Thursday, 24 January 2019

Tweeting #FeesMustFall - Some early results from the Social Media Analysis

Resistance against neoliberal higher education policies is a global student concern. In South Africa, the effect in the university sector has been a level of contentious student politics that is unprecedented in the post-apartheid era. The new SA student movement of 2015/16, known by iconic twitter handles such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall has come to spark an unprecedented amount of research into student politics and opened up new lines of inquiry.

Together with Prof Tanja Bosch from UCT and Nkululeko Makhubu from HSRC, I have had the fascinating experience to do a "social media network analysis" or digital network analysis / DNA on a number of twitter handles and hashtags related to the student movement. At the most basic level, an analysis of tweets and tweeters can show, for example, who were the top 10 tweeters who tweeted the most, as in the first figure.

A more complex analysis can show how different tweeters (or rather: twitter handles) are 'connected', that is, who tweets to whom (e.g. by means of a mention) or who retweets or quotes a tweet from who, and so forth. That then gives quite cool network maps, like the one below, where one can see the relationship between major online news sites (e.g. theCapeArgues, Netwerk24, News24, SABC_online) and student handles such as @Shackville and @RhodesMustFall. Our analysis argues that the DNA structure illustrates the argument made by RMF life-tweeters, that they used Twitter for (what I would call) movement propaganda purposes; and it reflects the flat movement leadership structure. All of this and more will be revealed and elaborated on in our chapter in Richard Davis book.

I made a presentation at the 2018 HSRC Social Sciences Research Conference in Tshwane, South Africa to summarise findings that Tanja, Nkululeko and I are busy publishing in a forthcoming book published by Routledge. The article called "Tweeting #FeesMustFall" was published in December in the HSRC Review and deals with #FeesMustFall-related Twitter activism by students at the University of Cape Town in 2015/2016. It's short and sweet.

Enjoy. The HSRC Review article can be downloaded freely here.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

A focus on student well-being and quality services

The Journal of Student Affairs in Africa has just published its 12th issue!

Vol. 6(2) - which includes a number of research articles, reflective practice articles, and campus reports dealing with two pertinent matters: student psychological well-being on and off campus, as well as the psychological well-being of unemployed university graduates; and the assessment of quality in student affairs and services. In addition, the issue as always contains book reviews.

Here is the: Table of Contents. The issue can be downloaded, fully open access, from the website of the journal:

Editorial Commentary
Towards Student Well‑being and Quality Services in Student Affairs in Africa
Thierry M. Luescher, Birgit Schreiber, Teboho Moja

Research Articles
Students’ Attitudes and Perceptions on Xenophobia: A Study of a University in Durban
Olubunmi Damilola Akande, Hilary Jephat Musarurwa, Sylvia Blanche Kaye

Psychological Health and Optimism amongst Unemployed Graduates in Zimbabwe
Julia Mutambara, Tinashe R. Makanyanga, Pilot Mudhovozi

First‑Year College Students’ Emotional Intelligence and Help-Seeking Behaviours as Correlates of their Academic Achievement
Melese Astatke

Student Satisfaction Regarding Service Quality at Ethiopian Public Higher Education Institutions: A Case Study
Solomon L. Lodesso, Eldridge J. van Niekerk, Cecelia A. Jansen, Hélène Müller

Reflective Practice
Quality Enhancement in Student Affairs and Social Justice: A Reflective Case Study from South Africa
Thierry M. Luescher

Who Are Our First‑Year At‑Risk Humanities Students? A Reflection on a First‑Year Survey Administered by the Wits Faculty of Humanities Teaching and Learning Unit in 2015 and 2016
Genevieve Hundermark

Holistic Health, Disadvantage, Higher Education Access and Success: A Reflection
Angela A. Morris-Paxton, Johanna M. van Lingen, Diane Elkonin

Campus Report
IASAS NASPA: 4th Global Summit on Student Affairs and Services
Tiki Ayiku, Lisa Bardill-Moscaritolo, Stephanie Gordon, Brett Perozzi, Birgit Schreiber

