since then, and we must appreciate the shift that has happened in the thinking and the practice of universities.”

Dr Chalufu (right) said it was interesting to note the central role that Student Affairs and Services practitioners were now fulfilling – and this was from the time of FeesMustFall. Recently, as the sector was grappling with the changes brought upon by the pandemic, their services became doubly recognised as issues such as students’ mental health received dedicated attention.

However, whilst acknowledging these positives he raised a concern: if students are the core business of these institutions, why are they not at the centre? He challenged the audience to ask themselves, “Student-centredness for what?”

Linking that question to the purpose of higher education, Chalufu referenced a chapter from the book Promise of Higher Education: Essays in Honour of 70 Years of International Association of Universities. In this chapter, Professor Ira Harkavy argues that the most significant purpose of a university is the education of citizens – specifically able, ethical, empathetic, engaged, and effective democratic citizens of a democratic society.

In the same chapter, Professor Harkavy opines that another central purpose of universities is to develop knowledge needed to change the world for the better. “That, in my view, is quite profound in thinking about student centredness — an anchor on the understanding of higher education as a public good,” said Dr Chalufu.

“Student-centredness is intricately linked to the work of Student Affairs and Services practitioners whose role and purpose is actually to contribute to the holistic development of students as well rounded, innovative, and socially responsive leaders in service of humanity.”

Dr Chalufu stated that their work and proximity to students do place them at a vantage position. Over time, this has helped institutions adopt student-centred approaches to governance, management, teaching and learning, and to the overall operations of higher education institutions.

To him, the shift in the thinking and practices of universities is evident in the relationship they now share with student leaders. He said they were witnessing a more collaborative and palpable approach. Seemingly, conditions that CoViD-19 occasioned indicated to role-players per university, that they needed to work together.

Touching on institutional culture, Dr Chalufu said universities cannot speak of being student-centred without addressing this very element. He borrowed words of Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University and Chairperson of the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group, who had once said “the creation of a vibrant, intellectual, social and cultural environment is key to the achievement of academic excellence.”

He said what Dr Mabizela and other researchers found, especially in the 2000s, was that student involvement in some way links to greater satisfaction with university experience and strong academic performance.

“I wish to argue this morning that we need to ask ourselves: To what extent do our universities create a caring and supportive institutional culture and an affirming environment which brings about a sense of belonging and a feeling of being at home?”

Dr Chalufu also cited the work of Professor Sharlene Swartz and others on the book: Studying While Black: Race, Education, Emancipation in South African universities — one of many that have documented the alienation experiences of students at universities. Furthermore, he alluded to a study currently underway, commissioned by Universities South Africa (USAf), that seeks to reshape institutional cultures to create a student-centred higher education system for South Africa. On these bases, Dr Chalufu pointed out that there is some light on the horizon, although more work still needs to be done.

Moving on to student engagement, Dr Chalufu shared that the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement in the United Kingdom maintains that an engaged university proactively includes and involves students in shaping the mission and delivery of the strategy — that it maximises opportunities for their involvement.

Also citing an article that he and Dr Amani Saidi contributed to the Council on Higher Education (CHE) Kagiso journal in 2020, dedicated to student engagement, he said they identified a need for higher education institutions to enhance student engagement as a mechanism for enabling students to play a purposive role in the development and governance of their institutions. The article touched on co-creation of knowledge, enhancement of their learning experiences, and ultimately, their development as good citizens.

Both Drs Saloschini Pillay and Sibusiso Chalufu are active members of USAf’s Transformation Strategy Group, whose priorities in the next five years include the reconstruction of institutional culture by focussing on the design of universities around our students and staff, and to build models of universities that are seriously engaged in the local context in which they find themselves. The TSG is also concerned about the wellbeing of people with disabilities in higher education with a view to improving responses. It aims to positively influence responses to gender-based violence; and the inequalities highlighted by CoViD-19.

The TSG priorities explain the Group’s choice of sub-themes they explored in the recent conference. In addition to Student-Centred Universities, the TSG also dedicated two other breakaway sessions to The Engaged University and Transformation and The Responsive University.

The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant contracted by Universities South Africa.