Students in South Africa feel unheard. Here’s one way to listen

Critical dialogue could help South African universities get back on their feet. Ian Barbour/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The new round of protests at South Africa’s public universities was triggered by the announcement that universities will be allowed to raise their fees in 2017. Amid discussions about high fees and free higher education, many may have forgotten that students’ demands aren’t just related to cost.

They also want universities to decolonise. They want diverse, representative teaching bodies and curricula that aren’t rooted in Europe and the global north. This demand underpins a great deal of the anger and frustration expressed by students in the ongoing standoff with university managements. But there has been a lack of healthy, meaningful dialogue between students and academic staff during the current cycle of protests.

An initiative set up at one South African university earlier this year in response to these particular calls could offer a way to diffuse the current protests. We have learned many lessons as part of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Curriculum Change Working Group. We believe they may be valuable for individual academics, departments, faculties and entire institutions.

The working group was initially set up to look at the broader issue of curriculum reform and decolonisation. It was called on to play a role when the current wave of protests began. It is a combination of the work started earlier in 2016 plus our more recent engagements with students and staff that we believe might offer useful pointers for other universities.

Debate and engagement

The working group is led by black scholars – a very deliberate move for a westernised university in post-apartheid South Africa. The notion of blackness in this context extends beyond simply a racial category. It embraces those who have a particular consciousness around coloniality. The group has considerable experience, knowledge and expertise related to the development of contextually and socially relevant curricula. They are well versed in the use of inclusive approaches to teaching and learning.

When we were first formed we developed a concept paper and terms of reference. We collaborated closely with faculty academic representatives, student representatives from faculty councils and those academics and students who wanted to get involved.

Our work has been put to the test during the recent protests.

The working group was approached by the vice-chancellor Dr Max Price to engage with protest groups after it became clear that there was deadlock between the university’s management and the protesters.

One group we worked with involved students who had occupied the Dean of Health Science’s suite. These students wanted to disrupt their faculty’s traditional power structures, and the practices that made them feel like they were not worthy and didn’t belong.

Using the theoretical framework of critical realism we got to work.

What is critical realism?

Critical realism isolates underlying and invisible mechanisms to show how these can act as negative influences. In this example, the mechanisms in question have led students to experience the curriculum as alienating.

This approach provides the wherewithal to drill down to the underlying reasons for people’s behaviour and experiences. It doesn’t allow students’ feelings simply to be dismissed. Having committed to a critical realist approach the working group couldn’t just say, “we’ve heard you, and we’ll fix the problem at some point”.

Having engaged extensively with the students we were able to gain a deeper understanding of their concerns. There are two that we will discuss here: how a particular practical clinical examination was conducted, and how marking practices are undertaken.

The protesting students complained that this practical test left them feeling judged on the basis of their appearance or the accent with which they spoke English. They tabled a demand for follow up questions to be standardised – meaning that all students be asked the same questions rather than it differing from person to person. They also wanted clear guidelines about how markers arrive at a final result.

This, they felt, would guard against students being marked down based on how they express themselves in English or their appearance. In this example, race and class intersect directly in the clinical learning setting. Those who perform better identify easily with the norms expected in such settings.

Using a critical realist framework, our task was then to drill down to the values, attitudes and beliefs that underpinned the students’ demands. This revealed how their experiences of the examinations were influenced by the faculty’s underlying practices – conscious or unconscious – and beliefs.

In other words, what were the conditions in the faculty that led students to make such demands? What were the conditions being reproduced that led students to this experience?

The lack of trust in how marks are allocated led to some students experiencing assessments as discriminatory. This in turn raised issues for the whole faculty about assessment as a social and knowledge practice.

These students experienced assessments as being affected by racial markers like appearance and accent. This highlights students’ fear of marginalisation and alienation in a higher education environment where value systems have prejudiced race, class and gender.

Thorough analysis, deep understanding

In a system built on hierarchies of power, students are questioning who controls the outcomes of assessments. They’re also asking hard questions about who controls the norm for the archetypal doctor who is deemed successful enough to be worthy of being a health practitioner. More significantly for students, they are asking who is constructed as the “other”.

Our role wasn’t to table solutions. It was to create a space in which students’ demands were thoroughly analysed and deeply understood. We presented our analysis of student demands to the students, the faculty’s management and its staff.

The students seemed visibly encouraged by the alignment between their own ways of understanding the issues and what the analysis allowed those “in power” to see about hierarchies of power and patterns of inclusion and exclusion that self-perpetuate within faculties and departments.

Our analysis has yielded positive early results. The Dean of Health Sciences has taken on board the outcome of our exploration and committed to changing current practices to enable a decolonisation of the curriculum.

Based on this commitment, the students have ended their occupation of the Dean’s suite. We’re currently working with a different protesting group at another of the university’s campuses.

Towards solutions

As our experience shows, deadlocks can be broken and truces brokered when protesting students are presented with concrete solutions to their immediate problems.

With universities in turmoil and students feeling unheard, this may be the approach that’s needed. Genuine listening and a deep understanding of students’ demands could make all the difference.

Amanda Barratt, Senior Planning Officer in UCT’s Institutional Planning Department, also contributed to this article.

Authors’ note: This article was updated to correct a factual inaccuracy. The protesting Health Sciences students did not return to class as initially indicated, but did end their occupation of the Dean’s Suite.

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