Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Student affairs and the politics of space, language and identity

In the South African context, the politics of space, language and identity in higher education have been brought into sharp focus by the 2015/16 student movement. It is largely due to the student movement and campus-based movements and campaigns like #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch, #AfrikaansMustFall, and #RUReferenceList, to name but a few, and the national #FeesMustFall campaign that the debates of the mid and late 1990s on the Africanisation of higher education and curriculum reform, the transformation of institutional cultures, and the meanings and implications of advantage and disadvantage in higher education, are receiving renewed attention.

The Journal of Student Affairs in Africa (JSAA) doesn't cease to amaze in the way it is able to attract and publish top quality scholarship as well as emerging researchers' contributions on cutting edge topics. In its 2019 July issue, vol. 7(1), JSAA is publishing a number of guest-edited articles that respond in various ways to matters raised in the course of the 2015/16 student movement or attribute the political salience of their analysis to concerns raised by various student campaigns since 2015.

I felt very happy to work with my former PhD student, now Dr Philippa Tumubweinee on this guest-edited issue on the politics of space, language and identity in higher education.

The opening research article by Philippa and I called ‘Inserting Space into the Transformation of Higher Education’ focuses specifically on the significance of space in the transformation of higher education. In this article, we argue that the concept of social space can provide the conceptual tools for reframing policy and designing new policy interventions in pursuit of higher education transformation goals. We start out by arguing against a notion of space merely as physical infrastructure or a void to be filled. Rather, in keeping with Lefebvre and others, we conceptualise a ‘sociopolitical’ notion of space as socially produced and as co-producer of the social. Using this understanding of space, we conduct an analysis of four national cornerstone policy documents on higher education transformation in South Africa (1997 to 2017). Our analysis shows that, since the original post-apartheid White Paper on Higher Education of 1997, it is only the most recent national policy document, the Draft National Plan for Postschool Education and Training of 2017, which blurs the lines between the social ills affecting the student experience of higher education (and indeed society at large), which we call ‘the realities of the everyday’ on campus, and different functions of space. Our article suggests new conceptual tools for a research agenda that explores the (social) organisation of space in higher education which will allow policymakers to insert space-related concerns into the policy debates on decolonised higher education that have been (re-)ignited by the student movement.

This is followed by a number of excellent articles on thematically related matters. Of the articles in this issue I particularly like:

"What Are We Witnessing? Student Protests and the Politics of the Unknowable" by my former colleague at the University of the Free State, Dionne van Reenen. Here Dionne analyses student movement discourse. Her analysis shows that grand narratives are rejected in student movement discourse in favour of attributes such as complexity, infinity, individuality, contingency, discontinuity, flux and unknowability. Students focused on the ‘lower attributes’ through which they were able to articulate individual life-history narratives. As a result, this led to disagreements in communication between students and university leaders. In addition, the author uses the theoretical frame of Stewart et al. (2012), which posits that movements utilise persuasive tactics of affirmation. In particular, she analyses the student movement in terms of identification, polarisation, framing, storytelling, and power. In doing so, the article problematises the student movement narratives, considering the dominating and silenced voices.

"#FeesMustFall: Lessons from the Post‑colonial Global South" by Sipho Dlamini is a well-researched and written article that feels a bit ... funny... it feels like Sipho was out to show how much free higher education is a must in a post-colonial country and then gets all surprised by finding that elsewhere in Africa, the development related to higher education tuition fees has been the opposite - namely introducing cost-sharing... I really like this sense of bewilderment about the article (it really feels like something has been learnt here!) and also how Sipho disentangles himself from the conundrum, arguing that the inequalities in SA are just to stark not to address them with the partially free HE policy that is operative now.

"Theorising the #MustFall Student Movements in Contemporary South African Higher Education: A Social Justice Perspective" by Mlamuli Nkosingphile Hlatshwayo, Kehdinga George Fomunyam and
#FeesMustFall Protests in South Africa: A Critical Realist Analysis of Selected Newspaper Articles"
by George Mavunga also squarely deal with student movement matters, the one from a social justice approach, the other more empirical.

But let me not spoil anything for you. The Journal is open access available at

But be sure to also read the book review by Monica McLean of Talita Calitz' book (2019). Enhancing the Freedom to Flourish. London, UK: Routledge