Student-centrism is about reorienting the university and emancipating it from itself and its dogmas – Luthando Jack

Published On: 28 October 2021|

The Student-centred Universities session of the 2nd Higher Education Conference culminated in a discussion during which Mr Luthando Jack, Dean of Students at Nelson Mandela University, was the first respondent. He believes that student centrism is about a partnership between students and the university.

Mr Jack (right) hit hard at institutions perceiving themselves as super-working and effective systems to which students, parents, communities and everyone else connected to them must adapt.

“Therefore, I think cultivating a student-centred university ought to be juxtaposed against the belief or view that is held by many in society,” he said.

Touching on the point that Dr Chalufu had raised about the purpose of higher education, he said student-centredness cannot be insulated from the role of higher education in a society like South Africa, a continent like Africa, and a world so unequal. He said the pursuit for student-centredness “cannot be divorced from the purposes of higher education, particularly in a changing society.”

The Dean agreed with Professor Phakeng’s input which highlighted that the profiles of students admitted to universities today were different from those from the olden times. He said for the most part, universities’ systems, processes and orientation were not in sync with today’s student because the institutions still held on to the notion that said they were perfect, and that their users should adapt to their contexts.

“At the moment, we centre ourselves, our beliefs and our practices. Therefore, we serve ourselves as opposed to our students with their diversity – both from socio-economic and cultural perspectives, which, I think, is very important.”

He then postulated that student centrism was about a partnership between students and the university. He said it was about co-learning and the recognition of cultural assets. This was a reminder that students come to university with their own assets. These include their aspirational, social, familial and navigational capitals.

“Our education system has to recognise and affirm them as opposed to alienating them.”

He said, instead of disorientation, there ought to be continuity between the lives students live with their families and communities, and their lives in the university.

“So, a student-centric approach is about reorienting the university. This is about emancipating the university from itself and its dogmas. It is about unlearning these old ways of doing business which was informed by a particular paradigm.”

Reshaping institutional cultures – a USAf initiative

Dr W.P Wahl (left), Researcher and Director of Student Affairs at the University of the Free State, as the second Respondent, briefly outlined a study that USAf had commissioned to reshape institutional cultures. As Principal Researcher in this study titled Reshaping institutional cultures to create a student-centred higher education system in South Africa, Dr Wahl explained what milestones had been realised thus far.

He said as part of the conceptualisation framework, the research team had brainstormed and identified important factors to consider in reshaping institutional cultures.

That process had yielded the seven points listed below:

  • Understanding students — their socio-economic conditions.
  • Good understanding of the university staff
  • Understanding whether the institutional culture is open to transformational change.
  • Understanding the interweave between the institution and the socio-economic context — to have a more systemic ecological approach to student-centredness.
  • Understanding the responsibility of articulating the intellectual project of the institution within the context of global challenges, such as the Sustainable Development Goals; global warming, climate change and how those find root in the local context.
  • Impact of technology on staff and students in the development of digital learning and digital pedagogy.
  • The cruciality of human development and human capabilities approach and framework to activate agency of students.

Still as part of the project conceptualisation, the research team was also looking to define the concept of student-centred universities. From what they had gathered from the study respondents, it seemed student-centredness had lost its meaning. “It was starting to move from teacher and teaching centredness to learning and learner centredness. That was the origin, but it is so overused that it has lost its meaning. In essence, it is all about designing learning pedagogies around students.”

He said the team had also identified five characteristics that relate to student centredness. The first one is moving from the rhetoric of knowing students to their realities. The second is responsiveness — to design institutional processes in a way that is responsive to the learning and developmental needs of students. The third is reciprocity — that there should be co-creation, co-governance between students and institutions, which forms a critical part of student centredness in higher education. The fourth characteristic is outcomes in students, looking at graduates’ attributes as they leave institutions. This relates to their preparedness for the world of work. The fifth component is about community — creating a sense of belonging.

He said these attributes moved away from the consumerism, commercialisation and a market-driven approach to higher education. That said, he emphasised that student-centred did not equate to student-run universities. Dr Wahl also cautioned that there were limits to what universities could do to support students. “The university is not the state. It cannot take over the role of the state in supporting the social ills of society.”

In response to the inputs made earlier, Dr Wahl said the shift that Dr Chalufu had spoken about was visible, adding that even more significant was that the learning environment had moved beyond the campus boundaries. He said that societies, having become part of the learning environment, must be included in the conceptualisation of student-centredness.

He said the emphasis that Dr Chalufu had made on the role of Student Affairs and Services practitioners underscored that student centredness cuts across the institution. “It is not only academic in the classroom, and faculties, but all the different role players become critical components in creating and reshaping institutions to become student-centred.

