Rhodes University professor heads to Boston College to develop higher education research interests

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Professor Sioux McKenna
Professor Sioux McKenna

By Nwabisa Moyo


Professor Sioux McKenna is a devoted researcher who has consistently sought ways to improve the Higher Education system. Later this year, she will continue her journey as Visiting Professor at the highly esteemed Centre for International Higher Education (CIHE) at Boston College in the United States of America.

In a recent announcement, CIHE expressed, “We are thrilled to welcome her to CIHE, where she will both contribute actively to our research agenda and publications and teach within our doctoral and MA programs.”

As a researcher, Prof McKenna was the Director for the Centre of Higher Education Development at the Durban University of Technology before becoming Head of School at University of KwaZulu-Natal. She has contributed to the fields of student development, entrance testing, online learning, staff development, and the development of curricula.

She is currently the Director for the Centre for Postgraduate Studies (CPGS) at Rhodes University, where she provides support and contributes to the development of opportunities which could benefit postgraduate scholars and their supervisors.

In a recent discussion with Professor McKenna, the following insights were gained:


Q: What sparked your passion for the field of higher education development?

A: I found myself lecturing in a Technikon by accident. I was teaching school children on the weekends in Umlazi in the late 1980s and we used the premises of Mangosuthu Technikon. Someone there asked if I wanted some part-time employment lecturing in the evenings. I jumped at the chance. Though, really, it shows that there’s an assumption that teaching is the same regardless of the level. And it isn’t. I learned about teaching in higher education as I went along and made a million mistakes along the way – many of which I only came to fully understand when I started researching in the field.


Q: What new insights have you gained about Education throughout your career, which you view as being the most fundamental for people to know?

A: I think there are two things I can say here. Firstly, that higher education is not a meritocracy. It is not only through hard work and a good attitude that some succeed. Around the world, higher education success correlates most strongly to social class. We need to engage with why this is and how we can teach in ways that ensure widening access into university is met with widening success within it. We cannot simply have expansion without equity.

The second issue most dear to my heart is that higher education is a public good. I think we spend so much time framing higher education as workplace training – an opportunity to get a certificate that will get you a better job – that we forget why it is subsidised by taxpayers. It is subsidised because it should be good for the whole world to have more graduates. Graduates should be educated to bring their specialised knowledge to a sense of critical citizenship. We need to have graduates who take their responsibilities to people and the planet very seriously. I worry that we might at times neglect our duty as educators in this regard.


Q: You have worked on many international projects which aimed to make sense of how we fund and structure our university systems and what we value within these systems. How have these interactions shaped the work that you create?

I am extremely privileged to have offered courses, undertaken quality audits, and participated in workshops in higher education systems as diverse as The Netherlands, Ethiopia, Egypt, Turkey, the UK, Oman, Bahrain, the USA, Rwanda, and Kenya. Engaging with supervisors and postgraduate students across systems has been hugely helpful in my own work. It has helped me to see how many of our problems are common across the world but also how other systems often use very different approaches. I am particularly interested in the conservatism of approaches to postgraduate education in South Africa, and how starkly evident our colonial history remains. I think there is much we can do in this regard and lessons we can learn from other systems.


Q: How do you feel about the opportunity to take up the role of a research professor at the prestigious CIHE for a year?

I am completely overwhelmed and excited by this opportunity. When CIHE first invited me, I was speechless. The work done by CIHE is cutting edge and global in focus. It really is an honour to have been asked to take up this position. I will be doing some teaching on their Master’s and Doctoral programmes, largely on the research I am currently engaged in. The first course I’ll be teaching is "What is a doctorate for? A global perspective on changes in doctoral education”. I have just completed a large piece of research on doctoral models around the world with my colleague, Professor Susan Van Schalkwyk at Stellenbosch University, and will be drawing on that and other work. The CIHE runs a number of research projects concurrently, so I look forward to dipping into many of them. They also publish their own book series and open access journal.


Q: What are you looking forward to experiencing the most, during your time at Boston College?

I hope to enjoy a year of intellectual stimulation that keeps my head buzzing. I will have the opportunity to work with researchers from across the world during my time at Boston College which will be very exciting. I am also looking forward to learning in a much deeper way about teaching and learning in the US system, particularly at postgraduate level.


Q: How do you plan on making a long-lasting impact in the spaces that you will be researching and teaching, during your time at CIHE?

I can only be at CIHE for a year because I need to return to my work at the CPGS at Rhodes University. Luckily the wonderful Siphokazi Mankayi and Asiphe Mxalisa will make sure that all our workshops, short courses, retreats and more will continue in my absence and, thanks to technology, I am only a Zoom call away. In my time at CIHE, I hope to build networks and look for opportunities for other Rhodes University supervisors and students. There are certainly possibilities of my bringing in guest lecturers and plotting some postgraduate student mobility. I am always looking for how to open the door for others and see this as a great chance for me to do this.