A Transformation Strategy Group study has produced a Framework for a Student-centred Higher Education System in South Africa

Published On: 3 May 2023|

The study that Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Transformation Strategy Group (TSG) embarked upon from 2020, titled Reshaping Universities to Create a Student-Centred Higher Education System in South Africa, has borne its first fruit. The outcome is a Framework for a Student-centred Higher Education System, packaged in a comprehensive report that the TSG endorsed during its meeting of 6 February 2023, and later endorsed by the USAf Board of Directors at its first sitting for the year on 17 March.

The Framework is accompanied by a set of guidelines that universities can use as both a lens and a tool in reshaping their respective institutional cultures.

This project is aligned with the TSG’s mandate to identify and execute sector-wide projects that give effect to the sector’s broad transformation in the bigger scheme of national development. The project also recognised the fundamental role of any higher education system and its member institutions to provide conditions conducive for students to develop physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually.

South Africa, with its changing higher education landscape characterised by the more than doubled student population since 1994, varying levels of student preparedness for higher education and a 46% dropout rate – among other challenges — could not leave the re-design of this system to chance.

Philosophical approach

This project, which recognises the gross inequalities in the South African society, is a social justice project concerning itself with students’ quality of life, well-being and agency.

“Educational environments, through their ethos and processes, should empower historically marginalised students, challenge inequitable educational arrangements and institutions, and offer strategies and visions for creating a more just higher education world,” the project concept document reads.

According to the Lead Researcher and Director of Student Life at the University of the Free State, Dr WP Wahl (above), this study sought to answer the research question: How can institutional cultures be reshaped to create a student-centred higher education system in South Africa?

The project’s Advisory Board had conceptually positioned this study in a social justice, human development and human capabilities framework. The Advisory Board further identified seven focus areas critical for the formation of a student-centred higher education system. The study data was analysed looking through these seven lenses, which were deemed important for reshaping institutional cultures in which universities could:

  1. seek a deep understanding of their students;
  2. seek a better understanding of their faculty members and staff;
  3. truly comprehend their institutional culture and openness to transformative change;
  4. appreciate the interconnectedness between themselves and the socio-economic context in which they are located;
  5. display global awareness and citizenship and actively seek solutions to global challenges;
  6. understand the impact of technology on teaching and learning, and develop digital pedagogies for student success, and
  7. could use a human development and human capabilities framework for students’ well-being and agency as a mechanism for evaluating their own social justice efforts, quantitatively and qualitatively.

Study methodology

The Delphi research method was used to collect and analyse data. The research team used purposive sampling to establish an Expert Panel of 22 individuals from senior management structures of universities, senior researchers and former students. This Expert Panel provided rich data that enabled the research team in upholding a rigorous research process amidst limited resources and severe time constraints.

At the initial next research stage, qualitative data was collected through semi-structured interviews with members of the Expert Panel. A thematic data-analysis process was used to identify patterns, codes and themes from the data, leading to a draft of the first research report that was circulated among the Advisory Board and Expert Panel in April 2022.

During a workshop held on 10 May 2022, the Advisory Board and Expert Panel gathered to evaluate and discuss the draft report, critically reflecting on the research findings and providing recommendations, especially in the context of designing a framework for a student-centred higher education system. These recommendations allowed the research team to refine the interpretation of the data and address certain gaps. Two additional questionnaires were subsequently sent to the Expert Panel to refine the formulation of the values associated with a student-centred higher education system.

Study findings: The Framework

This study found that:

  1. A student-centred higher education system is primarily concerned with the formation of the personhood of individual students.
  2. This formation is the result of reciprocal interaction between individual students and the multi-layered higher education environment in which they function.
  3. Three clusters of values underpin a student-centred higher education system, namely Inter-connectedness, Human Dignity and Equitable Access.

4. Each cluster of values encompasses three subordinate values, which, collectively, form the foundation for a student-centred framework.

Clusters, based on architectonic values Associated values
A. Inter-connectedness Empathy, Plurality, Transparency.
B. Human Dignity Quality, Integrity, Well-being.
C. Equitable Access Adaptability, Agency, Awareness.

The data also revealed that:

5. These values direct the structural and operational aspects associated with a student-centred higher education system. In this regard, seven contexts were identified, namely: personal, relational, institutional, sectoral, societal, and global. (the virtual context, as a seventh context, is embedded in each of the other six contexts).

The multi-dimensional context of higher education.

6. The configuration of the above-mentioned contexts, according to the three value-clusters, gives rise to specific patterns of thinking, feeling, behaviour and speaking – all functions of a student-centred higher education system.

The researchers inferred from the data, that some contexts represent two ends of one focus area, with one end representing an intra-domain and the other an inter-domain. For example, the first axis represents a “personal” focus area, with the one end, representing the intra-personal domain, and the other end representing the inter-personal domain (relational). Similarly, with the “intuitional” axis, the one end represents an intra-institutional domain, while the other end represents the inter-institutional domain (i.e. sector). In the same vein, with the “societal” axis, the one end represents the intra-national domain (i.e. inside South Africa), while the other end represents the inter-national domain.

How a student-centred higher education system plays out in an environment valuing interconnectedness

How a student-centred higher education system plays out in an environment valuing human dignity

How a student-centred higher education system plays out in an environment valuing equitable access

The above summarises how the research team arrived at the Framework for a Student-centred Higher Education System in South Africa.

Dr Wahl explained that the 108 guideline statements were formulated from the research data (i.e. 36 guidelines per value cluster – spanning all six contexts). The purpose of these guideline statements is to enable collective awareness and collective actions within the South African higher education system. These guideline statements provide both a tool and a lens that could be used to reshape institutional cultures to become more student-centred.

These guidelines, compiled into a Guideline Document, are provided to enable the operationalisation of the Framework. They include posters that can be downloaded and shared in the system to stimulate conversations at institutional level (as a lens and a tool to re-shape student-centred universities).

The Lead Researcher cautioned, however, that the Framework is dynamic. He said developmental needs of students change as they journey through their university experience. For example, needs of students in their first year of study change during the second year, and will starkly differ by the time they complete their undergraduate degrees. They also differ during post-graduate study.

Promoting the Framework across the university system

As they adopted this study report during their meeting of 6 February, members of the Transformation Strategy Group agreed to operationalise it by first presenting the report to other strategy groups, various communities of practice and student bodies, notably the South African Union of Students. While members of the Board of USAf suggested that the Report, and its associated Guidelines, also be presented to Deputy Vice-Chancellors responsible for Teaching and Learning and the Deans of Student Affairs, the Chair, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, said the sharing of the Report would be led by the TSG as the project custodian.

The TSG, set to meet again sometime in May, will further agree on the modality of promoting the Report.

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communications.