04 February 2020 | Story Michelle Nöthling | Photo Johan Roux
Fragility read more
The colloquium brought together students, staff and administration to work together on resolving ongoing problems within the higher education sector.

Where does resilience – or the lack thereof – in higher education come from? What does resilience and fragility even mean? These were some of the core issues examined during a recent symposium titled ‘Fragility and Resilience: Facets, Features and (Trans) Formations in Higher Education’. The Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice hosted the event from 28 to 31 January 2020 on the University of the Free State (UFS) Bloemfontein Campus. The symposium – now in its seventh year – is a collaborative endeavour between the UFS, the University of California, Los Angeless (UCLA), and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA) to learn and share knowledge. “The real aim of the symposium is to address diversity and transformation issues from different contexts so that we can compare and contrast and learn best practices,” said Dr Dionne van Reenen, Senior Researcher in the Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice, and convener of the event. 

Against the Psychologisation of Resilience

In a keynote address, Prof Michalinos Zembylas from the Open University of Cyprus argued against the potential psychologisation of resilience. According to Prof Zembylas, the concept of resilience is often framed as the psychological capacity of the individual to thrive through vulnerability and change. Such a view inevitably places the responsibility for success or failure on the shoulders of the individual and ignores the collusion between systems of oppression and structural inequalities. “The concept of resilience has become part and parcel of neoliberal governmentality – a growing emphasis on autonomous and reflexive individuals who have the capacity to conduct their own risk assessments and pursue their own life opportunities,” Prof Zembylas said. Therefore, within this neoliberalist ideology with its emphasis on the individual, people are led to believe that they need to continually adapt to threats that are essentially out of their control. A resilient person is, in other words, someone who permanently transforms themselves to accommodate the world without the possibility of actually changing that world. 

What impact does this have on higher education? Prof Zembylas noted that a neoliberalist perception of resilience discourages students “from imagining themselves as political agents who could collectively work to challenge harmful or unjust working and life practices”. Although universities use a great variety of tools and interventions to address students’ fragility, these approaches often focus on the vulnerability of the individual. Instead, Prof Zembylas proposed a shift towards an ontology that regards vulnerability as produced by conditions of oppression. A pedagogy of oppression is different from a pedagogy of vulnerability, since “instead of focusing on vulnerabilities, you would rather instil confidence in subjects to say no to abuse of power”.

The nature and role of student hope and meaning in goal setting and life satisfaction

Prof Itumeleng Khumalo, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the UFS, delivered the following day’s keynote address. “Many studies concerned with youth have focused on their fears, worries and anxieties, instead of positive functioning and satisfaction with life,” Prof Khumalo remarked. In contrast, he opted to look at how hope and meaning shape students’ goals for higher education. Focusing on hope and meaning, however, does not deny the fact that South African students, in particular, are faced with substantial challenges. The majority of students enrolling in higher education in South Africa are first-generation entrants. Seventy percent of students do not have a graduate parent, and 45% do not have any family members who graduated. Most of these students are burdened with fears of failing, financial problems, difficulties with accommodation, worries about family members, inadequate knowledge regarding digital technology, and lack of support. 

Despite the above, a study by Prof Khumalo and Dr Angelina Wilson Fadiji showed that 85% of their student sample expected life would get better as a result of their education. The vast majority of students indicated that their main goal was to attain employment and build a career as a result of tertiary education. Students believe that getting an education will afford them opportunities to get ahead in life and enable them to become financially independent. “The perceived linear pathway from education to a better and successful life remains the dominant belief among these students, rendering education an undisputed panacea,” Prof Khumalo said. Ultimately, hope and meaning are sources of direction and motivation, and institutions of higher learning play a crucial role in human capacity development.

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