[RU120] “Students are not our enemy; they are our future.” – Conference explores trust in the higher education context

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Professor Sarah Eaton from the University of Calgary [PIC CREDIT: Thabo Mathebula]
Professor Sarah Eaton from the University of Calgary [PIC CREDIT: Thabo Mathebula]

By Zindzi Nkunzi


As part of celebrating its bidecacentennial anniversary year of academic excellence, Rhodes University hosted the international Higher Education Close-Up 11 (HECU11) conference from 3 to 5 July last week.

The HECU conference is a peer-reviewed biennial conference focused on in-depth, close-up research into higher education.

Attended by individuals from across the world, the conference aimed to foster collaborative engagement and debate around the conference theme: TRUST in higher education. The three keynote speakers, Professor Sarah Eaton (University of Calgary), Professor Siphokazi Magadla (Rhodes University) and Professor Mikateko Mathebula (University of the Free State) produced provoking ‘think pieces’ prior to the conference which presenters were required to engage with in their papers. This dialogic process encouraged conference participants to collectively reflect on the responsibilities of the sector, how academics relate to their students, and how knowledge that contributes to the public good can be built and disseminated by institutions of higher education.

Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sizwe Mabizela opened the conference by extending a warm and heartfelt welcome to honoured guests, keynote speakers, conference participants and all attendees. “Our sincere appreciation and gratitude go to our local organising committee for organising this intellectually stimulating, engaging, successful and memorable conference,” he said.

Professor Mabizela argued that “Trust is foundational in everything we do. It is this simple and yet profound value of trust that is at the heart of higher education, the relationships between students and academics, between and among colleagues, between and among researchers, between institutions of higher learning and the society, all of these are predicated on trust.”

A university is an academic space for knowledge creation, exchange, and dissemination, where students trust their lecturers to provide quality education. At the same time, they are expected to engage and conduct their studies with academic integrity and in ethical ways.

“In a trustworthy ecosystem, staff and students thrive, knowledge flourishes, and society benefits,” Professor Mabizela said.

University of Calgary Professor Sarah Eaton delivered the first keynote of the conference titled ‘Trust as a Foundation for Ethics and Integrity in Educational Contexts’.

As a strong advocate for academic integrity and ethics in educational contexts, Professor Eaton discussed the different aspects that challenge and cause mistrust between the students and academics. She referenced Professor Phil Milton’s saying: ‘People cheat, and students are people’. In discussing academic misconduct, she spoke on the role and importance of keeping students as part of the community by finding ways to rebuild trust between students and academics. “Students are not our enemy; they are our future,” Professor Eaton said.

Exploring the importance of trust in the academic space, she reflected on the issue of academic integrity in terms of trust as an expectation of student conduct, trust as a matter of professional conduct, institutional trust, and trust as a role of addressing misconduct. Her presentation highlighted the role of responsibility of both students and academics. “It is not academics against students, good and bad guys, cheaters and good people,” she said.

She also highlighted that academic and research integrity are contextually and culturally constructed. She proposed that professionals must model the behaviour they want others to follow.

When addressing academic misconduct, Professor Eaton challenged everyone to rethink the notion of one-size-fits-all, indicating that it does not work. “It is in our policies and procedures often that we have this idea of one-size-fits-all, but if we care about equity, inclusion, accessibility, decolonisation, we must also consider the individuals and human beings behind these acts,” Professor Eaton expressed. 

“For as long as we continue to perpetuate colonialism, we cannot create trust with our students,” she added. In encouraging the responsibility to create and nurture ethical ways of being for students, Professor Eaton urged academics to be considerate of their students and understand that they are the future.

Professor Eaton concluded that human rights, equity, and dignity are fundamental to academic and research integrity. “Trust is not a goal to be achieved, but a daily practice of living, leading, and learning,” she said.