Professionalising Student Affairs, Development and Support Services is the key to enhancing Student Success in higher education 

Published On: 1 June 2023|

The professionalisation of Student Affairs, Student Development and Support Services across the South African university sector is critical for improved student and all institutions’ success.

This was the view of those leading the inaugural Student Affairs and Student Success (SASS) capacity development programme, the first session of which was hosted at the Southern Sun, OR Tambo International on the East Rand, from 29 to 30 May 2023. The programme was conceptualised by a consortium of higher education and student affairs experts coordinated by the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) Programme of Universities South Africa (USAf). It is also being delivered under the HELM stewardship.

The two-day session attracted 50 participants from a range of student support services 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.

Welcoming the SASS participants, USAf’s CEO, Dr Phethiwe Matutu, called this training programme a “milestone event”. Her second-in-command and recently appointed Director: Operations and Sector Support, Mr Mahlubi Chief Mabizela, concurred that it was a much-needed intervention, considering that student success, leadership and governance issues were two key challenges that the higher education sector was currently grappling with.

Dr Oliver Seale, Director of HELM echoed the CEO’s words, adding that this was a first in South Africa, and on the African continent.

Why this programme? Why now?

This programme is a direct response to a national Training Needs Assessment (TNA) survey that HELM carried out among student support professionals working in Student Affairs, Student Development and Student Support services across the 26 public institutions in November 2021. The study found that 86% of the surveyed sample (N=362) was keen to take part in a capacity building intervention to enhance their impact on student success.

The survey findings, including the expressed needs to develop competencies and skills, led to the design of the SASS programme during 2022.

A three-pronged approach

Dr Matutu (left) said that in order to achieve its vision of “a higher education system that is responsive to South African and global challenges through the growth and development of engaged graduates and through high-quality knowledge production,” USAf has anchored its work on three clusters: Students, Sustainability and Engagement. She said USAf had further identified sub-themes with a bearing on student growth and development: Stability, Student Funding, Accommodation, Access and Success, Employability, and Mental Wellness.

“USAf’s work is spread across all these areas, with the latest product — the work of the Transformation Strategy Group — being a research study report with guidelines, titled Reshaping universities to create a student-centred higher education system in South Africa.” She said this report would be shared with everyone working with students in the higher education sector.

USAf flagship programmes

Dr Matutu mentioned USAf’s two flagship programmes, namely Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) and HELM, both focussing on advancing student success in higher education, and both supported by the Department of Higher Education and Training. Since 2018 HELM had been tasked with advancing governance, leadership and management in South African universities.

As another measure towards strengthening higher education leadership, the USAf Board established the Higher Education Leadership and Management Strategy Group, which had recently held its first meeting. “This development signals USAf’s ongoing investment in and support for good governance and effective leadership and management development at all levels in our universities,” the CEO said.

Both the CEO and HELM Director confirmed that HELM’s programmes respond to individuals’ and institutions’ identified capacitation needs in their specific context, thus addressing the challenges more effectively. “To that end, HELM has created two portfolios internally, one on governance, leadership, and management and the other, on student success,” said Dr Matutu.

Leadership and Governance are grave concerns

These issues are of such magnitude that Operations Director, Mr Mabizela (right) mentioned them as the biggest areas of concern in higher education. He asked: “If you were asked to tell someone who had been out of the country for the past two years what our biggest problem was, you’d be remiss if you didn’t mention leadership and governance issues.”

“Students need leadership. They talk only after protesting. At senior leadership,

the staggering leadership and governance issues are playing out everywhere in the public domain, including in the media.”

Directly addressing the participants, he said by virtue of their responsibility for student matters, “you provide leadership at your institutions. Institutional management will consult Student Affairs on matters that relate generally to the governance of students (for example, the Students Representative Council (SRC).”

Mr Mabizela mentioned a USAf report titled An Engaged University for a Higher Education System in South Africa – published in 2022 from the deliberations of the Higher Education Conference of 2021. This report, Mabizela said, addresses the kind of change that is needed in SA universities, to render them Engaged Institutions.

“Basically, what kind of graduates do we want to produce? If we are to produce those who will make a positive contribution to society, we have to provide leadership. An engaged university means one that is really grounded and is organically involved in issues of society. It is something that the university does or should be doing.”

Citing an approach commonly used in government, the Theory of Change, Mabizela said: “You have to begin at the end, with the impact we want our graduates to have; the outcome being the type (quality, traits) of graduates we need to be producing if they are to make a meaningful contribution to society; the output being the quality of graduates we produce; the activities being the teaching and learning in the context of leadership and governance we provide while they are at our institutions. Of course, the input being the cohorts of students we enrol; the teaching and learning and, again, the leadership we provide whilst they are on our campuses.” He emphasised that the university has not done its job if it fails to change its graduates for the better.

In conclusion, the Director: Operations and Sector Support pleaded with Student Affairs practitioners to “not divorce your leadership role at the university from the role you play in moulding students, from enrolment, right through to graduation.”

It is about how universities are led

Dr Oliver Seale (left), who was Programme Director at the SASS launch, said universities in the world, including those in the South African system, have each carved their own excellence niche. Regrettably, “we tend to lose that in the ranking system. In our programme, we need to determine how successfully universities are led. It often rests on the Executive Leadership team, who need to galvanise the energies of the academics and administrators to work as a collective, towards achieving the institution’s strategic goals.”

To the programme attendees, Dr Seale said: “As Dr Chalufu said, you need to own this space. We are confident that once you have completed this programme, engaged with your colleagues, and shared your experience over the next six months (June to November 2023), you will be better positioned to showcase your excellence, for the benefit of yourself and your institution.

The HELM Director went on to state that before CoVid-19 we talked about one constant in our higher education system: Change. “Nowadays, we talk about two constants, Change and Complexity. Leadership in universities today, is becoming increasingly complex. One thing we learned during the CoVid-19 pandemic is that when we work as a collective, we all win. It is about you and your team – or even more importantly, You, leading and being led by your team.”

Access without support is not a fair opportunity

Dr Birgit Schreiber (right), the SASS programme leader, emphasised the role Student Affairs, Support and Development play in supporting students and shaping a context conducive for student success. Enabling access without support is not a fair opportunity, she argued, and this is where staff in the Student Affairs, Support and Development Services play a critical role for students and institutions.

We must address student life holistically — Dr Matutu

Further arguing that student success debates had, in the latter years, grown beyond student throughput rates to involve a holistic understanding of the student life cycle, Dr Matutu said universities now concern themselves with “how we provide relevant services, shape the living and learning context, and how we engage students in the transformation of their tertiary experience.” This therefore underlined the critical role of Student Affairs, Student Support and Student Development functions. It also explained why, globally, staff in these functions are supported and capacitated via professionalisation and bespoke development programmes, “which advance their contributions towards institutional objectives for success.”

On behalf of the USAf Chairperson and Board of Directors, the CEO congratulated all 50 participants for having responded to this call. “We are confident that you will use this opportunity to reflect, learn and add greater value to our students. It will also be incumbent on you to share the lessons from SASS with your colleagues and peers at your university. Together, we will make the student-centred higher education space more enabling and empowering for ourselves and our students,” Dr Matutu concluded.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.