Attending the AAA conference | AUA Blog
The higher education sector in South Africa is being transformed in response to the violent student protests that rocked the nation in 2015 and 2016. Targeting institutionalised racism and increasing costs, the #Rhodesmustfall and #Feesmustfall movements have had a profound effect on universities and government policy as the country shakes off the legacy of apartheid to form a truly decolonised education system.
Phil Taylor MAUA
Senior Academic Quality Manager (Partnerships)
Royal Holloway | University of London
It was a privilege to have the opportunity to learn more about this first hand by representing the AUA at the second annual conference of the Association of Academic Administrators (AAA) in Gauteng. The conference brought together over 300 administrative staff from 26 South African universities and technical colleges and a handful from neighbouring Botswana and Namibia. We gathered in a sprawling, Mediterranean-style conference centre on the outskirts of Pretoria, and took in a range of perspectives on the theme of ‘Shaping the Future of Education and the World of Work for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’.
Several of the sessions focused on the impact of developments such as big data and artificial intelligence on university administration, with frequent emphasis on the human skills required to understand and evaluate technological innovation. I gave a presentation that offered a perspective from the UK on how professional services staff can manage the overlapping pressures of institutional, national and global change, highlighting resources from JISC and the AUA CPD framework to reflect on the value of professional development and sector level collaboration.
Despite the uniquely challenging social and political conditions in South Africa, what struck me throughout the conference was how the key issues facing universities (funding, access and diversity) are recognisable to us in the UK. The mass expansion of student numbers since the advent of democracy has intensified difficulties with retention and progression for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. One of the consequences, exacerbated by the recent unrest, has been an increase in students reporting mental health conditions. In an engaging plenary session on this topic administrators exchanged strong views on working with students suffering with anxiety, financial hardship and loneliness, and representatives from different institutions shared examples of innovative approaches to student support.
The AAA is newly constituted as a non-profit organisation and professional body, following the merger of two previous forums, and it was fascinating to sit in on the AGM and listen to the formation of values and objectives similar to those of the AUA. Delegates who I chatted to were motivated to promote the concept of professional development for university administrators, and there was a lively and welcoming atmosphere throughout the conference. The social highlight was a gala dinner, where I learned more about the South African wine industry and demonstrated how terrible I am at dancing.
The end of the conference coincided with the inauguration ceremony for President Cyril Ramaphosa, taking place just down the road in Pretoria. My brief visit to a local nature reserve to see zebras, ostriches and hippos was enhanced by a series of dramatic flyovers from fighter jets and airliners participating in the national celebration. It was a reminder of the responsibility weighing on the South African government to develop a university sector that meets young peoples’ demands for fair and affordable education. And the zebras were impressive.