What is the University ‘for’? The Notion of ‘Place’ as a Starting Point for Higher Education Transformation in South Africa

Prof Louise Vincent, Rhodes University
Prof Louise Vincent, Rhodes University


Prof Louise Vincent, Rhodes University

August 2015




  • An innovative model of Humanities postgraduate education incorporating team and group supervision and an ethos of ‘each one teach one’ to meet South Africa’s present challenges of few experienced supervisors and the need to grow the next generation of researchers in South Africa.
  • Affirmative action as a principle of allocation of donor money to those most underrepresented in the research community and the ranks of South African Humanities academia when recruiting scholarship recipients. The aim is for the grant to serve the dual purpose of redress in the allocation of resources and a research agenda aimed at advancing social justice and inclusion in South African higher education.
  • Taking common local concerns and situatedness in a ‘place’ as a starting point for the epistemological transformation of higher education implying the integration of processes of supervision, research, teaching and community engagement into a single set of fluid practices that inform one another rather than operating as silos of transformation.
  • Qualitative research and the foregrounding of argument and defensible values emanating from the knowledges grown in the Humanities to inform a contribution to contemporary higher education transformation debates in order to challenge the reduction of transformation to quantitative measures and the university to a skills training factory whose role is to produce individuals with marketable skills to reproduce existing social relations rather than interrupting those relations.



To date we have incubated a number of projects in this frame: a single experienced supervisor supervises a large number of students recruited on the basis of affirmative action and all undertaking research that is making a significant contribution to foregrounding the voices and concerns of those who have in varying ways been silenced, excluded and/or marginalised in the academy. The aim is to broaden the scope of those projects to enter a national and international conversation with our work, to build greater and wider networks and connections, for our work both to have a wider impact and to be informed by a wider (comparative) experience than it has to date. To this end:


  • a joint proposal (with Professor Papia Sengupta, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India) has been submitted to the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Indian Council of Social Science Research for a project on social inclusion in higher education in India and South Africa;
  • our project on disability and social inclusion in higher education is a nationwide one in which we have already begun site visits to universities in Gauteng, the Free State and the Western Cape;
  • we have begun a process of interacting with Vaal University of Technology with a view to a project that will study research capacity building and the question of fostering research cultures and universities where traditionally such cultures have been weak or absent – staff members at VUT will register for their further degrees with Rhodes University and will pursue comparative projects informed by the theoretical framing of place outlined in this proposal;
  • the principle investigator, Louise Vincent has been invited to be the co-editor of a forthcoming book to be published by Stellenbosch University Press -- provisionally entitled Transforming Transformation in Research and Teaching in Universities in South Africa -- which will both provide a platform for the research that we are doing and link our work with scholars in this field nationally.


Should the present application be successful it will provide further impetus to work that is already achieving demonstrable results including:


  • successful recruitment of black, African, South African and women postgraduate students;
  • high quality postgraduate education as is demonstrated in the completion times, examiners’ reports, distinctions and accredited publications accruing to students on the programme;
  • measurable research outputs in the form of accredited publications;
  • recognized contributions to the national higher education transformation debate – see for example our work in theconversation.com;
  • a growing national network;
  • a nascent international network.


Conceptual framing


This proposal seeks funding for the advancement of South African higher education transformation led by Humanities scholarship and framed by what the implications might be, of the notion of ‘place’ as a starting point for understanding the purpose of higher education. The proposal speaks directly to the Andrew W Mellon Foundation’s commitment to the Arts and Humanities and in particular the Foundation’s emphasis on the promotion of inclusion, and the promotion of a public role and dimension of our scholarship. As large amounts of corporate capital flow into universities, those areas of study in the university that do not easily yield profits or instrumental outcomes such as the Humanities are at risk of being marginalized, underfunded or eliminated (Bigalke & Neubauer, 2009: 58). In this context, where the justification of higher education is narrowly instrumental, animated for instance by notions of employability and technical innovation, critical social theory, qualitative research, independent studies and collaborative research are all threatened.