SAFSAS Summit 2018: Looking Back, Looking Forward: Understanding Our Space In and Role In the New Normal
Saloschini Pillay, Birgit Schreiber, Sibusiso Chalufu

Mental Health at Universities: Universities are Not In Loco Parentis – Students are Active Partners in Mental Health
Birgit Schreiber

Book Reviews
Clarence, S. & Dyson, L. (Eds.). (2017). Writing Centres in Higher Education: Working in and across disciplines. Stellenbosch, South Africa: African Sun Media
Annsilla Nyar

Jansen, J. (2017). As By Fire: The End of the South African University. Pretoria, South Africa: Tafelberg Publishers
Vicki Trowler

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Collaborating with other researchers; the student experience & building on our own knowledge base and theory

It is one of the great joys of my job that I get to collaborate with a peers, senior and junior researchers, from across South Africa, the continent and the globe. One great research project that involved such collaboration was the ESRC-NRF funded "Higher Education Pathways to the Public Good". The project looked at ways in which studying at university actually contributes in various measures to social justice, social cohesion, democracy, equality, sustainable livelihoods and freedom. The leaders of the project were the super-smart Prof. Paul Ashwin from Lancaster University and Prof. Jenni Case, formerly from the University of Cape Town, now Virginia Tech. 

Most closely I worked with Dr Philippa Kerr (who is in the middle of the picture in white and red). She was my Post-Doc in my last months at the University of the Free State and the literature review that underpins the chapter we wrote for Paul and Jenni's book was to a large extent the fruit of her diligently reading herself into a completely new literature.

I mean they are all great - what a fantastic team Jenni and Paul put together. I will certainly want to work again and again with people like with Thando Njovane, Mandy Hlengwa, Mary Masehela, Sherran Clarence, Thandeka Mkhize, Janja Komljenovic, Tristan McCowan, Ibrahim Oanda, Sioux McKenna, Rebecca Schendel, Suellen Shay and and and. They all have expertise in matters that I know just a bit about, and talking to them, and being able to listen to them and their knowledge, is always such a great pleasure.

Now what was different about this project is that it did not - in most cases - do new empirical research. So, no time was spent on interviewing people; constructing, distributing, and eventually analysing surveys; or any of that jazz. Nope. The idea here was to see what do we already know. You know, we are too often doing in the Social Sciences what happens even in the economy: getting the data and then not working on the beneficiation. It's like we are doing social mining rather than social science! Meanwhile, the science comes in with the theory part; it's not only about getting the methodology right -, oh no, - the science comes in when one works with knowledge rather than data... when we build a knowledge base and build from that knowledge base, empirically grounded, contextually relevant, indogen Southern theory; African theory. So sometimes we gotta go and stop mining for data, and start working through the findings of others, adding a layer of complexity. You know. All that Gold that's been mined in South Africa, and then most of it has just been melted and poured into the shape of a Gold Bar, and off it goes. Meanwhile, that very same Gold could be worked into much more... from jewelry to applications in science and technology. So you could say, this project really took a good step towards doing some beneficiation; working through existing knowledge, conceptualising, theorising (yeah, those my words :).

The book is available here - as always, I try to make sure it's open access. And thankfully, Paul and Jenni and the crew had the same commitment. By the way, the e-book has an index - that gives a good idea of where to find what.

In the case of Philippa and I, we decided to do a 10 year literature review, starting with three South African journals, on what actually has been researched and found about the undergraduate student experience. Our chapter is beautiful and shocking: if our dear political role-players, decision-makers, policy-makers, the so-called political and government leadership, the university leaderships, ... if they would actually read - yes read - what is known, what was known already in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 about how bad, how unacceptable, how injust, how traumatic indeed, the experience of studying at a university in South Africa is for many students - and particularly black students, female students, working-class and poor students, LGBTIQA students, - then there would not have been a 2015 or 2016, because hopefully, they would have responded to the very issues that the student movement, that #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch, #RUReferenceList, #BlackStudentMovement, #FeesMustFall, #EndOutsourcing, and so forth, and so forth have raised and raised so desperately. My chapter with Philippa Kerr is here. Enjoy - it's a good and worthwhile read!

