Universities South Africa’s Student-centredness Framework sparks questions regarding study respondents, operationalisation and measurement

Published On: 3 May 2023|

In 2020 the Transformation Strategy Group (TSG) of Universities South Africa (USAf) initiated a research study to create a deeper understanding on how institutional cultures could be reshaped to create a more student-centred higher education system in South Africa. The research report was adopted by the USAf Board in March 2023, and has since sparked a range of thought-provoking questions and responses from different stakeholders in the South African higher education system.

At the quarterly virtual Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) Engage 12 event of 28 March, 2023, a gathering of 84 individuals logged in for a virtual presentation on this study. This presentation was led by the Lead Researcher, Dr WP Wahl (left), Director: Student Life at the University of the Free State, and Professor André Keet, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Engagement and Transformation and the Research Chair on Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation, based at Nelson Mandela University. Both scholars were also members of the Advisory Board that conceptualised this study and guided its strategic direction.

HELM Engage is an engagement platform led by Universities South Africa’s HELM programme. It periodically and virtually gathers interested individuals – mainly higher education stakeholders, to discuss topical issues of concern in the sector. HELM Engage 12, dedicated to the study on Reshaping Universities to Create a Student-Centred Higher Education System in South Africa, attracted academics, researchers, institutional leaders including registrars and deputy vice-chancellors, student affairs practitioners, students, representatives of non-government organisations and the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Project background

Professor Keet (above), cited the 2015/2016#FeesMustFall movement that highlighted, among other issues, that universities had not been designed with the holistic idea of students in mind. This led to the USAf Board of Directors approving, at its October 2020 meeting, a priority focus area of the Transformation Strategy Group (TSG) for 2021: Placing Students at the Centre by Focusing on a) the students’ development and growth and b) the Engaged University: Establishing a National Project to Theorise and Build Models of Universities that are Engaged in the Local Context in which they find themselves. He said this project is related to priority a) with a focus on changing institutional cultures. Professor Keet is a member of USAf’s TSG.

Following engagements between USAf and the South African Association of Senior Student Affairs Professionals (SASSAP), the latter mandated the TSG to commission this study to the research office of the Division of Student Affairs at the University of the Free State. This project, spanning two years, investigated how institutional cultures could be re-shaped to create a student-centred higher education system in South Africa. The TSG rolled out this project from September 2020 to August 2022, with Dr WP Wahl leading the research component.

The Student-centredness Framework, published in a report titled Reshaping Universities to Create a Student-Centred Higher Education System in South Africa, is a direct result of the TSG study. Now that we’ve shared the substance of the Framework, we share some of the audience questions and the responses from Dr Wahl, below.

Dr Birgit Schreiber, HELM’s Senior Associate Consultant, facilitated the discussion.

Question 1: Can this report be used as a roadmap guiding institutions to shape their cultures?

Dr Wahl: To call it a roadmap would be stretching it a bit. Institutions could use the guidelines, in particular, to stimulate conversations, and as a tool to enable introspection. It could be helpful to assess to what extent institutions are student-centred in various contexts, and the degree to which respective institutions can effect change in a contextualised way. Hopefully, these conversations could assist to develop a roadmap leading to the reshaping of institutional cultures to become more student-centred.

Question 2: Is there a metric that universities can use to measure their own performance in student-centredness?

Dr Wahl: No, there is no metric yet. This study took two years to complete. We are now opening up conversations and, hopefully, further down the line (in the second phase), the 108 guideline statements could lead in that direction. However, the framework – with its guideline statements – can already be used to raise collective awareness and collective action.

Question 3: What type of students got interviewed in this study?

Dr Wahl: Those who had just graduated from university and were in their early-career stage – to get a sense of how they had experienced university life. We also commissioned two Fulbright scholars who were in South Africa (we were grateful to Fulbright for funding this component of the study and related data analysis). We assigned them to take the qualitative study report and to conduct focus group discussions with current students from different academic spheres and at different development levels. It was encouraging to find that the results of the focus group discussions corresponded beautifully with, and actually confirmed the findings of the study report. We undertook this additional step (beyond the scope of the Delphi-study) to check the consistency of our findings.

Question 4: Do you think the Top Three identified values are generic and representative of the sector, or should institutions develop their own student-centred values? I’m surprised that African values, like ubuntu, did not feature on the list at all.