“That touches a little bit on what I highlighted earlier, that student-centredness relates to the outcome of the educational experience. In other words, creating citizens, and preparing students so that they become leaders in society for the public good.”

Moving to Professor Phakeng, he said, “she brought in the human aspect of student centredness… sometimes it can become a clinical or an operational term. What we need to say here is that data-driven or evidence-based practices need to be part of this. We cannot work on anecdotal evidence, but we need to bring in evidence-based practice to understand who our students are, what their needs are, to be responsive to them.”

He referred to the sense of belonging that Professor Phakeng had hammered on. “When students come into environments where they do not feel they belong and they feel that certain stereotypes might apply to them, it has got a direct impact on their ability to perform, academically, and in other aspects,” he said.

In conclusion, Dr Wahl said the notion of belonging and the value of a student as a human being — bringing in the humanising pedagogy — were crucial.

Performance indicators, and measurement, will demonstrate intentionality

Professor Pamela Dube (left), Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Student Development and Support at the University of the Western Cape, spoke on the importance of intentionality towards student-centred institutions.

She encouraged putting performance indicators in place, which would help institutions measure the effectiveness of their interventions regarding student engagements.

Proceeding to the point of understanding students, Professor Dube said there had to be a way that universities streamlined communication media. “We need to get better, for instance, at joined-up use of data, and using student data to create a single understanding and knowledge of the student circumstances so that we avoid situations where a student has to explain the same issue to several university offices. Be it in the academic, administrative or professional services spaces.”

Aside from the challenges, Professor Dube said in attempts to know and understand students, there were opportunities that institutions could look at, beyond lecture rooms. She said these moved away from help-seeking interaction or a deficit perspective.

“As we know, students possess multiplicities of talents and skills, which mostly are experienced in the co-curricular space of sports, cultural, political or religious activities,” she said.

“I know Dr Chalufu spoke a lot about the proximity of student affairs practitioners to students, which enables them to appreciate more than other role players in the universities, the students in their multidimensional identities. There are opportunities for us, also, who engage students in their faculty co-curricular spaces… on outreach projects, for instance, or faculty-linked student structures, clubs and societies, as well as in mentorship and coaching programmes.”

She said faculties would share and appreciate students in more dimensions than just the whole, singular knowledge exchange that tends to happen.

Universities could offer workplace skills and career development programmes to students

On initiatives beyond the classroom, she mentioned offering workplace skills, work skills programmes, and creating career development opportunities alongside their studies.

“It is these efforts that can have immediate and measurable impacts on students’ experiences. So too, would the promotion of career search and workplace preparation tools, and periodic review of systems, and upgrades of those systems which may be ineffective.”

Professor Dube said there was a need to build more information than currently available, on the impact of the many interventions and student support and development initiatives. She said these instruments were currently limited, both at a national and institutional level.

However, she said as much as they have talked about limitations concerning social inequalities, today’s students are armed with better and more information than previous generations. This is not only about access, but best performing universities and what they can offer them in terms of student experience — both in and out of the lecture room, and also, in terms of employability prospects.

As an example of prioritising student-centredness at universities, Professor Dube shared insights from a survey completed in the United Kingdom. It found that 59% of the vice-chancellors who had responded to the survey felt that maximising teaching excellence was a top strategic priority, while 79% prioritised student satisfaction over league table rankings.

“So, the shift towards more student-centric universities has been happening for some time but very slowly. There have been more debates on the concept than instances of genuinely actualising it beyond the quick fix concessions that some of us have experienced in times of student protest to buy peace.”

Moving on, she said while much has been said about inclusion and consideration of the diversity of students and their contexts, another factor was promoting student-led initiatives and having the participation of staff in the projects.

“Having students also lead dialogues around their lived experiences, for example, on university initiatives in addressing students’ digital and data needs, and how engaged the students are in terms of the academic plan, are all important voices that institutions need.”

“I know there have been very encouraging surveys. However, what we tend to focus on is the improvement, and not so much on the ones that continue to feel left behind,” she said, asking her audience to suggest solutions in this regard. “We talk a lot about pockets of excellence and what I call the ‘pockets of excellence syndrome‘. I think a reference to pockets of good practice that are dotted around the institution… is not acceptable anymore.

Wrapping up, Professor Dube said “We know universities are capable of remodelling themselves, at both strategic levels and in their day-to-day activities. They can incubate good ideas and make them mainstream across the whole institution.”

The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant contracted by Universities South Africa.