Friday, 28 September 2018

Being an 'Expert Commentator' - and the THES university rankings

It happens occasionally, a few times a year, that I am being asked to be an 'expert commentator' for some newspaper article. Usually it is about higher education, typically about student politics, and I quite enjoy the flattery involved in providing 'expert commentary'. By now I should have learnt that whenever there is something that I do NOT want them to print, I must NOT say it, because it will be exactly that, which they will print. That's Murphy's Law of expert commentary. In the article below, published on 27 September 2018 in one of the three main Cape Town daily newspapers - the Cape Argus - I was asked my opinion about the latest THES university rankings. And guess what - they would of course use my 'scare word' consumer choice 😱 as the preferred keyword in the two printed sentences that came from a good 10 minute talk with Athina May, the very friendly and capable journalist who wrote the story. 

The article is copied in full below:

Cape Town - UCT is the top university in Africa.

This is according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings’ top 1000 universities in the world. It features nine of South Africa’s institutions.

Stellenbosch and Witwatersrand (Wits) universities moved up the ladder from last year’s grading.

However, education specialists argue that the rankings don’t accurately measure a university’s strength in Africa because they don’t take account of socio-economic factors affecting institutions.

More than 1250 higher education institutions across 86 countries were ranked against each other. UCT climbed 15 positions to 156, while Wits landed in the top 250 and Stellenbosch climbed to the top 350.

UCT executive communications director Gerda Kruger said the university was proud of their accomplishment and notable improved score in the research area, which they said confirms their position as a research-intensive institution that makes a contribution to the local and global knowledge pools.

The vice-chancellor and rector of UWC, Professor Tyrone Pretorius, said to date few African universities have featured on global rankings because of their diverse priorities when compared with global elite research universities.

“African universities are operating in developing economies. Research shows that higher education can contribute strongly to economic growth.

“More universities on the continent are realising they must produce graduates who can get to work in their own countries and tackle issues like poverty and inequality.”

Pretorius said universities aimed to meet national goals, and the continent’s needs should be taken into account.

University of the Free State rector and vice-chancellor Francis Petersen agreed. He said the rankings were largely driven by the effect of research generated by universities and where it played a role in the global arena, so universities that weren’t research- intensive were not likely to receive high rankings.

The research director for Higher Education and Development in Africa, Professor Thierry Luescher, said the rankings may not be measuring what we’d like them to, but they played an important role in the public’s perception of higher education institutes.

He said consumer choice was influenced by rankings and high rankings could secure more involvement of businesses in higher education with respect to funding.

Stellenbosch University deputy vice-chancellor of strategy and internationalisation Professor Hester Klopper agreed and said rankings played a role in attracting students and academics from across the world, helping build effective collaborations with other universities, institutions and organisations.

Cape Argus

Saturday, 25 August 2018

After the PhD: The becoming researcher's job hunt ... some tips for the application pack

What is true for any job application at a professional and senior level also counts for getting a Post-Doc, researcher or lecturer position: you must get your application pack right. There are very few but important basics.

Currently at the HSRC we are hiring a lot of new entry level (post-PhD) and senior researchers, and I am going through roughly 200 (!!) application packs for about five jobs (and these 200 have already taken the HR hurdle!). That means, there are about 40 potentially eligible candidates for every post. From those 40, somewhere between 3 and 5 will be shortlisted and invited for interviews. So the bin is very close to the desk. And these are all - please note - highly qualified emerging and established researchers from across South Africa, the African continent, as well as from the UK, Sweden, Germany, Norway, and the USA.

To make the shortlist and not drop in the bin your application pack needs to respond to the advert and look the part. So here some basics:

(1) Have a great CV

Firstly, a CV is a formal document; make sure it is complete for the job you are applying for, up-to-date, accurate (and true!), and looks right.

The CV is often the first thing someone who seeks to hire you will look at (along with whatever you may have completed on an online platform). If your CV looks like you are straight from high-school, it's a major turn-off. A CV must look great. It must say - I am competent, I am who you want to hire, I have what it takes. It must be dressed up properly - just as you would dress up for an interview. Have your CV checked by a professional. Look at other people's CVs and improve yours. Update it regularly. 

