In an effort to strengthen collaboration and identify best practices in student affairs and services in Higher Education Institutions, University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Student Support Services in the College of Health Sciences, led by Dr Saloschini Pillay, hosted and co-ordinated this year’s Southern African Federation for Student Affairs and Services (SAFSAS) Summit held at the Coastlands Umhlanga Hotel from 26 to 27 November.

The two day summit brought together student services representatives comprising of national Vice-Chancellors, Deans of students, directors of students’ support services and student leadership, to discuss the challenges facing practitioners post the #HashTag era. It also shared best practices to enhance student life.

Under the theme Looking back, looking forward: Understanding our space and our role in the new normal,  the summit was divided in four themes that included:  ‘From professionalisation to decoloniality  within Student Affairs and Services  defining our space and our role’, to  ‘The student life experience – wellness and success in the context of food security, gender based violence and a compromised mental health’, ‘The student affairs practitioners…responding to the #HashtagEra’, and ‘Student leadership and governance…redefining our engagement with students’.

SAFSAS President and Chair of the organising committee, Dr Saloschini Pillay said SAFSAS “was established on 25 October 2012 in Mangaung (Bloemfontein) as part of an initiative by the Department of Higher Education and Training to explore the feasibility of a single Higher Education Student Services Practitioner’s body and the establishment of a common understanding on quality student development and support”.

During the first day of the summit, the opening address by Professor Yunus Ballim, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Sol Plaatje University addressed student services and affairs practitioners on developing an institutional culture against the framework of transformation in Higher Education.

He provided the framework which stems from two constructs of socialism; namely legal rights and moral rights. The Institutional Culture change we should strive towards should encourage a tolerant and accepting space of otherness; as our institutions exist in a multi-cultural and diverse learning communities.

Ballim encouraged the practitioners to start this by learning to help others see the world through the eyes of “the other”. Questions were posed, reflecting how to bridge this gap and minimise the impact of arrogance, prejudices, and consider how the practitioner can change the culture of “non-caring” university staff; to bridge the gap between the university staff and the student to encourage a transparent transformed institutional culture and learning environment. Ballim challenged the existing relationship between academic and support staff and encouraged a holistic and adapting relationship.

Dr Birgit Schreiber, Senior Director: Student Affairs at Stellenbosch University, led a panel addressing The Student Life Experience; in particular wellness and success in the context of food insecurity, gender based violence and a compromised mental health. She spoke of the student services and affairs practitioners’ role in making wellness and success a priority, which starts with social justice. She encouraged practitioners when they ‘see it, [to] act on it, and make changes in sustainable ways’.

‘Within our institutions, we need to encourage a shift in the perceptions of psychological services … to encourage a positive belief about psychological services and address the negative beliefs about psychological services.

‘Seeing a professional does not mean I am a weak person. We need to understand the reasons for not seeking treatment,’ adding that with this understanding we would be able to make the necessary shift towards a caring university.

Mr Jerome September, Dean of Students from WITS, further elaborated on how we need to resolve these societal issues within a changing system while Ms Laetitia Permall, Director Centre for Student Support Services at the University of the Western Cape reflected on the role every individual has within our institutions. ‘We are getting more right; we have to give ourselves more credit and reflect; and make more change.’

UKZN PhD Candidate and Political Analyst from the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit, Mr Lukhona Mnguni spoke on the Character of the university in 2018: Activists seeking its re-imagining. He highlighted four mechanisms of inequality in the South African society which include distantiation, exploitation, exclusion and hierachisation.

‘The character of the South African university today is one laden with massive inequalities that are not only produced inside our institutions but our students arrive with these differentiating inequalities from the society in which they hail from,’ said Mnguni. He added that practitioners and universities need to realise that some of these students come into universities are already broken.

Reflecting on the #FessMustFall protests and other challenges when responding to students, Mnguni said Universities are ill prepared in coping with or responding to the students they have today. He advised summit participants to start seeing themselves as nation builders rather than managers and individual practitioners.

In the fourth panel discussion facilitated by the Dean of Students at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and deputy President of SAFSAS, Dr Sibusiso Chalufu, the engagement between student leaders and universities was discussed.

Panellists, former Wits SRC President, Ms Nompendulo Mkhatshwa; Executive Director: Student Life at North West University, Professor Lumkile Lalendle; and SAUS Secretary-General, Mr Lwandle Mtsoloall discussed involving students in decision-making, creating spaces for negotiation and discussions not only between students and management but between different parties at universities. It was said that students at universities are adults and needed to be treated as such, and for universities to ensure they have a caring environment for students to thrive.

SAFSAS Treasurer, Mr Doc Nahssengo thanked Pillay and her team for organising the summit and holding the SAFSAS together to ensure that they take student affairs to another level.

Words: Suzanne Stokes

Photographs: Albert Hirasen