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06 February 2020 | Story Michelle Nöthling | Photo Johan Roux
Symposium bridges the gap between students, staff, and management
Students from the UFS, UCLA and VUA shared on their collective experience within higher education at the colloquium.

The Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice at the University of the Free State (UFS) united with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA) on the Bloemfontein Campus in a symposium discussing ‘Fragility and Resilience: Facets, Features and (Trans)Formations in Higher Education’. “It is really the only conference that brings together support staff, academic staff, students, and upper administration management, which includes vice-chancellors, rectors, presidents, and provosts,” said Dr Dionne van Reenen, Senior Researcher in the Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice, and convener of the event.

Dr Van Reenen further explained that, when it comes to matters such as policy changes, contact between these various groups at a university is crucial. In general, upper management has very little contact with students. Students would rather approach academic staff. In turn, academic staff members are often reluctant to approach support staff, since support staff are already burdened with administrative tasks. But, Dr Van Reenen continued, all these stakeholders actually need to move closer to each other, since the Academic Project goal is the same: delivering excellent-quality graduates and producing new knowledge. With this in mind, the symposium programme specifically included panel presentations and discussions by academic as well as support staff and students. What emanated from these discussions was a rich variety of topics speaking to various aspects of fragility and resilience. The following are only a few excerpts from these engaging dialogues. 

Using counter-stories to narrate fragilities and resilience in higher education institutions in South Africa

Dr Fumane Khanare, Dr Ntombizandile Gcelu, and Pearl Larey – all three academic staff members in the UFS School of Education Studies, and Lihle Ndlovu, Head of Department for Business Studies at the uMfolozi TVET College – use narratives to interrogate fragility and resilience among black women in higher education. They wanted to go beyond surface conversations about how each was doing and decided to use critical race theory to question even their own stories through collaborative learning. They share, listen, question, and reflect, and as a result, create new narratives through counter-stories. “We are trying to explore our narratives,” Dr Khanare said, “not only as the outsiders, but as the insiders as well. From our background, we cannot ignore that we came here full of potential, but full of fragilities as well.” 

The ambiguity of change: The stories that South African student narratives tell 
Continuing the exploration of narratives, Dr Frans Kamsteeg from the Department of Sciences at VUA shared his research among students of the UFS who were part of the Leadership for Change programme. The programme, that came to an end in 2016, took UFS students through a process of leadership courses and training and included a trip to one of the external participating foreign universities. Dr Kamsteeg subsequently received several groups at the VUA and became interested in how these students engage in transformation processes at the UFS. Presenting seven vignettes of students’ narratives, Dr Kamsteeg revealed a tapestry of multivocality and fragility, and a meandering path of self-identity and transformation. “They learned a lot about academic citizenship and becoming responsible citizens,” Dr Kamsteeg added.

Keeping up with changing times: Student leaders, resilience, fragility, and professional development

Dr Marguerite Muller, Pulane Malefane, and Liezl Dick were all residence heads at the UFS. During the #FeesMustFall period, they realised that the role of student leaders had begun to change. They saw how these roles evolved and became interested in how student leaders became stakeholders and decision makers at the UFS. An interesting outcome from the arts-based research was that in the individual drawing exercise – in which students had to represent their lives as a winding river – fragility did not feature at all. Instead, the student leaders chose to depict sources of challenges and support, and how these factors built resilience. However, in the group exercise where students had to stage a puppet show, the stories revealed clear areas of fragility. Essentially, the students were willing to show fragility as long as they were fragile with others. “What we learned was that it is really important for student leaders to understand the complexity of their roles. Student leaders also need to learn and understand that it is okay to fail, that you need to grow and need to change, and that fragility in this sense is not necessarily a weakness,” Dr Muller concluded.

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