Marginson (2011), making reference to the decision by the UK government to withdraw subsidies from tuition in the Humanities and Social Sciences which showed how precarious the public role of higher education has become, warns that the public character of higher education is not timeless but rather a calibration of social practices and the policy configurations that favour it. The Humanities and Social Sciences thus stand in a precarious position as universities become more and more market and profit driven (Thaver, 2009) and discourses of innovation and development undermine the need for critical inquiry (Shattock, 2009). The aim of the present project is to enhance the reputation, impact and penetration of humanities scholarship in relation to the higher education transformation debate in South Africa -- which is critical to countering the narrow instrumentalist logics and quantitative measures that have pervaded the debate to date and which risk undermining the potential for scholarship to contribute in concrete ways to advancing social justice. What Singh calls the ‘audit culture’ sees the relegation of states to the role of a monitor and regulator of the quality of higher education programmes through for example processes of accreditation which favour “narrow economically framed accountability to the private interests of students as consumers and of employers” (2014: 112). In a similar way to how economic neo-liberalism imagines “free” markets unencumbered by state regulation, these approaches detach institutions from their context and history so that learning and research increasingly becomes a market transaction which further entrenches inequalities and erodes public accountability, thus posing serious threats to democracy.


As Giroux (2002)  contends, the struggle for democracy is as much an educational agenda as it is a political one. He asserts that “fundamental to the rise of a vibrant democratic culture is the recognition that education must be treated as a public good - as a crucial site where students gain a public voice and come to grips with their own power as individual and social agents.” This sensibility animates our work. Conceived in this way higher education transformation, far from being a demographic project alone, has to do with deepening democracy, civic engagement and civic responsibility; the production of global citizens who are aware of their social responsibilities; a future workforce that is be able to contribute through the critical thinking and self-reflection that the Humanities has a unique role to play in fostering.


In order to give meaning to the idea of context as a starting point for knowing, we propose the employment of the conception of the university as situated in ‘place’, by which we mean geography, history, social relations, economics and politics – all the forces that combine to make an empty space a ‘place’. Our contention is that social inclusion and the interruption of systematic patterns of disadvantage can never be a project located within the boundaries of the university alone. ‘Place’ we believe, offers a helpful way of answering the persistent problem that plagues a ‘public good’ framing of higher education – that is to say, which public and what do we mean by ‘good’? (Gregory 2013: 50).


A wide literature observes the significance of place for shaping human subjectivities (see for example, hooks, 2009; Morgan, 1987). This literature suggests that how we experience and see the world is profoundly influenced by the geographical, social and cultural attributes of the place(s) we inhabit; that place is ‘a lens through which young people begin to make sense of themselves and their surroundings’; and that place is ‘where they form relationships and social networks, develop a sense of community and learn to live with others’ (McInerney et al, 2011: 5). These insights formed the basis for the importance attached to place in education on the part of progressive educationists such as John Dewey who advocated ‘experiential’ learning and have flowed into multiple movements in education for instance for ‘situated pedagogy’ (Orner, 1996), students as researchers (Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1998) and critical pedagogy (Shor, 1992).


It was Apartheid’s aim and achievement to separate South African communities not only culturally and racially but physically and spatially. In the process of making sure that everyone was ‘put in their place’ and ‘knew their place’, Apartheid geographies created spaces of profound human dislocation. Ironically, in terminology still used today, displaced people were relocated to ‘locations’ leaving behind whitewashed racial enclaves in their own way profoundly dislocated from the cultural geographies of a land at once inhabited and disinhibited by its own citizens. In common with ‘apartheid’ the notion of the university as ‘ivory tower’ is a spatial metaphor, invoking the idea of the physical as well as cultural, material, social and political separation of the university from its context and location.


