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19 March 2018 | Story Eugene Seegers | Photo Charl Devenish
UFS collaborates with Wits UWC to present higher education PhD Conference
Prof Merridy Wilson-Strydom (UFS, Prof Patricio Langa (UWC), Prof Melanie Walker (UFS), and Prof Stephanie Allais (Wits) at the keynote address delivered by Prof Allais.

The higher education sector in Africa has seen dramatic shifts over the past few years, and has attracted renewed attention from global funders and national policy-makers. In turn, country-wide challenges of poverty, inequalities, and university histories and stratification in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent offer rich opportunities for critical, theoretically-informed research to investigate and understand the conditions of possibility for change nationally and comparatively.

In particular, three centres at universities in South Africa have decided to build an organic collaboration, starting with research by doctoral research fellows at these universities, who presented papers at a two-day conference. The conference was jointly organised and hosted under the umbrella of the SARCHi (South African Research Chairs Initiative) Chair in Higher Education and Human Development at the Bloemfontein Campus of University of the Free State (UFS). Two keynote addresses on significant issues in the sector were presented by Prof Stephanie Allais, Director of the Centre for Researching Education and Labour (REAL, University of the Witwatersrand) and Prof Patricio Langa, Associate Professor of Sociology and Higher Education Studies at the Institute for Post-School Studies (IPPS, University of the Western Cape).

HE researchers collaborate
This ongoing collaboration between the three universities was initiated by Prof Melanie Walker at the UFS, in partnership with Prof Allais and Prof Langa and their institutions, with each institution taking a turn to host similar conferences. The conference at the UFS not only brought together doctoral researchers from these three centres to share their research, but it also offered the opportunity to engage with other early-career and experienced scholars. 

The conference was themed Critical Higher Education Studies: Theories and Research and aimed to build research relationships and stimulate debate among scholars. It was jointly organised by postdoctoral fellows: Ntimi Mtawa and Faith Mkwananzi (UFS), Bothwell Manyonga (Wits), and Patrick Swanzy (UWC).

Significant benefits for conference-goers and presenters alike

Conference-goers, as well as the presenters, reported great benefits as a result of their attendance and participation in the event. The research papers were important and central. However, the broader value of the conference was the platform it offered to young, emerging scholars to showcase their research projects, receive critical comments, listen and learn from one another, in addition to engaging with experienced scholars. 

Secondly, the variety of PhD research fellows who presented their research further enhanced critical academic engagement and the exchange of ideas. Presenters reported that the quality of feedback and comments on their projects had especially enhanced their current work. The focus of the stimulating keynote addresses also challenged participants to think well and critically about the field of higher education. Practical skills development also featured on the programme in the form of learning how to present a TED-style talk.

“The conference was especially valuable in bringing together early-career researchers working on critical and theorised approaches to higher education,” said Prof Walker. She added, “In particular, I valued the diversity of both the projects and their theoretical frames, which proved especially rich, together with the outstanding keynote contributions—one from political economy and one from sociology—which shaped the event as a whole.”

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