Dr Wahl: I can say with a high level of confidence that those values are generic. We identified them by going through all the interviews, and those values continued to pop up. We placed a lot of energy into finding architectonic values and creating the value clusters using qualitative and quantitative data and a rigorous data analysis process. I believe they are universally applicable and apply to all contexts. Of course, one could always dig deeper into those through research and analyse them further, but our data indicates that these values would be crucial to reshape universities to become more student-centred.

Question 5: Are there any models that can help staff re-think their role and how they engage with one another?

Dr Wahl: Absolutely — especially in the relational context of the micro systems. This context focuses on interpersonal engagements between students, but also between students and staff. If you go through the details of the guideline document, the guidelines associated with this specific context speak a lot about the professional context of staff. So, yes, there is a lot of emphasis in the data on the professional competency of staff, especially around how to use language to engage students. What we found in the data is that it is not enough only to listen to students. It goes beyond merely listening to students – it is about engaging deeply on a human level and connecting with them. Of course, the biggest critique on engagement is “how do you engage deeply with 35,000 to 45,000 students? That is why we have embraced a systemic multi-layered approach to be able to do that. There is a strong emphasis on the competence of staff, and on the management structures — the institutional context. How do institutions recognise good learning and teaching practices? There is also a lot on policies: How do institutions need to structure their policies to make them more student-centred? So, it is not only academic staff but also administrative and support staff that need to be capacitated and aligned to make the entire institutional system more student-centred.

Dr Birgit Schreiber (right), in agreement, added that as central as teaching staff may be to this project, a huge number of administrative staff, student affairs staff, registrars and faculty offices are implicated. “Often, they’re the glue and the face of the institution in the extent to which (and how) they engage with students. So, it’s quite difficult to imagine how we would re-shape the notion of who staff think they are; that would be quite a challenge. Perhaps you would need to weigh in on the kind of teaching and learning training programmes we would need, to make this work.

Question 6: Can you describe the students who participated by their background, first-generation status and university type?

Dr Wahl: The emphasis of the Delphi study was not to engage students, per se. The focus was to access experts in the field, both in terms of scholarly knowledge and experience. We were very purposeful in the data sampling process; i.e. to choose individuals for the expert panel in such a way that if we respectively engaged these individuals, it would unlock a whole area of expertise based on 20 or 30 years of working with students and amassing scholarly knowledge, instead of interviewing vast numbers of people and getting their perspectives. And we also engaged students who experienced the higher education system and completed their studies successfully. A lot can be said about whether these respondents were representative of students across the board, or not. Probably not; they would not be representative of all student demographics, not all levels of academic seniority, nor all academic disciplines, but that was not the purpose of this study. Certainly, that is one of the gaps/limitations of the study (acknowledged on p.48 of the Report) that could be addressed by subsequent studies. However, we tried to counter that by introducing the student focus groups, as explained earlier. I am probably not doing justice to answering this question; but that was the nature of the Delphi study.

Question 7: Here’s a question about power. Student-centredness has to do with who owns the power; is it staff, is it students, is it both or, and of course student-centredness says that power is shared — power is agency. So, do you think students could step up to the expected level of agency, and how would that interface with faculty? Can you just comment on the point of power in this model?

Dr Wahl: That’s a very interesting, on-point question. In some of our earlier models, the research team even mentioned bringing in the notion of power as a specific axis in our model, that a student-centred university would move power intentionally to the student. We even tried to put that into the models, but it just didn’t work. Nonetheless,a strong undercurrent of power is present in the data, and the notion that we need to activate the agency of students. Part of the formation of the personhood of individual students is activating their agency so that on the one hand, the system creates access to support and opportunities. On the other hand, the system also enables the agency of students to access those opportunities and actually translate them into actionable behaviour (i.e. functionings), where they start participating in curricular and co-curricular activities and accessing the system. Hopefully that comes out in the guideline statement. In these different contexts institutions are obliged to remove systemic barriers – this is a huge part of a student-centred higher education system: removing systemic barriers in a diverse way for all students but also enabling students to activate their agency to act and to engage with the support structures and the opportunities provided by the system. So power is a huge theme that runs as a thread through the data.

