Universities South Africa’s Transformation Strategy Group (TSG) initiated a research study in 2020 to determine how institutional cultures could be reshaped to create a student-centred higher education system in South Africa. By May 2022 the research team had gathered sufficient data and completed the first stage of the data analysis process.
The TSG is one of USAf’s five strategy groups, each with a distinct area of focus. The TSG’s role is to advise the USAf Board on how to accelerate and deepen transformation within the university sector. Their role includes developing short, medium, to long-term strategies to address transformation matters. They also advise the Board on emerging good practices and those with a potential to undermine transformation in the sector.
The research study in discussion, titled Reshaping universities to create a student-centred higher education system in South Africa, aims to create deeper insights on how to establish a socially just system that would be optimally conducive to the formation of the personhood of the student. In line with its founding conceptual document, it is about transforming multiple layers of the higher education context to ensure and optimise the holistic development of students. Furthermore, this study seeks to provide a new perspective on student agency and graduate attributes, and how it could be used to nurture citizens capable of advancing the public good.
On 10 May 2022, a cross-functional team comprising executive leaders, senior academics and researchers inclined to student affairs management, as well as USAf officials attended a workshop to collectively reflect on the current findings stemming from the data.
Setting the stage to provide the study’s context, Professor Ahmed Bawa (right), Chief Executive Officer at USAf, said the project was neither confined to matters of teaching and learning, nor the curriculum. It was rather an attempt at understanding how institutions can engage in projects that significantly improve the quality of the experience of students, while enabling them to grow intellectually, socially and emotionally. Ultimately, the study could lead to institutional culture shift that alters the nature of universities.
Recollecting his time as Vice-Chancellor at the Durban University of Technology until early 2016, Professor Bawa said there is deep-seated, yet covert violence being meted out at students in different contexts within the university. “The one thing that always reared its head at DUT was bad treatment received from secretaries and administrators,” he said.
Professor Bawa underlined the need to work hard on transforming institutional cultures into those that place students at the centre. “We need to try and understand how we can galvanise our universities to make them much more pleasant workspaces for our students, so that they can grow,” he said.
The study required purposive sampling
The principal researcher, Dr WP Wahl (left), who is also Director: Student Life at the University of the Free State, explained that the research team intentionally chose experts and leaders in the field of higher education to participate as panel members in the qualitative data gathering process. These experts were purposefully selected based on their expert knowledge and vast experience concerning various areas, namely: students’ learning and developmental needs, pedagogical practices of academic staff, institutional cultures and transformation, the interweaving between institutions and communities, the responsibilities of institutions regarding global challenges, and the development of digital learning and digital pedagogies.
“Ideally, we wanted individuals with enough experience and knowledge that, when engaged, would generate a rigorous data set,” he said, adding that they managed to complete 22 semi-structured interviews.
From the qualitative data collected, Dr Wahl and his team envisage proposing a framework that universities can use as a lens to help creating a deeper understanding of student-centredness in the context of South Africa’s higher education. He said the envisaged framework could also become a tool assisting institutions in becoming more student-centred.
The meeting of 10 May 2022 was also an opportunity to shape the emerging report in such a way that when it reaches institutions, it will be ready for integration into their respective transformation agendas.
Universities can reshape themselves
Professor Bawa lauded the progress made thus far, saying it was creating a basis for the sector to move forward. “I think the big challenge for us is to appreciate that our universities are not powerless in reshaping how they think about themselves,” he said.
In his concluding remarks, Professor Bawa posed the question, “How do we ensure that the knowledge creation that universities are about does not undermine the role we have to play in developing our students?” He added that these conversations should permeate the entire higher education sector, and not be limited to certain offices at institutions.
In addition to USAf’s senior leaders, senior academics who attended the meeting of 10 May, included student affairs practitioners and directors; transformation directors; higher education and human development researchers and consultants, deputy vice-chancellors: teaching and learning, and deputy vice-chancellors: transformation and engagement; professors in higher education studies, directors of student development and success and senior managers of student residences. There were also visiting academics in attendance. These included Dr Birgit Schreiber, University of Freiburg, Germany, and Vice President: International Association of Student Affairs and Services; Professor David Bell, Professor of the Practice of International Development and Social Change at the Center for International Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Dr Beverly Bell, Senior Lecturer and Assistant Dean of Educator Preparation at University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Dr Lisa Bardill Moscaritolo, Executive Director: Student Experience at American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, and Dr Caroline Suransky, Associate Professor in Humanistic Studies and Social Change at the University of Humanistic Studies (UvH) in the Netherlands.
The research team is currently finalising the data analysis process and aims to complete the research report during the second half of 2022. This report will subsequently be presented to the TSG for final input, whereupon it will be presented to the USAf board.
Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.