Different professions have different rules about what needs to be in a CV. For a researcher/academic job, some of the unique additional things are listed below such as research outputs (publications list), research projects and research networks, funding including scholarships, grants for research, as well as supervision and mentorship. Furthermore: participation in professional or academic associations, relevant training (e.g. in key methodologies or software tools like Nvivo, Atlas.ti, STATA or SPSS, etc.), experience in publishing including editorship/reviewing.

Different countries also have different rules on what can go into a CV. In some countries, adding a picture is not allowed, nor any reference to ethnicity or race. In others, like South Africa, employment equity legislation encourages putting your ethnicity and EE status. Similarly, age, ID number, etc. can be tricky. I would put age but not ID number, for example. 

make sure that you are doing great work - including the 'above and beyond' - that makes you an outstanding candidate for the researcher. What are the key 'variables' from which one looks at the potential of a emerging researcher? Here are some pointers:


Obviously, listing your qualifications is important. Indicate type, discipline, year, institution; if it was thesis based, the title and names of supervisors/advisors, any awards or distinctions; and if it was coursework based, some major courses/topics covered.

Research outputs

Research outputs mainly refers to knowledge products, that is peer-reviewed publications in high-quality, relevant journals and scholarly books. 

Journal articles: choose relevant quality journals. That are not only those who are necessarily listed by Scopus or WoS/ISI, but also those that are relevant in your discipline and your context. Many quality African journals are not listed. They may be on the DHET or Norwegian lists, but not on ISI. If they are where your discipline and topical scholarly conversation is conducted, then that's where you must participate. 
Book chapters: it's a great opportunity to publish on a common topic with international (and local) peers. Make sure your editors and publisher are reputable.
Books (monographs or edited collections) indicate in some disciplines that you have now a certain standing. However, all depends on the publisher. Self-published books, sorry - unless it's a poetry collection. Publishing your thesis is a great idea - either as monograph or a series of articles. Just remember, there are predatory publishers out there who take a thesis and publish it without any 'value added'. Rather don't!
Research reports typically do not have the same standard of peer review as journal articles or reviewed scholarly books. Hence they are typically not counted as part of the peer reviewed research output, but they indicate your research productivity. 
Conference proceeding are sometimes also considered, especially if published. But don't count on in. Attendance of conferences is a good way to see in which 'circles' you mingle. 

Key: one list you do NOT want your journal to be listed is in the Beall's list. Learn to identify predatory journals and do not publish in predatory publishers. If you ever did, do not list them. Count your loses and move on. Similary, publishing your thesis with Lambert is devaluing it in the eyes of recruiters. Publishing in predatory journals that charge high fees and have questionable review and QA processes cast doubt on your ability to produce work "that stands the test of peer review". 

Make sure you have a Scholar Google Profile, an and/or Researchgate account, and your ORCHID. All this shows you are switched on and part of the world-wide community of knowledge producers. A public Google Scholar Profile also gives the recruiters an idea of your citation count and where you stand in your research career. They are more important in our business that LinkedIn. On the topic of social media, please be sure to monitor your own Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever accounts. Nothing like a good researcher profile and a Facebook account that shows a drunkard. 

Research experience, projects, networks, funding

This is really important to show. Research experience (and networks) can be well illustrated in a listing of actual projects. Important to show: duration, name of PI (principal investigator), grant holder, grantee and grant amount (if it is/was funded), your role and contribution. Of course, this must correlate with research outputs, conference/workshop attendance etc.

If you have raised or participated in raising research funding, this is important to note as well. Scholarships and fellowships can be listed, but are not as prestigious as actually having landed a grant from a major foundation or governmental or non-governmental research funding body. The role in the study and in raising the funding (PI, Co-PI, co-grantee, researcher) should be indicated, proposal name, dates, funding amount. 

Of course - a CV must be an accurate reflection of your competencies! Typically, good HR departments verify all qualifications, and good shortlisters will check whether your publications actually exist. Anything too weird and suspicious, is in danger of heading for the shredding bin.  