A project that is involved with researching higher education transformation in this historical context must necessarily, at its root, engage with the question of what the university is ‘for’. Placed-based education (PBE) has to do with seeking to connect learning to the local social, ecological, cultural, and historical contexts in which it takes place. Woodhouse and Knapp (2000) describe the distinctive characteristics of PBE as a) emerging from the particular attributes of place, (b) being inherently multidisciplinary, (c) and inherently experiential, (d) reflective of an educational philosophy that is broader than “learning to earn”, and (e) connecting place with self and community.  PBE thus takes as its starting point the particular attributes of a place and time, placing it in opposition to standardising educational discourses, logics and practices that emphasize narrow disciplinary knowledge and decontextualized technical skills.  Place-based educators do not dismiss the latter but rather seek to provide education that is specifically located in context and which sees an engagement with context as both its primary tool and its primary raison d’être. It is possible to conceive of this idea as having wider implications than pedagogical alone, in answer to the question of what the university is ‘for’ including implications for instance for student recruitment, the content of curricula and, importantly, for research practices and priorities. Paulo Freire’s formulation of ‘reading the world’ in order to ‘read the word’ speaks to knowledge as context sensitive rather than decontextualized and the need for a close relationship between theory and practice (Fretz, Cutforth, & Nicotera (2009) as at least part of the measure of the significance and validity of the knowledge we produce and disseminate. Rather than seeking to immunise themselves from their surrounding communities universities, understood in this frame, actively seek exposure and collboration – because that is what they are ‘for’.


‘Place’ is of course by no means objective or neutral. Material places are inscribed with relations of power. What this alerts us to is the danger of re-colonisation of space even as horizontal and democratic forms of engagement across separation may be sought by universities in their attempt to transform themselves and societies.  It is necessary to confront the ways in which power works in and through places – and for the disciplines of philosophy and political studies, of literature, art, anthropology, history and sociology are indispensable. To engage with place is to reflect on ourselves as people in a place and to ask how we might live in that place. A critical pedagogy of place takes this further to try to imagine what forms of connection, action and politics might emerge from such encounters and sees the cultivation of these possibilities as central to education – to what the university is ‘for’. To ‘re-inhabit’ (rather than recolonize) the places we find ourselves in involves ‘recognising and dislodging dominant ideas, assumptions and ideologies that are externally imposed (Smith & Katz, 1993: 71) and is potentially, through acts of confrontation with dominant systems of thought (hooks, 1992:1), liberatory.  Orr (1992: 130) distinguishes between ‘inhabiting’ a place and ‘residing’ in a place:


A resident is a temporary occupant, putting down few roots and investing little, knowing little, and perhaps caring little for the immediate locale beyond its ability to gratify…. The inhabitant, in contrast, ‘dwells’ … in … a place. Good inhabitance [requires] detailed knowledge of a place, the capacity for observation, and a sense of care and rootedness.


Students (and staff) of ivory tower universities might be said to reside in the places in which the university finds itself, but not to inhabit them. To emphasise place is necessarily to emphasize the goal of social transformation within particular (local), situated contexts. Gruenewald suggests that by bringing together the decolonisation project of critical pedagogy with the re-inhabitation project of place-based education a new framework for transformation can be built. In this project we are interested in what ‘inhabitation’ might mean for the university not only to become itself transformed but also to become an instrument for societal transformation and regeneration.


Description of project


The Idea of ‘Place’ as a Central Construct for Re-imagining Higher Education Transformation

People as beings ‘in a situation’ find themselves rooted in temporal-spatial conditions which mark them and which they also mark. They will tend to reflect on their own ‘situationality’ to the extent that they are challenged to act upon it. Human beings are because they are in a situation. And they will be more the more they not only critically reflect upon their existence but critically act upon it (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970:90).


In this project we are interested in exploring the idea of place as central to what we do, how we do it, how we understand ourselves and what our purpose in the academy is.  Where university transformation is understood as a fundamentally new way of being, doing and knowing, our interest is in what role a deeper engagement with ‘place’ has to play in effecting this shift. If the troubling aspects of existing epistemologies are correctly characterised as disembodied (in the sense that they assume that their standpoint is universal when in fact it is gendered, ‘raced’, classed, sexed, etc.) and decontextualized (continuing to reflect their rootedness in the dominance of Western paradigms, histories and priorities) then a transformed epistemological practice would be both embodied and contextualised which is what a critical pedagogy of place offers.


