7 July 2017
by Jenni Case

Changing society through higher education research

As education researchers we cannot evade our role in generating new knowledge to broaden our understanding of contemporary problems, says Jenni Case in University World News.

Just over 20 years after the democratic dispensation, the South African social landscape continues to be structured by its legacy of colonialism and apartheid. These were systems that structured life opportunities for South Africans in distinct ways depending on their ethnic backgrounds.

These structures have largely not changed even though we now have a democratic order: black children still attend schools that are little different to the Bantu Education system that was the cause of the Soweto uprising some 40 years ago.

South Africa now has a growing middle class of all races, but nearly half of our population is still excluded from stable livelihoods. Significant progress has been made in the provision of housing and sanitation, but we still have statistics around maternal and child health that are completely out of kilter for a nation with this level of gross domestic product.

It is therefore not surprising that serious questions began to be asked by student activists in 2015, especially given that this was the point where the broader political order began to unravel. But the answers are not that straightforward. Yes, definitely, society needs to change. But how? And most crucially, what role should and could the university play in this regard?

Asking the right questions

As education researchers we cannot evade our role in generating new knowledge to broaden our understanding of contemporary problems. I was struck by a recent comment of the higher education editor of a social media outlet, who noted how hard it is these days to get South African education academics to write about their research findings – in these heady times everyone wants to write op-eds but no one wants to make a contribution to the long haul.

In 2000, a series of seminars was arranged with South African academics to engage with Manuel Castells’ emerging work on the contemporary condition of globalisation, what he terms ‘informationalism’ and its implications for emerging economies such as South Africa, with an especial focus on education.

Castells reportedly lamented that South African academics seemed stuck in the mode of asking ‘how to’ questions rather than the analytical focus that he deemed more important in research. Thus the questions were focused on ‘how’ we can resist the pernicious impacts of globalisation, rather than an analytical understanding of the conditions – constraints and enablements – of the present context.

We need to ask analytical education questions. In this regard an ideological commitment to social justice is a potentially rich and productive store and a useful metric for a contemporary society in which it is often hard to find a moral compass – but we need to use this to frame educational questions rather than rhetorical statements or prescriptions for action.

Valuing research

Currently there is a growing scholarship tracking the dramatic expansion of participation in higher education, particularly in Asia over recent times. The trend seems unstoppable and driven mainly by the aspirations of families rather than by government fiat.

These are times to make sure the questions we are asking of higher education are not trapped in the thinking of the past. What are the particular dynamics of the expansion of higher education in South Africa – how is a system that massified early on for a small racially defined segment adjusting (or not) to the needs of broader massification across the population? How can we understand the protests of 2015 in this context?

What are the forms of capital that South African students from less privileged backgrounds are drawing on in order to succeed in South African higher education? What are the forms of pedagogy that are supporting the needs of these students? What do graduates make of the knowledge and dispositions that the university has fostered in them – how do these translate into their lives post university?

With regard to addressing the central educational questions of the day, I would argue that the contribution of close-up research remains completely undervalued. Sadly, this is a world that wants metrics, rankings and statistical correlations. In higher education I would be bold to say that yet another study which shows how students with high levels of motivation/self-efficacy/self-regulation tend to perform better academically is really a waste of everyone’s time.

There are important questions that are not being addressed, partly because these require an audience sophisticated enough to understand complex causality.

Researchers need to be able to build explanatory accounts that draw on close-up data, but in analysis are able to locate it carefully in its historical and social context. We need to find ways to work with large sets of narrative data; to become more sophisticated in using observational and documentary data; to learn to work comparatively across contexts in a close-up mode.

We need to listen closely to student voices; at the same time we need more than ever to avoid the so-called ‘epistemic fallacy’ which takes people’s accounts of the way things seem to be the way they are.

It is difficult to make sense easily of the challenging and fast moving times in which we are living. Crucially, there is much work to be done in interpreting findings and presenting these to multiple audiences. If the world out there has been raised on a diet of metrics and correlations, then the duty is going to fall to us as higher education scholars to raise the level of the conversation.

Rhodes and false radicalism

You may be aware that the University of Cape Town, or UCT, took the decision early in 2015 to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the campus. There was widespread agreement about this symbolic break and only a few lone voices who troubled the moment.

A colleague Nicoli Nattrass wrote the following: “Removing the statue will provide the illusion that we have rid ourselves of Rhodes’ legacy. It would cloak UCT in a false mantle of radicalism, hiding the embarrassing truth that we are an elite institution that reinforces social inequality on a daily basis. The statue should be moved – but let’s keep it somewhere on campus to remind us that we are the living legacy of Rhodes’ elitism, and have a corresponding debt to society.”

This thoughtful challenge resonates with an earlier piece written in November 2013 by the then vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Professor Njabulo Ndebele. Aware of the longstanding debates about the location of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the UCT campus – these go back to the 1930s – he provides a provocative engagement with the perspective that the statue is designed to invoke.

“A concrete balustrade just below Rhodes allows you to stand there, your back to him. You too can assume his pose … For a while you might even experience the gaze of contentment: there, spread before you, is the world you had a hand in shaping … Although you and Rhodes command a view, the vista before you is too far and widespread to show its imperfections,” he wrote.

“At some time past you may have read about, heard about, or seen smoke rising from rampant fires in the informal settlements of KwaLanga along the highway to and from the airport; and from farther afield, in the townships of Gugulethu and Crossroads.

“You might have contemplated lives charred and belongings incinerated, families traumatised; and you might recall the clamours of tragedy in the newspapers, on radio and television, of political accusation and counter-accusation, and stories of poverty and wealth deposited on the deliberative tables of commissions of inquiry.”

What is the relationship between the university and the world that surrounds it?

The deliberate colonial siting and architecture of the University of Cape Town embodies the idea that the university is set apart, with an elevated view from which it can gaze upon and contemplate the world.

Ndebele’s inversion of Rhodes’ gaze – to look closely at the misery that is also part of the colonial legacy and to avoid the comforts of an ideological blanket – is a useful reminder to higher education scholars of the important analytical work to be done if we are to make any progress in really alleviating the injustices of the past.