Question 8: There is also a question on whether you were able to consult professional and administrative staff in the study. There’s also an element wanting to understand how you chose your experts.

Dr Wahl: Using the seven lenses drawn from the conceptual document that was formulated by the Advisory Board at the beginning of the study, we said: who are the people that would be knowledgeable from a scholarly perspective in those areas, i.e. individuals who would hold in themselves a vast number of years of experience in that specific area, whether as a middle or senior manager? We focused on scholarly expertise but also experience in a particular field. So, the kind of people that we approached became members of the expert panel. These individuals were typically senior researchers or scholars in a specific field, but also middle and senior managers at universities. This included many DVCs, senior student affairs administrators, and so on, and then of course students. That is the type of individuals who made up the expert panel.

Dr Schreiber: Just a comment from my side. From the many documents that we’ve seen, we know what we need to advance gender-based justice: how to oppose gender-based violence or advance disabilities. We’ve seen these reports from national research groups.

Question 9: How do we leverage this report in our institutions? Is there any way we could get the institutional leadership to embrace it and say: ‘this is what needs to happen this is what we want to do?’

Dr Wahl: My personal opinion is that we need to approach it both from top-down and from grassroots-level up. One of the suggestions made by Professor Carolina Suransky, one of the expert panel members from the University of Humanistic Studies in the Netherlands, was that we should take the framework that emerged from this research study and start to apply it to specific challenges that we face in the HE sector, like GBV, first-generation students, or students in transition — whatever the case may be. She recommended that universities use this framework, from a systems perspective, and ask: ‘to what extent are we student-centred in relation to addressing these challenges?’ Thus, practically applying this Framework in a specific scenario. I found that a very useful suggestion. I think that is something institutions can do from grassroots level, up. It should be evidence based, be subjected to data and data analytics, to show the effect of using this Framework. There is also interest amongst vice-chancellors, through the USAf Board, to engage further with this report. I also hope there will be initiatives in the sector from the top management structures of institutions to engage this document further, and in a more contextualised way.

Question 10: Registrars, Executive directors of student affairs, VCs and DVCs in the room, also encounter difficulties from time to time. Are you are saying that this approach is a useful one to follow, to guide on what to do?

Dr Wahl: This is new for all of us, also for me. This is a new Framework. I would be very interested to hear from institutions whether the Framework is helpful or not, and to how can it be used effectively.

Question 11: Students also come into the sector from different backgrounds – from a school sector that is not particularly student-centred and bring that to higher education. For them, being student-centred would be quite new, fresh, wouldn’t it?

Dr Wahl: Again, the kind of students we get in the environment is also highly diverse. Our basic-education system is so diverse. The answer lies in the personal context of the framework that emphasises a deep understanding of our students. Where do they come from? What are their socio-economic backgrounds? What is the level of their academic preparedness and how should universities respond to these attributes? So, there is a strong emphasis on reciprocal interaction and providing contextualised and targeted support to the students. A core concept that came from the data was responsiveness – i.e. how individual universities and university systems respond to the unique needs of a diverse student population. To what extent are we providing targeted and differentiated support? That’s a strong characteristic of student-centred universities that came from the data.

Dr Birgit: And of course, coming from Student Affairs, we are familiar with students knowing that we need to offer a multitude of engagement and support in order to meet their diverse needs because there are different ways of living, different ways of engaging, different ways of learning. So, it has to do with a diversity of offerings.

Project importance

Professor Keet said this project was key to the sustainability of South Africa’s university sector and its national development mandate. “If we do not attempt to grasp institutional culture and to centre it around students, the sector will struggle to demonstrate long-term legitimacy and ability to advance its learning and teaching mandates in inclusive ways. At another level, the research fills an important gap. For the first time we now have some semblance of a sketch of an institutional culture and its constitutive parts, and how these may line up with student-centrism as central to the broader transformation imperatives of the sector.”

As the HELM Engage 12 meeting was wrapping up, Dr Wahl reiterated that this Framework was new even to him. “I will be keen to hear how institutions used it, including the positives and the frustrations they encounter in using this Framework. I believe that by opening up communication about it, all of us can learn.

“I would therefore be very interested in getting feedback from the institutions in this regard,” the Lead Researcher concluded the engagement.

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communications, and Nqobile Tembe is a contracted Communication Consultant.