The concept of ‘institutional culture’ has been central to the debate about the transformation of higher education institutions in South Africa. These institutions, arising as they have out of a legacy of colonialism and apartheid, are seen as inhospitable, alienating and hostile, and these negative features are said to contribute to one of the major challenges facing especially the historically white institutions, namely the retention of black and female staff. Institutional culture refers to an ethos, to dominate practices and ways of doing things in the realms of social life, residence life, sporting codes, pedagogy, curriculum, research, administration, and many other layers of institutional life incorporating such dimensions as social relations, artefacts, buildings, names, food, heraldry, clothing traditions, language and governance. All of these have the ability to structure institutional life in ways that perpetuate discriminatory experiences and negatively impact on some members of the institution who are not at ‘home’ with these practices.


Institutional culture speaks to the often-hidden ways in which racism, prejudice and discrimination are perpetuated. Dominant ways of doing things have a way of presenting themselves as ‘normal’ and absent specific projects to excavate the relations of dominance and subordination that pervade such normalcy they perpetuate themselves as taken for granted norms rather than being situated in specific histories, lives, and powers. Projects in researching, examining, discussing, and analysing institutional cultures have to do with ‘making normal strange’ in order to expose the covert, subtle, insidious ways in which discrimination can be allowed to reproduce – and what it might take to effectively interrupt such practices in order to transform them rather than merely introducing new kinds of bodies into existing unequal practices and relations. This work requires examining many intersecting features including social class, ethnicity, language, religion, disability, sexual orientation, race and gender.


We take as our starting point the assumption that simply changing the demographics of institutions does not amount to ‘transformation’ – the latter requires more thoroughgoing measures, struggles and shifts incorporating multiple layers of institutional life and asking deep questions about the very purpose of the university, what are regarded as desirable graduate attributes, and what kinds of teaching and research and teaching and research practices might achieve these purposes. Answering these questions related ultimately to the purpose of the university lies with a deeper engagement both literally and theoretically, with the notion of place – that is to say, where exactly it is that we find ourselves and what moral, intellectual and educational imperatives flow from this.


While there are those who still argue that knowledge is universal rather than contextual and that where a university is located has no relevance for what is taught, how it is taught or who teaches it, nor for what is researched, how it is researched or who researches it, the implication of framing our project in relation to the theorisation of place is that we contest this view. The ‘Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions’ noted that: the transformation of what is taught and learnt in institutions constitutes one of the most difficult challenges this sector is facing’. It recommended a review so as to ‘assess their appropriateness and relevance in terms of the social, ethical, political, and technical skills and competencies embedded in them…in the context of post-apartheid South Africa and its location in Africa and the world.’


Research is required for us to engage creatively with the challenges of developing new curricula and challenging currently dominant, business-as-usual practices which may, by employing a purportedly universal lens, serve, unwittingly, to perpetuate exclusion and undermine social cohesion, human dignity and the valuing of diversity. The ways in which prevailing practices perpetuate and normalise dominance, the unacknowledged racialized and gendered norms that infuse these practices cannot simply be anecdotally described and bemoaned if power and dominance are to be effectively challenged. We require rigorous processes of research to uncover the precise ways in which prevailing orthodoxies concerning what counts as knowledge, how we ought to engage in coming to know and who qualifies as a legitimate ‘knower’ serve some well while displacing and discomforting others. As Mamdani (2011) has inquired, ‘what does it mean to teach ... in a location where the dominant intellectual paradigms are products not of Africa’s own experience but of a particular Western experience?’ Mamdani outlines the challenge as being one of critically reflecting on current forms of knowledge and knowledge production in ways that, rather than opposing the local and the global, ‘seek to understand the global from the vantage point of the local’.


Core questions


  • What are the implications of conceptualising higher education institutions as existing in a particular ‘place’?
  • How can we be engaged universities without that engagement having the effect of confirming power imbalances rather than undoing them? How can we confront the challenge of seeking a transformatory re-inhabitation of the place in which the university finds itself that does not involve re-colonisation but rather decolonisation?



