Universities’ Student Affairs, Development and Support Staff urged to identify as professionals, practitioners and knowledge workers 

Published On: 2 June 2023|

Upskill. Stay current. Read. And, most importantly, start seeing yourself as a professional practitioner whose multi-disciplinary expertise makes you as much a scholar as any academic at the university where you work.

That was what Professor Matete Madiba (left), University of the Western Cape (UWC) Deputy Vice Chancellor: Student Development and Support – told Student Affairs, Student Development and Student Support services professionals at the inaugural workshop that began a six-month capacity development programme in Gauteng on Monday. Professor Madiba is also a national executive committee member at the SA Association of Senior Student Affairs Professionals (SAASSAP), serving as the Research and Development Office.

The Student Affairs and Student Success (SASS) programme is a direct response to a national Training Needs Assessment (TNA) survey that the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme carried out among student support professionals at South Africa’s 26 public institutions in November 2021. HELM is Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) programme mainly funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training.

The study found that 86% of the surveyed sample (N=362) was keen to undergo a well-thought-through capacity building intervention to enhance their work, for increased student success.

This inaugural programme attracted 50 participants from a range of student support services in all their forms across South Africa’s public universities. The attendees were 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.

Professor Madiba, who began her address by doing an identity check “to see who we are” said: “Wearing the badge as SASS workers, I’m convinced that we are practitioners, professionals, scholars and knowledge workers. I’m doing this identity check because in this space in higher education, this identity is often confused, and we are not seen for who we are.” A recurring theme in her address was the need for Student Affairs staff to remind themselves to “wear the right badges confidently”, occupying the spaces in which they belong.

Professionals and practitioners

A practitioner, Professor Madiba explained, is someone who has learned and worked in a particular field, continues to learn and has grown to be known as an expert in that field. “We need to own this identity.”

She also described a professional as a person skilled in a specific field and one who can educate and train others in that field. “A professional is associated with knowledge and a set of skills. None of us can shrug this off. We need to own this identity as practitioners and professionals and associate ourselves with it.”

Professor Madiba further told the attendees that “we are knowledge workers who have to engage with analytical and theoretical knowledge in the development of products and services.”

Knowledge workers

She said the term Knowledge Workers was coined by Peter Drucker, a management consultant, educator, and author who predicted how things would be as we embraced technology. Knowledge workers were known for spending 38% of their time searching for information, something that has changed since the advent of social media. They are characterised by non-routine, problem-solving traits, and are known to think for a living. I would argue that they acquire knowledge for a living, to work and to generate value. This is, again, an identity that we cannot shrug off,” she said.

Professor Madiba added: “It is to your advantage to continuously acquire knowledge and skills, for a living. If you had to think of it in the most capitalistic way, we are neither blue-collar workers nor white-collar workers. Although some would argue that we are gold-collar workers, I beg to differ that we’re not even that. We are knowledge workers. We are also higher education development practitioners.”

She said while she believed a university is only as good as its people, an excellent university is made up of excellent academics, researchers and SASS workers. “Yes, excellence in a university is also about Student Affairs and Student Services workers, and especially the quality of work done by the SASS workers employed there.” She emphasised that Student Affairs practitioners must regard their work as an integral part of the core. “We must take our work seriously. Do not assume or live outside this identity.”

Shaping the student experience

The DVC: Student Development and Support went on to urge her fellow practitioners to shape the student experience. “They depend on us for wellness, wellbeing and success. As you know, government has failed them. Parents have their own challenges, too, so students expect far much more from universities, and expect us to make things work. You are the people that contribute to their growth and career development, their entrepreneurial mindset — all graduate attributes that we tend to sing about in all the choirs we join. Don’t believe the lie that limits student success to certain quarters of the university. You are the actual warriors. Success does not come naturally. Students cannot do it alone, especially given all the other challenges they have to face. They need people around them and SASS workers are such people.


“When I see literature – articles and books around student success – being published without your names in them, I worry. Where are your voices? As warriors of student success, why are you not writing about it? Don’t tell me you are not part of the ‘core business of the university’, that you are just a ‘support’. Don’t tell me you are not academics when you are knowledge workers, working in a university.

Multi/trans/interdisciplinarity in research

Professor Madiba said that many post-Covid conferences and papers were devoted to academics/researchers discussing their struggle and need for multi/trans/inter-disciplinarity. “SASS workers should be at the forefront of these debates. We, coming from the multiple disciplines that we represent, should be leading these discussions. You can’t work in SASS and not (intellectually) bump into other disciplines, learn from them or know how to transfer theories, methodologies and skills that come from other disciplines.” The silence of SASS workers is worrying, when universities go in such debates.

She challenged participants to take this identity seriously, and to use opportunities like this course to allow themselves to do what needs to be done.

Scholarship of integration

Acknowledging that leading and managing knowledge workers in multi-disciplinary teams was challenging, Professor Madiba urged Student Affairs, Development and Support staff to empower themselves. “My latest passion is around advancing the scholarship of integration. So much has been said about the scholarship of teaching and learning – which is important. SASS workers are the drivers of the scholarship of integration, operating in multi-disciplinary teams, demonstrating how knowledge is integrated.

“As we develop products and services, we do it from that point of integration.” Again, she encouraged practitioners to talk and write about it, to theorise about it, to be analytical, so others could learn.

Staying current through continuing development

SASS professionals, Professor Madiba said, need continuous development, to earn new credentials and avoid remaining static. “You must test theories and practices in your field, and how much knowledge you produce.” Keeping up with the latest information was essential, she added. “Knowledge expires and theories get outdated, which is why you must keep a record of your continuing professional development. New knowledge drives innovation and those in SASS need to be innovators. Using old theories to drive innovation will not work.

Read, read, read

Professor Madiba said one of her favourite actions in interviews is to ask interviewees what they are currently reading. She said: “Programmes like this one are going to challenge you, and you will be aware of what you should be reading…Technology is really running ahead of us. In this AI era, people are panicking about ChatGPT, asking how it will corrupt academia.

“As practitioners you need to be asking: How will ChatGPT help us work better, smarter? We’re in this era beyond 4IR – in the deepfake era (digitally altering a person’s face or body so they appear to be someone else).”

She referred to the Thabo Bester story (a convicted rapist who faked his own death to escape from prison) asking: “What curriculum has this man gone through? He is the first person to use deepfake technology in South Africa.” She used this analogy to illustrate the importance of keeping in step with technology, adding that this SASS programme will enhance participants’ careers and help get them set their next career goals.

Last word

Professor Madiba ended by asking the programme attendees what would happen if SASS workers fully embraced their roles as professionals, practitioners, scholars, and knowledge workers.

“What change would we begin to see at our institutions?” She said in a later session, she will be exploring the ideal profile of a good scholar. “One of the attributes is to read to master and develop conceptual frameworks and theoretical clarity in informing our work.

“When we do not align our conceptual and theoretical frameworks with what we do, we risk being undermined by those who believe they are the bonafide academics.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.