And - of course - every job is different and has different requirements and criteria. Customize your CV to highlight what recruiters want to see. For an academic teaching appointment, you may want to add the courses you taught; for a research appointment, you will want to include all relevant software skills, research methods courses taken and taught, etc.

(2) Have a great application pack (in addition to your CV)

A CV is a very important component, but only one component of an application pack. Sometimes, if the requirement is for a short CV, have a separate document with your research outputs listed separately. Please remember, your research outputs should be listed neatly, by year (and categorised), and with a consistently applied referencing convention. Also: include DOI or online links (as embedded hyperlinks in a Word or PDF), and if you have publications in lesser-known journals, or apply for a job where the recruiters may not be familiar with the key journals in your field, indicate if they are listed in key indices (e.g. ISI-journal, Scopus journal, DHET-accredited, etc.). 

Include your top 2-3 articles or chapters as PDFs. But better if they are less than 5 (max 10) years old and have good citation traction. Sometimes this is specifically requested.

The motivation letter: must respond to the job advertisement and particularly to all requirements (criteria) and responsibilities. If something is not 100%, explain. Thus, if you apply for a job in an Education Faculty but you are a Development Studies major, explain why you think you make a great fit. That requires research! and it requires sincerity. By all means, show your best side, but any grandstanding should be avoided. Also: this is a formal letter.    

Reference letters and referees: work confirmations, grant confirmations, and actual letters of references from previous research supervisors are great to include. Referees are important and should be senior enough, preferably from different work and country contexts. Ask them if they will be your referees before including them and send your application pack to them!

You want more info? I just found this great resource link: 

Friday, 27 July 2018

African university students' first-year experiences in broader perspective

Not being much of a higher education teaching and learning scholar, in this issue I mostly enjoy the book reviews. And there are three: Liezel Frick reviews the book Going to university: The influence of higher education on the lives of young South Africans authored by Jenni Case, Delia Marshall, Sioux McKenna and Disaapele Mogashana (Cape Town: African Minds, 2017). The book follows 73  young people who first entered university in South Africa some six years ago, and documents their battles and challenges as they move more or less successfully into, through and out of university studies. 

Rejoice Nsibande carefully reviews a timely intervention into the question what meaning and practices of academic freedom apply to students today: Bruce Macfarlane’s book Freedom to Learn: The Threat to Student Academic Freedom and Why it Needs to be Reclaimed (London: Routledge Taylor and Francis, 2017). I saw Nsibande's book review published in the journal Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning (CriSTaL) and asked her if she would not do one for JSAA on the same book, but targeted to student affairs professionals. Great job! Rejoice highlights how the book develops and sustains its argument that university policies are impacting negatively on students’ lives; national policies demonstrate a lack of trust and respect for students as adults and the adoption of managerialism and performative culture has led to universities putting administrative processes and reporting to national bodies at the centre, at the cost of student success. Key to understanding Macfarlane’s argument is that students – as adults – should collaborate over choices and decisions on what to learn, how to learn, when to learn, and how to live their lives. I think one day I will write a book like than from the perspective of South African higher ed. I wrote once a paper on Student Freedoms (maybe I should publish it?), and supported the South African Student Union a few years ago, when I sought to develop a Student Charter of Students' Rights and Responsibilities. 

The third book review is by Taryn Bernard; she discusses the first volume in the new Bloomsbury series “Understanding Student Experiences in Higher Education”. The new series is edited by my dear colleague Manja Klemencic at Harvard. The book is called Negotiating learning and identity in higher education: Access, Persistence and Retention and it was edited by Bongi Bangeni and Rochelle Kapp (London: Bloomsbury, 2017). Similar to Going to University, it is part of a longitudinal research with students; in this case, they are all young black students who are mostly first generation, working class and from single parent families. Bernard particularly commends the authors for having been able to resist ‘deficit constructions’ of the students and rather to focus on the agency of the participants, and conducting research which highlights the agentic and enabled subject positions of the participants. Bernard argues that the book makes an important contribution to the global conversation around widening access and participation by offering an in-depth understanding of student experiences of black students at a historically white research university.