  • In what practical ways can we foster agency, communication, connection to, and understanding of, locality, social networks and mutuality in our pedagogy, our curricula and our research?
  • How can place help us to re-evaluate the purported neutrality of knowledge and truth-seeking and what would it mean to ‘place’ or locate these activities of the academy in a particular local context of knowledge making?



  • How do we create institutional cultures that challenge purportedly universalising practices which are in fact predicated on particular social interests?
  • What methodologies and epistemologies might we consider and in what ways will these have the potential to offer our work originality and insight as opposed to the endlessly derivative aping of the existing western-dominated conversation?



  • How will we produce new theories and new questions that are germane to our time and place?
  • The budget allows for support for twenty-six (26) Postgraduate students. The context of a large research project provides an environment in which students thrive. They are able to learn from one another, support one another and encourage one another to achieve much more than they would if they were lone graduate students in a one-to-one relationship with a supervisor.

Principle investigator: Professor Louise Vincent (Department of Political Studies, Rhodes University)


Louise Vincent is an NRF rated researcher with more than 50 refereed publications to her name. An experienced supervisor, qualitative methodologist, political philosopher and researcher, she has participated in a wide range of research capacity building initiatives both in South Africa and further afield in countries such as Mozambique, Ethiopia and Switzerland. She has pioneered a model of supervision that is not common in the Humanities, incorporating group and team supervision of a large number of students simultaneously. All of her recent graduates have graduated with distinction. She employs an affirmative action approach to recruitment into her externally funded postgraduate programmes, placing emphasis on providing opportunities in particular for black South Africans and Africans, especially women, to have their talents nurtured and their career path into research and academia facilitated.


Reason for the project


The apartheid legacy of discrimination in South Africa gave rise to the need to transform society on multiple levels, including structural, institutional and inter-personal. Universities are one such site of transformation (Soudien 2008, 2010; Wyk & Alexander 2010; Akoojee & Nkomo 2007; Hemson and Singh, 2010). The Educational White Paper 3: A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education (1997), encapsulates this imperative:

“South Africa's transition from apartheid and minority rule to democracy requires that all existing practices, institutions and values are viewed anew and rethought in terms of their fitness for the new era. Higher education plays a central role in the social, cultural and economic development of modern societies. In South Africa today, the challenge is to redress past inequalities and to transform the higher education system to serve a new social order, to meet pressing national needs, and to respond to new realities and opportunities. It must lay the foundations for the development of a learning society which can stimulate, direct and mobilise the creative and intellectual energies of all the people towards meeting the challenge of reconstruction and development.”

As a result of these imperatives, many universities in South Africa are currently undergoing major changes not just on a structural level but also on an ideological and interpersonal level. A number of policies and transformation-oriented initiatives have been introduced to meet transformation goals ranging from debates concerning ‘the definition of the purpose and goal of higher education’ to ‘policy formulation, adoption and implementation in the areas of governance, funding, academic structure and programmes and quality assurance, the enactment of new laws and regulations and major restructuring and reconfiguration of the higher education institutional landscape and of institutions’ (Badat, 2010, 4, 5). At a national level numerous instruments have been introduced which seek to shape higher education transformation including for instance the Educational White Paper (1997), the Higher Education Act of 1997, the National Commission on Higher Education’s (NCHE) paper titled ‘A Framework for Transformation’ (1996), and the Department of Education’s Green Paper on Higher Education Transformation.

The need to eradicate discrimination based on race, class and gender was given further impetus in 2008 when the Minister of Education established a committee to ‘investigate discrimination in public higher education institutions with a particular focus on racism and to make appropriate recommendation to combat discrimination and promote social cohesion’ (Soudien Report 2008). In the report of this committee some progress with regard to transformation was acknowledged particularly in relation to student demographics, but little progress was found to have been made on a structural level as deeply embedded legacies of apartheid ensured the persistence of inequalities and resistance to change (Soudien 2008, 2010).

