It was with a sense of achievement that Dr Sibusiso Chalufu (right) praised a milestone programme designed to herald in the professionalisation of Student Affairs, Student Development and Student Support and related functions who provide essential support critical to student success in the public university sector.
The SAASSAP (South African Association of Senior Student Affairs Professionals) President, who is also Executive Director: Student Life at North-West University, said there had been failed attempts at this before, and applauded the work done by HELM (Universities South Africa’s Higher Education Leadership Management programme designed for capacity development) to correct that.
The HELM Student Affairs and Student Success programme, SASS, began with a two-day session from 29 to 30 May. It had attracted 50 participants drawn from 24 of the 26 public universities across South Africa. The bespoke programme was designed as a direct response to a finding of a 2021 national needs assessment survey, that identified an urgent need for capacitation in Student Affairs, Student Development and Student Support practitioners.
Critical student success factors
Dr Chalufu told participants: “In my mind, SASS is aimed at the professionalisation and capacitation of staff who play a critical role in the holistic development of our students and are pivotal in terms of student access and student success.”
He cited studies that were undertaken by Vincent Tinto – a Sociology Professor at Syracuse University as early as the 1990s – which highlighted the importance of both social and academic factors as being critical in respect of students’ first-year experience.
Said the SAASSAP President: “Some have argued that the first year, or even the first few months that a student spends at university, are critical in terms of future success. So, if we do not pay attention at that level, it could actually affect the student’s future in deleterious ways.”
He highlighted a local study conducted by Professor Francois Strydom (Senior Director of Teaching and Learning at the University of the Free State and project leader of SASSE, the South African Surveys of Student Engagement) and his research team.
“They confirmed this intersection between academic factors and social factors as contributing to the success of students. In 2017, Professor Strydom and team produced a seminal work – called Understanding Students; A key to systemic success. All of us who work towards the holistic development of our students need to familiarise ourselves with this report. We need to be able to make that contribution where we work.”
Not just clerks
There had been attempts in the past to professionalise the student affairs or student development sector with no success. “To this day, we are still talking about how to professionalise this sector.”
He said he remembered a fight he had had at a university where he had to remind colleagues that “even though we look like clerks, we are not; some of us have been academics. We have to realise the importance of all of us working together to professionalise this function. By working in isolation, we will never contribute to the holistic development of students. It is important that we maintain the professional stance, or we will never be taken seriously.”
Student Affairs practice not regarded as academic scholarship
Dr Chalufu credited Dr Matete Madiba (right), University of the Western Cape’s Deputy Vice Chancellor: Student Development and Support, and a member of SAASSAP’s Executive Committee, for having worked very hard to professionalise the Student Affairs and Support function. “Thanks to her, our work got published in a special edition of an international journal in 2022, Journal of Student Affairs in Africa, much to the surprise of our colleagues in academia.
“They think we just look after the students when they are toyi-toying. They did not know that we have such a wealth of information and knowledge to contribute.”
Need for student affairs programme
Recognising the SASS capacity development programme as paving an important pathway for Student Affairs practitioners, the SAASSAP President also expressed a wish that this was just the beginning. “I pray that by the time I exit this position, we will have achieved a fully-fledged programme that goes beyond a few modules. When I started at SUNY Buffalo (a university in New York State) there was a specific programme for student affairs and services. Why do we not have such programmes in this country? We need that in the sector.”
Good alignment with SAASSAP’s agenda
In closing, Dr Chalufu expressed much satisfaction that Dr Birgit Schreiber and Dr Oliver Seale were driving this programme. He described Dr Schreiber’s passion on Student Affairs and Success as “next to none” while also crediting Dr Seale for his similar passion on, and expertise in strategic leadership, which he had picked up in their conversations years ago.
He said he was also happy that his organisation, SAASSAP, was made a reference group in the conceptualisation of this training programme. Points of critical alignment between the SAASSAP programme (Strategic Plan 2020-2024) and SASS included the focus on facilitating holistic student success (Strategic Programme 5) and the professionalisation of the sector (Strategic Programme 6).
In closing, Dr Chalufu congratulated HELM for this successful launch, and wished everything of the best to the inaugural workshop participants. “Ï hope you find this a worthwhile contribution to your growth, and a tool to realise the twin goals of holistic development of students, and student success,” the SAASSAP President said.
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.