09 September 2021 | Story Rulanzen Martin | Photo Stephen Collett
Prof Melanie Walker and keynote speaker, Prof Narend Baijnath, who reflected on his own academic path to instil a sense of pride in the newer generation of academics.

The Higher Education and Human Development Research Group is one of the prestige research groups at the University of the Free State (UFS). The group, under the stewardship of Prof Melanie Walker, A1 NRF-rated researcher, brings together researchers, PhD students, and postdoctoral fellows who focus on human development and capability studies in the higher education space.

A colloquium that took place recently (25 August 2021), celebrated the conclusion of research projects such as the Miratho project, and also reflected on the achievements of 2020 and 2021 in challenging COVID-19 times. Most importantly, the group celebrated the five PhD graduates of 2021. 

Prof Narend Baijnath, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Commonwealth of Learning, was the keynote speaker at the celebratory colloquium.

Lessons from Prof Baijnath 

Although in the ‘twilight of his career’, Prof Baijnath used his keynote address to share and reflect on his own journey to guide academics and postdoctoral fellows embarking on their new journeys. “Looking back, while I do acknowledge that adversity and struggle may build character and fuel perseverance, it is often the largesse and generosity of others that makes the difference between whether you realise your full potential or not,” Prof Baijnath said.  “Local community members pitched in to cover my own university fees and the cost of books when times were tough, and never asked to be repaid,” he remembered. 
However, it was also the support his mother gave him, because “she valued education above all else”.  “She made sure that my needs were provided for as a priority before attending to other needs of the family,” he said.  
Prof Baijnath, through his own circumstances, resonates with young people at universities today, because getting through university is a daily challenge for many of our youth who are desperate to escape poverty and fulfil their dreams. “They bristle with potential, are hardworking and focused, and hungry for success. Even though many more funding opportunities exist today that were non-existent back then, the struggle to escape poverty and disadvantage persists for many,” he said.
Read the full keynote here

PhD students and graduates invaluable 

The five PhD graduates are Dr Berth Kibona; Dr Fenella Sommerville, Dr Martino Mazinga; Dr Monique Kwachou Tangah; and Dr Ndakaitei Manase. “It is a mighty achievement to reach this milestone. Only those who have completed the journey or who are currently embarked upon it will fully understand the momentousness of this occasion,” Prof Baijnath said in his remarks.  

Of the current group of PhDs, all draw on the capability and human development approach – each with a with different focus: access to higher education in Zambia; alternative post-school pathways in Malawi; student activism and social media in South Africa (SA); climate justice and the role of universities in Malawi, decolonising higher education in SA; and architecture and human development. “Our PhDs are so important in the life of our research group,” Prof Walker emphasised. 

Four of the five PhD graduandi. From the left; Dr Monique Kwachou;  Dr Martino Mazinga; Dr Bertha Kibona; and
Dr Fenella Somerville. (Picture: Stephen Collett)

Research output contributes to prestige 

The event further celebrated the publication of books, such as the Miratho project book due for publication later this year, which examines the opportunities, obstacles, and outcomes for low-income youth and higher education. In addition, there is the forthcoming 2021 book by Dr Carmen Martinez-Vargas on participatory research, and Prof Walker’s 2020 edited book on epistemic justice. This is in addition to a steady stream of peer-reviewed articles in international journals and book chapters.

The awarding of international grants and research opportunities embodies the empirical success of the group. Senior researcher Dr Faith Mkwananzi serves as the chief investigator on a research project with the Open University and Coventry University. Funding for the project is through the British Academy (BA). Another project undertaken by Dr Mkwananzi is the Changing the Story project, which is also funded by the BA.  “All this funding will allow very exciting projects to go ahead and further strengthen our contributions to Global South research,” said Prof Walker. The group also welcomed a new research associate from Lancaster University, Dr Melis Cin. Dr Cin is the successful recipient of a large grant for decolonising peace education in Africa.

Overall, research projects undertaken by members exemplify a commitment to rigorous and original South-based research and to social justice through advancing human development and expanding people’s freedoms.

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