Rationale for the inaugural Student Affairs and Student Success (SASS) capacity development programme 

Published On: 2 June 2023|

Student success is not coincidental and access without support is not a true opportunity for students in our universities.  This was the message from Dr Birgit Schreiber, Programme Leader at Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM), within Universities South Africa (USAf) and the programme lead of a new capacity development programme for universities’ Student Affairs, Student Development and Student Support professionals.

The programme, named SASS (Student Affairs and Student Success), 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.

Dr Schreiber (left) said all components of Higher Education need to be intentional about student success and, as such, must take deliberate actions to make an impact in this regard.

There has been significant growth in universities’ support structures in the latter years –testimony that “our students need support. All our universities now offer broad support services: academic, personal, social, all the way to libraries, operations, faculty, leadership, communication, etc.” Similarly, student support is being offered from a broad range of perspectives, hence the interest in this SASS programme, by a diverse group of practitioners, from administrators, curriculum development personnel, teaching staff, and more. “We have multiple disciplines, multiple spaces, people with varying backgrounds gathered here,” thus referring to the 50-strong cohort of the SASS programme who attended its inaugural session in Gauteng, from 29 to 30 May 2023.

“Before the 90s, you came to university, and you either sank or swam. Now, universities want to keep students, engage them, support them, make sure they cope academically, assign them to tutorial groups, and ensure they have access to support,” she told the first 50-participant cohort.

SASS was therefore designed “to capacitate our staff to ensure we offer the most relevant and impactful support and do that within a framework of socially-just and learner-centred institutions,” Dr Schreiber explained. “We want to make sure that all the support functions offer locally relevant practices that are aligned to theory, research and best practices.”

All professionals need development

Drawing parallels between teaching and student support staff, Dr Schreiber said previously, it was assumed within universities that anyone with excellent academic credentials could teach. Now, it is common knowledge that teaching staff require development to make them good teachers. “So too, do we here. To ensure that we understand our context, understand our students, and are equipped to accelerate their success, our support staff require development.”

Fundamental principles

Dr Schreiber said the participants’ competencies and skills would be honed in a framework of social justice.  “This is about creating an environment where people have equitable access and an equal chance of success. Social justice means you have to think about what barriers you put up for people you are trying to support – albeit unintentionally. Social justice practice means enabling plurality – equitable participation of people of different voices, colour, shapes and sizes.”

Among other principles, she emphasised contextualised learning, again drawing parallels between students’ learning and that of staff. “Just as students come with context and need to be supported and helped to make sense of their learning – within their context, we, SASS staff come situated and embedded in our context. We are also contextualised life-long-learners making sense of our lives. Part of decolonialising our curriculum will entail making it more relevant to us, here and now, by recognising our experience and what we bring to this platform.”

The SASS programme had also been designed to ensure relevance. This was about making sure that valuable information was relevant to life in South Africa at this moment. Finally, learning would be aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Programme design

Dr Schreiber said there are many ways to improve student success, and one sure one is through development and professionalisation of staff. In designing this programme, HELM had drawn from similar programmes in the region and globally, consulting with local and global peers and colleagues. SASS would be drawing from what Botswana, China, India, Europe and the United States were already doing to professionalise this sector, while ensuring that “our programme remains relevant to our context.”

In response to the needs expressed in the 2021 training needs assessment, SASS aims to focus on four key areas: Leadership and Management, Understanding of the Higher Education sector from policy to operations and challenges; Student Support and Development Theory and Practice, as well as Transformation.

In keeping with the social justice imperative, and in typical HELM fashion, SASS was deliberately designed to be inclusive and inviting.  “So, we have a wide diversity of participants, by design, and we will have a lot of local expertise assisting in teaching and facilitating.”

The initial cohort, of 50, are 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.


From extensive consultations of the design team, Dr Schreiber is convinced that South Africa is on track with other parts of the world where support for Student Affairs is being accelerated. Recognising, nonetheless, that this will be a co-creation exercise, Dr Schreiber said to this first cohort: “I look forward to learning a lot from you on how to improve and build on this first iteration. You, all of you, will help build and shape this programme.”

Professor Denise Zinn (left), HELM’s WiL Programme Leader and also a member of the programme design team, acknowledged the critical and essential work that Student Affairs staff perform at universities. The former Deputy Vice Chancellor: Teaching and Learning at Nelson Mandela University, then outlined what the first cohort in the brand-new programme could expect during the six-month (June to November) course they have now begun.

She urged the participants to make the most of the time allocated to the sessions during the course, and to make their experience relevant in their spaces. These interactions would give the practitioners a different perspective. “The Peer Learning Groups have been carefully diversified to ensure that members of the cohort from different universities benefit from other perspectives.” The diversity, she said, would help develop networks.

Overall, session one of the SASS Programme covered:

  • The programme overview
  • Expected outcomes and competencies and
  • What it means to lead universities in complexity

The inaugural session on 29 and 30 May 2023 was held in person. The rest of the modules will be completed online. In the next six months, the topics below will make up the course content:

  • Higher Education context
  • Position – the self and the team
  • Financial processes and funding of the sector
  • Research scholarship and project management
  • Institutional and student success and internationalisation
  • Student Affairs theory with a focus on what it means to have decolonialised student affairs functions
  • Transformation and social justice
  • Communication and digital transformation
  • The final review.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.