Supporting the well-being of Student Affairs and Support Staff in higher education

Published On: 11 December 2023|

“Who cares for the caregiver?” was a question posed by Dr Thembi Kweyama, Dean of Students at Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT), during one of the research presentations made at a recent Student Affairs and Student Success (SASS) colloquium held in Johannesburg.

The inaugural programme – which during 2023 accepted 51 participants from student support services in all their forms across South Africa’s public universities – was designed as a direct response to a finding of a 2021 national needs assessment survey. The study identified an urgent demand for capacitation in Student Affairs, Student Development and Student Support practitioners.

At the wrap-up event for this inaugural cohort on 28 November, four of the 10 Peer Learning Groups (PLGs) into which the 51 participants had been divided, presented findings of four research projects focusing on staff well-being in Higher Education (HE). The studies had particularly focused on the well-being of Student Affairs, Student Development and Student Services practitioners.

Case study 1: Understanding the role of institutional practices on the well-being of Student Affairs practitioners

The first PLG, calling themselves Humble Humanitarians, had investigated the challenges faced by higher education institutions in South Africa, particularly concerning broadened access to higher education for students from low-income backgrounds. 

As the sector transforms from elite to democratic institutions, the focus is on the role of Student Affairs practitioners in addressing academic and psycho-social challenges faced by students. This changing landscape has increased the complexity of the student support and development staff’s roles and has also impacted their professional and personal well-being.

The study emphasised the importance of understanding how institutional practices influence staff well-being, recognising that positive institutional factors can enhance job satisfaction and effectiveness. Conversely, hindering factors may lead to stress, burnout and reduced performance, ultimately affecting the quality of support provided to students.

Conclusion and recommendations

  • There is commonality across various institutions regarding factors that hinder and promote well-being, although the negative factors outweigh the positive.
  • The majority of surveyed staff are experiencing their current working environments as impacting their well-being in negative ways.
  • Work conditions, Human Resources support or processes and the role of management are the main factors contributing to the well-being of staff.
  • Practices such as staff wellness programmes, open-door policies by managers and support at work, open communication and transparent process, were recognised for positively impacting well-being.

The group comprised Ms Neliswa Majola (right, above), Residence Administration Manager at the University of the Western Cape, Dr Angelique McConney, Senior Clinical Psychologist at Nelson Mandela University, Mr Mafeno Phora (not in the photo), Marketing Officer at the University of South Africa, Dr Tebogo Tsebe (middle), who enrolled on the programme as  Manager: Student Support Unit at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University and has since been appointed Senior Manager: SASS at Universities South Africa’s Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme, and Ms Nadia Wilson (left), Project Manager at the University of Cape Town.

Case study 2: The evolving landscape of SASS practitioners in Higher Education

This project aimed to contribute valuable insights into the evolving landscape of SASS practitioners in Higher Education. By understanding the Third Space (Whitchurch, 2012) and managerial influences, institutions and practitioners are better equipped to navigate these complex challenges and enhance the overall support provided to staff.

The scholar Celia Whitchurch conceived the “third space” in 2012 as the interface between academic and professional activity, highlighting the role of “blended professionals” who span both domains.

The methodology included a self-report analysis where each member of the team was asked to list their activities over a five day work week. It was then collated and revealed that work hours drastically exceeded traditional work hours and demanded significant after-hours engagement. The team also undertook literature reviews and interviews.

Insights and recommendations

Insights into managerial impact: A nuanced understanding of how managerialism influences the day-to-day activities and priorities of SASS practitioners, including potential tensions and synergies with student-centric roles.

Recommendations for balance: Practical recommendations for maintaining a balance between traditional student-focused roles and emerging managerial responsibilities, fostering a more effective and sustainable SASS practice.


Recognising the significance of effectively handling employee workloads and encouraging a positive work-life balance is crucial for both institutions and policymakers. Establishing supportive workplace environments and establishing realistic performance standards enables employers to enhance their workforce’s welfare while also boosting overall productivity and employee job contentment.

