The changing profile of university students calls for a decolonial re-thinking of higher education, says Professor Emmanuel Mgqwashu 

Published On: 24 August 2023|

Despite all the financial and human resources pumped into higher education in South Africa, the depressing educational outcomes remain the same.  Throughput, pass and dropout rates remain racialised and gendered. Increasingly, higher education is forced to consider drawing from alternative theorisations of teaching and learning other than the ones that have been dominant over centuries.

A decolonial lens promises to offer insights that could take higher education teaching and learning out of the conundrum.

These were the words of Professor Emmanuel Mgqwashu at the Joint Colloquium held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study(STIAS) at Stellenbosch University on 17 August. The colloquium was a combined initiative between three of Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) communities of practice: the one for teaching and learning of mathematics (TLM CoP), the other for African languages (CoPAL), and the Education Deans’ Forum (EDF).

Professor Mgqwashu (below), Director for Centre for Higher Education Professional Development (CHEPD) of the Faculty of Education at North-West University, spoke on Theorising Teaching and Learning from a decolonial lens: The value of place-based participatory narrative research methods. Mr Mahlubi Mabizela, USAf’s Director of Operations and Sector Support, who chaired the session, described Professor Mgqwashu’s presentation as “vibrant”, “original” and “intriguing”.

The profile of third-year students in South African universities in 2023

Mgqwashu used statistics to make visible the racial identities, linguistic repertoires and social class to paint a picture of South African present-day university students.  He argued how such statistics   represent the complexities faced in higher education, forcing the sector to rethink the theories that shape curricular design, content development, teaching and learning and assessment.

He said the first complexity is massification, which is the increase in students entering tertiary education. Deliberately selecting recent statistics so he could not be accused of using old data, he said 968 109 students had been enrolled in all South African higher education institutions, including universities of technology, in early 2021. “If they have been passing,” he said, those who were doing Bachelor of Arts degrees, for example, would now be in their final year.

The demographics of those 968 109 students were as follows:

  • 73.5% are Black African;
  • 14.8% are White African; and
  • 4.4% are Asian African.

“This is the stats we have in our lecture halls across the higher education sector including universities of technology as we are sitting here,” he said.

According to theMinisterial Statement on the Implementation of the University Capacity Development Grant for 2021-2023, Mgqwashu said 71% of students are first-generation at universities, that is, the first in their families to have entered tertiary education.

Of these, 76% are Black African. Professor Mgqwashu said these statistics “have implications on how we teach, how we theorise teaching, and how we engage in curricular design, pedagogy and assessment”.

Most young academics do not have doctoral degrees

An additional complexity facing higher education institutions is the aging professoriate that is soon to retire. While he said he wasn’t ageist, he expressed concern about the extent to which structured mentorship and induction into various disciplinary cultures are managed, with a commitment to decolonising knowledge traditions across disciplines.  This, he argued, was critical because only 48% of the young, newly recruited academics hold doctoral qualifications. “This means they have a very limited depth of disciplinary knowledge. You can only confidently educate somebody how to think as a mathematician, if you, yourself, have confidence as a mathematician,” he said.

Equity of participation across racial, gender and age groups within academia appears was another complexity he alluded to.

You are teaching students who have seen it all on YouTube already

Today’s students, born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s, are known as Generation Z. “These are youngsters who’ve been exposed to the internet 24 hours, seven days a week, from birth. So, by the time you stand in the lecture hall and say whatever you say, they’ve already seen it on YouTube, where it has been said probably better than you in class,” he said.

If these are the complications we are facing right now in the 21st century – in 2023 in higher education in South Africa, “surely this calls for something else. Surely things cannot remain the same?” he said.

Calling for a shift from “what’’ to “how”

Professor Mgqwashu said his research project was designed to grapple with these complications, with findings suggesting a need for “a shift from teaching what to know, to how to know; and a shift from teaching what to think, to how to think”.

He went on to say that students at higher education institutions were no longer a homogeneous group. “We do not have a group of youngsters who come from homes that have socialised them in ways of being that are continued in formal education; where the culture of university is a continuation of their socialisations in their homes — a seamless transition from home to university, which used to be the case maybe 30 years ago,” he said.

Lecturers are now facing students who came from homes where English is not the home language, and from an economic class that is not middle class. “And the only reason they’re even sitting on those desks is NSFAS,” said Mgqwashu. NSFAS is the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which funded about 90 000 students to the tune of R47 billion for the 2023 academic year, inclusive of those at Technical and Vocational Education and Training Colleges.

The question, therefore, was: to maintain teaching the what, or to shift to how to think and how to know? Mgqwashu asked.

How the changing student body affects student and staff support

Spaces where academics are supported, known by various names such as academic development centres, or centres for teaching and learning, needed to shift from affirmative approaches, said Professor Mgqwashu.

He said he was quoting Professor Sioux McKennaDirector of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University (RU), and Dr Amanda Hlengwa, Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of the New Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP) and the Nurturing Emerging Scholars Programme (NESP) at the same university about this. Together with other academics, they had published an article in September 2022 in the journal Teaching in Higher Education – Critical Perspectives, titled From affirmative to transformative approaches to academic development. 

Mgqwashu said affirming assumptions, ideologies and traditions that assume students need to be inducted into something they do not know was no longer what was needed. Instead, it was about drawing from what students are already bringing into the lecture hall in order “to communicate the content we are wanting to communicate”, an old ‘begin where students are’ axiom.

This shift means “academics are challenged to know who is in their classroom”. And they need “to begin to use that information to curriculate, to pedagogise, and to assess”.  In other wordshe said, a transformative student support and a transformative professional development culture is unsettling assumptions about students that have dominated in most universities.

How to frame questions

“We need to interrogate the framing of the question around low throughput in higher education. The billions that we waste as higher education because of the low throughput rate is shocking,” he said.

He said how to ask or frame a question was as important as the answer to that question.

“The question should not be: ‘Why are students not passing?’ That’s the wrong question. The question should be: ‘What are the conditions that reproduce the same racialised throughput rates in higher education?’ Then when we frame the question like that, we are going to deal with it differently,” said Professor Mgqwashu.

No more knowledge transmission

The point he was ultimately making, he said, is: “We are beyond knowledge transmission”. Instead, we are now in a space where we need to challenge ourselves to enable learning, to enable thinking and to enable knowing.

“Anyone who still speaks ‘transmission’ with the demographics that we have is outdated,” he said. The challenge was to initially enable epistemological access, that is, access to knowledge. He said he was deliberately using the word “initially” because the question of whose epistemology or knowledge they were enabling access into is a question that needs to be asked, bearing in mind the demographic of the existing student body.

He referred to the research he has been involved in with colleagues from South Africa and the United Kingdom, which looks at students from rural contexts and how they negotiate the transition from school, community and home in rural areas to university learning. The project is titled The influence of rurality on student trajectories through higher education: a view from the South, funded from 2017 to 2020 by two bodies in the United Kingdom, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Newton Fund, which builds research and innovation partnerships that support economic development and social welfare.

Besides six academic journal articles in local and international journals, Routledge has already published a book about this project, titled Rural Transitions to Higher Education in South Africa: Decolonial Perspectives.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.