Transformation is thus defined not just as greater inclusion of disadvantaged groups but also a change in the structure, practices, processes, and cultures that enable discrimination and inequality (Viljoen & Rothmann, 2002, 2, 3; Govinderi, Zondo & Makoba, 2013; Blunt & Cunningham, 2002; Wyk 2004; Wadhid, 2002; Bitzer 2010). Not only equity and redress but also new forms of knowledge production and a change in the values, norms, attitudes, perceptions, behaviour and the dominant practices that prevail in any particular institutional setting (Viljoen & Rothmann, 2002, 3) is implied. Higher education transformation encompasses practices traversing all terrains of the academy from research to teaching to community engagement to informal interactions; from administration to academic departments to service staff, the built environment, architecture, food, ceremonies, attire, rituals and heraldry.

The White Paper enjoins higher education institutions to play a central role in producing a citizenry educated in the principles, practices and ethos of democracy, tolerance, human rights and the impulse towards the ethical. The goal is not only to promote equity within higher education but for higher education to play a role also in the promotion of a more equitable society.

In response to these imperatives many higher education institutions have put in place a variety of policies, programmes and interventions at various levels ranging from student access, participation, throughput and success through to administrative ethos, residence and sporting life, clubs and associations, and practices of teaching and learning. Yet transformation across many measures appears to be slow. While student demographics have shifted the academic staff profile of many traditionally ‘white’ universities remains unrepresentative. Black staff in particular report experiencing the institutional culture at these universities as inhospitable, alienating and hostile, reflecting a culture that is raced, classed and gendered in ways that reproduce exclusion and make it difficult for black staff and students to thrive at these institutions.

While significant strides towards transformation have been made at the level of policy these are frequently undone when it comes to concrete practices given that such practices must continue to unfold in environments characterised by (often unseen, unacknowledged) ways of being and doing that reflect the racial discrimination of the past as well as the emergence in the present, of discrimination in new guises, whether on the basis of ethnicity, language, sexual orientation religion or class.

Transformation is thus by no means a matter of demographics alone but is rather concerned with much more fundamental questions which go to the heart of our conception of what the role of the academy is and should be in society. Merely providing access is one necessary condition for transformation but the latter requires a much deeper engagement with our values, with how we engage with one another and our students, with what and how we research with whom and for what purpose and with whose interests are and are not served by existing practices, cultures and ways of being whether in teaching and research or in informal interactions in clubs, societies, and sporting codes. In teaching, it requires an examination of what we value, what our strategies are, how we interact with our students, what our expectations are, how the curriculum is structured and populated, forms of reward and assessment and what the outcome of the enterprise is understood to be. Similarly in research, we require an understanding of the values that are represented in our present practices which are by no means timeless or immutable, but which reflect particular, situated conceptions of knowledge and knowledge production.

Expected Outcomes and Benefits of the project


  • The principle of affirmative action in the recruitment of students means that we have the potential to make a significant contribution to changing the demographic profile of humanities scholars in South Africa.
  • The programme offers participants a unique exposure to an array of theories, research methods and data analysis techniques. It is not exaggeration to say that those who participate for any length of time leave as some of the most highly skilled qualitative researchers in the country. Their capabilities range from sophisticated data gathering using documents, interviews, focus groups, observations, and action research methodologies to the use of technology in a variety of ways (NVIVO, Dragon voice recognition, recording, photography, online forums), to the employment of multiple data coding possibilities. In addition, they are exposed to rich theoretical debates through regular seminars and discussions in which participants share their expertise and submit their work for critical scrutiny.



  • Our emphasis on publication means that a new generation of scholars is gaining a foothold on academe, leaving the programme often with more than one refereed journal article to their names. This means also that new and fresh voices are being heard in the journals and new role models are emerging for those who will come after them.
  • Our emphasis on linking community voices with the university and the university with community voices and public dialogues means that our work does not only touch an academic audience but is made available to and shaped by the public whose interests we are attempting to know and serve.



  • By pioneering new teaching methods that are linked to our community involvement and shaped by our insistence on a sense of ‘place’ as our epistemological starting point we are contributing to a deeper sense of what curriculum reform might mean than simply adding African names to our course outlines.
  • Person who will have responsibility for reporting: Professor Louise Vincent





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