The Peer Learning Group B were Mr Prince Dabula (2nd from left), Deputy Director: Student Affairs at Walter Sisulu University); Mr Wallace Isaacs (far right), Deputy Director: Enrolment and Student Recruitment at the University of Pretoria; Dr Thembi Kweyama, Dean of Students at the Mangosuthu University of Technology; Ms Nicole Morris (2nd from right), Dean of Student Affairs at Sol Plaatjie University and Mr Vikesh Singh (far left),  Assistant Registrar: Student Administration at the Durban University of Technology.

Case study 3: Developing a model for well-being for staff working in student administration and support

As a result of a gap in the literature, the group explored the variables and a quantitative approach to drawing up a model to investigate and evaluate staff well-being at South African higher education institutions.

According to the World Health Organisation’s constitution, “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Balance in the workplace leads to:

  • Positive emotions/mental fitness
  • Feeling valued/appreciated
  • High morale
  • Sense of achievement/prosperity
  • Meaningful life
  • Engagement/making a difference
  • Job satisfaction

Imbalance leads to:

  • Discomfort
  • Illness
  • Burnout
  • Decline in one’s health
  • Distress
  • Absence
  • High staff turnover
  • Low morale
  • Depression

The Group will go on to use insights gained from their literature review to conceptualise a measurement instrument, and to determine their next course of action. They will keep peers informed of their progress henceforth.

The PLG involved in this instance were Mr Sammy Elie (middle, above), Acting Deputy Dean, Cape Peninsula University of Technology; Mr Mosimaneotsile Mohlake (left), Academic Development Practitioner at the  University of Limpopo, Ms Primmithi Naidoo (not in photo), Academic Monitoring and Support Coordinator at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Dr Laetitia Orlandi (not in photo), Acting Assistant Dean; Teaching and Learning at the Tshwane University of Technology and Ms Gloria Pule (right), Acting Campus Director: Central University of Technology. 

Case study 4: Navigating the third space: How it affects higher education practitioners and reflections about being professionals

In this research project, SASS Professionals identified successful performance in the Third Space (Whitchurch, 2012) as instrumental in fostering identify formation, networking and interdisciplinary learning. Two guiding philosophies, communal and individualistic, were found to be shaping SASS projects, each posing unique challenges that demand innovative solutions and resilience.

Some observations

“Navigating the Third Space feels like a labyrinth.” – Dr Corneli van der Walt.

“Challenges in the Third Space involve fluid team dynamics, high complexity and isolation affecting the effectiveness of collaboration. Professionals may feel overwhelmed by the lack of stable teams.” – Maud Donda.

“Traditional boundaries blur and new opportunities for collaboration and innovation emerge.” – Arthi Ramrung.

“Strong leadership advocating for integrated spaces, technology integration, continuous professional development, vibrant student organisations and external partnerships are identified as critical enablers.” – Faeza Khan.

“Slow and/or lack of career progression in the Third Space is a significant concern and demoralising factor for some SASS practitioners.” – Dr Corneli van der Walt.

This PLG, self-labelled the Fountain of Knowledge,  comprised Dr Buhle Donda, Lecturer at the University of KwaZulu Natal, Dr Faeza Khan (right, above), Living Learning Coordinator at the University of the Western Cape; Mr Masiza Ngculu, Manager: Student Governance and Development at the Durban University of Technology, Ms Arthi Ramrung (middle), Lecturer and Project Leader, First Year Experience (FYE) at the Mangosuthu University of Technology; and Dr Corneli van der Walt (left), Manager: FYE at the Vaal University of Technology.

Dr Schreiber added that these research projects may lead to higher education contexts that promote and advance SASS staff well-being. SASS staff operate in a complex, hybrid and dynamic context, in the intersection between academic processes and administrative and support domains. This intersection is highly complex, demanding engagement at many levels, requiring agility to respond in horizontally and vertically diverse context, and being able to engage with high hybridity and ambiguity.

Janine Greenleaf Walker  is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.