This is not to say that there are no good research articles - in the contrary. It is a great issue. One that I read very closely is from one of the most senior academics in higher education studies in SA, Prof Ian Scott. Mpho Jama, from the UFS Health Faculty, is another academic who continues to impress with her reflective scholarship. Overall, my friend Birgit Schreiber introduces the articles as follows (well - Teboho and I also chipped into this:)

"Discussions around first-year experiences of university students in South Africa have been focused on student adjustment and inclusion into the culture and discourses of higher education. However, the issue is much broader and includes efforts of articulation of processes and continuity of experience. 

This guest-edited issue of JSAA focuses on the wider issues and includes discussions on systemic articulation and ruptures in student experiences. Developmental shifts when entering higher education are experienced by students in a variety of ways. It is incumbent on higher education and the wider system to enable continuity of experience and articulation of systems in such a way that student success is at the centre. 

Thus, the core articles in this issue focus on systemic articulation, in and out of classroom experience and the operational and ontological engagement of students, beyond the first-year experience. Moreover, while discussions on university success are usually focused on higher education agency, it is essential that the silence around causality and influence of schooling and wider societal issues are recognised. The articles in this issue purposefully bring together such a wider perspective."

Vol. 6 Issue 1 of the Journal of Student Affairs in Africa available now Open Access from .

Clearing Research Ethics Clearance

Credits: Bill Watterson - Calvin and Hobbes - one of my most beloved comics strips
Good grief... REC/IRB here we go again. We do years and years of research training to become highly qualified, scarce skills social science researchers, and when we actually want to put all that training into action, assemble the most talented and qualified team, design a great project proposal, hunt down the money, and ready we are, then there is that one hurdle still to take... and it's a paper deluge. Wasn't doing years of research training, Honours, Master's, PhD, Postdoc, all meant to ensure that we know the rules of good and ethical research? At what point is it that these qualifications become accreditation? Rules, rules, rules. We learnt them and we apply them, not? Isn't it so? What can a research ethics committee do? Is it not that in the end, we still have to trust the PI, the principal investigator, after submitting 20 pages of 'research ethics application', research proposal, research instruments including project information sheet, consent form, questionnaire, and so forth,... that in the end we still have to trust the PI to actually use them? Is it not so? I know, I know. It is about protecting the research participants, ensuring that the PI has taken all into account what might cause harm. Of course. I know, I know. But gosh, the processes, the paper war, the forms and all. In most social science research, we are really just asking our research participants to share their knowledge, their perceptions, their experiences with us - to enlighten us. The rules of good behaviour, along with the rules of ethical research learnt in training years... What are we trying to achieve in the ethics review process? If in the end it turns out to be a massive administrative/bureaucratic process, but there is no actual value add, then what have we achieved? If it is all about showing I know the rules, I can apply the rules, then why not having every few years a 'renewal exam' in research ethics, but then a scaled down review process for individual projects? Or what would be the solution? Trust and Punishment? I've been looking for something that can lighten up the mood of this blog post, that comes after I received approval for two ethics applications - no less than three months after I submitted them. That the approval sat for one month in the ethics committee administrator's inbox without being forwarded to me doesn't quite help... but really. The deluge of paper. The amount of work. And at the end, the value add was minimal. I could have gained more from a 1 hour conversation about my projects with the Chair of the REC/IRB, than the 30+ hours that it took me to assemble all the application stuff, the 3+ hours it took REC/IRB members to read through it, the hours of admin and responding to me with pedantic comments about irrelevant stuff, and another 5 hours of responding to these comments. Value add? Minimal. Good grief... I get it. Knowing that one has to connect the dots doesn't necessarily mean we know how to connect them right or how to see the full picture when immersed in the research process; the big picture of ensuring all is done as best it can and no one will be harmed. But really; I think we need to rethink this the clearing of the hurdle of gaining ethics clearance; rules, rules, rules. Thanks Calvin and Hobbes for lightening up my mood. :)