A different continent; same higher education issues
Michelle Morgan FAUA | Learning and Teaching Coordinator, Kingston University
The AUA has reciprocal agreements with other university administrative organisations across the world, which allows AUA members to benefit from attending partner conferences, and vice versa. It is a fantastic arrangement which provides the opportunity for administrators and managers to share ideas and discuss the similarities and differences facing our higher education sectors.
In May 2016 I represented the AUA at the Higher Education Faculty Administrators Forum (HEFAF) Annual Conference which is the South African equivalent of our UK Annual Conference andExhibition. I had no idea what to expect from the conference, which was being hosted in Cape Town. It was my first time in South Africa and before going my overriding images and memories were of Table Mountain, the struggle against Apartheid, rugby and watching Nelson Mandela walk free in 1991 after 27 years in jail.
Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning ‘separateness’, or ‘the state of being apart’ and was a system of racial segregation in South Africa, enforced through legislation by the governing National Party from 1948 to 1994. Even though democracy was achieved in 1994 with Nelson Mandela becoming President, I wondered if I would still find separateness, not only socially, but also educationally. My trip proved to be not only one of the most memorable and personal experiences of my life so far, but a higher educational eye-opener, and this is why.
As soon as I contacted the HEFAF team, they were keen to get me involved. In the past few months, as in the UK, Parliament in South Africa has been talking about raising higher education tuition fees. With my extensive work in the field of the undergraduate and postgraduate student experience and my recent research into the impact of fees on postgraduate level study, it was agreed that I should do a keynote presentation on ‘fees, retention and the student experience’. Before I went, I looked at the student population of many South African Universities, which showed diversity. With my presentation prepared, my passport in hand and a mix of clothes in my suitcase to dress for South Africa’s changeable winter season, I headed off to Heathrow Airport for my overnight flight.
On landing the next morning, I met the HEFAF organisers (Peet du Plessis and Sonja Oliver) at Cape Town airport and we made our way to the hotel where the conference was being held. Having settled in, we sat down to talk about the conference. I asked what they wanted me to do, if they wanted any assistance with the conference and who my audience would be. I was thrilled that they were happy for me to help out on the registration desk because it was a perfect way to meet other
delegates and get a sense of the conference spirit. However, I was not expecting the response I got to my question of ‘who are my audience?’
The response was that many of the delegates were traumatised and under extreme stress due to the student protests against fees. I was told that many delegates had had to withdraw at
the last moment to deal with serious issues happening on their campus. Immediately I thought about the protests in the UK and wondered what could be so bad and causing the distress? And
then I was told. The protests had escalated to student violence, with damage being done to statues and artworks, confrontations occurring with security staff and police, plus the burning of buildings
and brutal clashes between student factions. The reason wasn’t just conflict over tuition fees, but the shortages of student accommodation, low-paid staff and issues about the language of instruction. Staff from one day to the next didn’t know if trouble would erupt on their campus, or if it had, whether or not it was safe enough to go to work.
So the challenge for me as someone from a different country and one not experiencing these traumas was getting the balance right between a response that was caring, but not trite or disingenuous. As it turned out, the delegates guided me in my response. As I worked with Sonja on the registration desk, I saw the passion, dedication, commitment and determination of the administrators. I also experienced the diversity of delegates in terms of ethnic groups and different African languages. After my presentation, I was able to relax and participate in the conference. For AUA members the Annual Conference is a fantastic way of recognising that the issues in your university are not unique. I have attended many an AUA event and breathed a sigh of relief that others have the same issues as I do. During the HEFAF conference, I often found myself smiling as I listened to the comments made by some of the delegates. The UK and South Africa maybe approximately 6,000 miles apart and on different continents, but HEFAF colleagues could have been sitting in an AUA conference sharing the same frustrations, concerns, hopes and dreams for their institutions, students and the sector.
“They don’t believe they have a future so what have they got to lose?”
Like colleagues in the UK, the HEFAF delegates are worried about staff losses, bureaucratic and costly processes, university services acting in silos, the impact of reduced funding and the increase in student fees and debt. However, thankfully, AUA members do not have to witness the destruction of learning spaces once considered ‘safe’ and an attack on what Nelson Mandela considered to be one of the most powerful weapons in the world – education. It is important to remember that it is the minority who are taking direct action, but when I asked colleagues if they knew why some students were resorting to such violent action and destroying their own future as well as that of others, the response was “they don’t believe they have a future so what have they got to lose?”
My trip to Cape Town has left me with indelible memories. The South African people I met were happy, relaxed and passionate about their country. They have embraced democracy and I witnessed real integrated diversity and education, rugby and Nelson Mandela’s legacy helping to bond that diversity. Even amongst the trials and tribulations they are experiencing, there is hope and tenacity. The HEFAF team was incredibly welcoming and helpful, and the delegates were keen to learn and to share ideas and experiences. There are many things they can teach us!
I left South Africa a more reflective individual. It was an inspiring trip and Cape Town is a remarkable city. I encourage you to apply to attend HEFAF, represent the AUA and your
university and have a life changing experience.
Please note that since this article was written, HEFAF has now changed it’s name to AAA