When Professor Sibusiso Chalufu (right) first heard about the launch, this year, of the inaugural HELM (Higher Education and Leadership Management) SASS (Student Affairs and Student Success) programme– he said he thought it was “the best thing since sliced sphatlo or kota”.
SASS is a national capacitation programme for university staff who are engaged in student affairs, development, support and services across the sector. The bespoke programme – which was oversubscribed when applications first opened – was designed as a direct response to a finding of a 2021 national needs assessment survey, which identified an urgent demand for capacitation in Student Affairs, Student Development and Student Support practitioners.
The SAASSAP (South African Association of Senior Student Affairs Professionals) President, who is also Executive Director: Student Life at North-West University reiterated: “I have been in higher education for nearly 30 years – working in student support for about 13 of these – and this is one of the best things I’ve seen. This programme is an affirmation of the work that we do in student services and its importance, particularly in today’s times with the challenges we face. The SASS programme is a major milestone in our subset, which is aimed at the professionalisation and capacitation of our staff; especially staff members who, in my view, play a critical role in the holistic development of our students and are pivotal in respect of student access and student success.”
Professor Chalufu was speaking at the SASS colloquium which saw the first 51 participants complete the programme on 28 November, becoming alumni and mentors for the upcoming class of 2024. This inaugural group were chosen from applications received from student support professionals in all their forms across South Africa’s public universities. The attendees were mostly middle and senior managers from Student Affairs, Student Development, Student Services, Administration, Libraries, Transformation and Equity, Health and Wellness, Student Residences, Marketing and Communication departments, and more.
He believes the SASS programme is critical for these professionals who are often marginalised and taken for granted.
The SASS programme inaugural Class of 2023.
The importance of working together
“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 have produced critical work which demonstrates that unless you take care of what goes on outside of the lecture hall, you cannot expect students to succeed,” he reiterated.
“We all have to work together in collaboration — lecturers and support staff. We must be intentional in terms of how we relate to each other. It is an artificial dichotomy to separate teaching, learning, development and support. It is when these processes — which underpin success — are aligned, that we strengthen our impact.”
Chalufu said he was also impressed by the content of the debut programme and said he was intending to register himself for next year: “I attended one of the sessions and I listen to our colleagues and realise how much I still have to learn and just how beneficial the engagement with colleagues is.”
Student development officers
The student affairs executive went on to highlight that the professionalisation of student development officers (SDOs) was just as important as enhancing the professionalisation of student affairs personnel. “SDOs play a critical link between students and management. When we don’t get that right, we end up with the challenges we are currently facing. A number of higher learning institutions take former student leaders and bring them on board as SDOs. In principle, there is nothing wrong with that as they provide continuity.
“However, many struggle to make the transition from being a student leader to becoming a staff member. They don’t realise that they have to operate in a different way than they did before. It is the same as being a staff member promoted to becoming a leader or manager. At HELM, we need to continue to engage and to develop a range of content and context-specific programmes.”
Professor Chalufu said he firmly believed that the SASS programme is destined for great heights in terms of capacity development in the student affairs sector. He said he was impressed by the topical and critical research presentations given at the colloquium by the 51 participants who were divided into 10 Peer Learning Groups (PLGs) and urged them to have their work published.
Full circle for SASS programme
Dr Oliver Seale (left), Director: HELM echoed the Prof Chalufu’s words, adding that the SASS programme was a first in South Africa and on the African continent.
“We started this initiative with some anxiety and trepidation because it was a new pilot project. Obviously we did our homework and research but you can only judge how people respond and the success of the programme once it has gone full circle. I am delighted to be here on completion of this inaugural phase.”
He wished the class of 2023 well and said he hoped they would go back to their universities, share what they had learnt over the course of the year and continue to make a difference in the Student Support Services sector.
Applications for 2024
Dr Birgit Schreiber (right), the SASS programme leader, also congratulated the 2023 SASS participants and announced that entries for 2024 would open this month (December) on https://helm.ac.za/sass/. Emails and notifications will be sent to support staff at all universities. Submissions close in March, 2024.
Once again, content will be delivered online and hybrid, with local and international facilitators and speakers, active peer engagement, peer learning groups, assignments, research projects, mentoring as well as synchronous and asynchronous engagement.
The objectives will be to:
- Develop professional capacity in higher education
- Improve student and institutional success
- Embolden the contribution of staff in student support and development domains
- Strengthen practice
- Professional network and community building
- Provide opportunity for national and international collaboration
- Develop research and scholarship
The nominating university must commit to contributing an amount of R15 000 per successful participant to HELM, which will be utilised for programme activities not funded by HELM’s UCDP grant.
Applicants will be chosen from a wide range of South African universities as well as a diverse array of support services. It is hoped to include participants from other African countries as well, Dr Schreiber said.
So how does she judge the success of the programme after its inaugural year: “The success of the programme is related to the relevance of the content which entices the participants to engage fully in the material and work collaboratively with one another”, says Dr Schreiber.
“The class of 2023 has been so energised, so committed and engaged, it has been a joy – this is the kind of joy and energy that the participants took back to their institutions. The participants learnt a lot to enhance their work, improve their context and advance their careers. This is what we see in their evaluations and, over time, this group of staff will be pivotal in advancing student success.”
Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.