An investigation into the scope, role, and function of student development and support within the context of higher education in South Africa
This study is an investigation into the scope, role, and function of student development and support (SDS) within higher education in South Africa. The underpinnings and frameworks of SDS were explored during the research, as well as its integration into the institution and into organisational structures, the relationship between SDS and the policies of the Department of Higher Education and Training, and the influences from the national and international context of SDS. Policies emerging from the Department of Higher Education and Training heralded dramatic changes after the first democratically elected government in South Africa. The changes were amplified by the shifts in the international context of global explosion of knowledge production and neo-liberal influences on higher education in general and SDS in particular. The higher education system in South Africa has changed from an elite system to broad “massification”, which addresses issues of equity, access, participation and relevant skills development at medium and high level (DoE, 1997, p. 4). Changes have not only been in terms of governance and institutional mergers but also in terms of notions and discourses in education, teaching and learning, student development, and student support. The higher education system has become open, responsive, and relevant, and knowledge is understood to be relative and context-bound, co-created within the relationship to a heterogeneous group of students who have a range of capabilities and challenge traditional notions of inclusivity and diversity. The findings are extensive and liberal use of quotations from the participants substantiates the emerging themes. The key themes that emerged are clustered under the headings of: scope, role and function; theoretical framework; professionalisation; paradigms and alignments; SDS integration into the organisational structure; SDS in relation to the Department of Higher Education and Training; and SDS within the national and international context of globalisation. The discussion synthesises the findings and reveals that SDS is facing many challenges which require attention. Some challenges concern the lack of clarity around scope, role, and function, as well as issues around the lack of theoretical grounding and the paucity in local theory development. Challenges also surfaced regarding the integration of SDS into the academic life of the institution. Similar concerns appeared around the exclusion of SDS from governance issues. Tensions emerged from discussions on the need for a guiding framework for SDS, while preserving autonomy and acknowledging the heterogeneous character of institutions. The findings also suggest that non-elective operational standards and some kind of monitoring and evaluation systems for SDS are required. Despite these challenges, it appears that SDS is perceived as a key contributor to the shared goal of student success and that an expressed commitment to and alignment with national and institutional goals exists. This utilisation-oriented study, it is hoped, will make significant contributions to the understanding of the scope, role and function of student development and support within higher education. It may help illuminate the challenges and provide suggestions to enable more articulated contributions to the shared goals of higher education in South Africa. Recommendations include the development of an epistemic community which can generate contextual and constructivist paradigms for SDS in South Africa. This research study reveals the pressing need for a normative framework for SDS and identifies areas which need to be given serious consideration when developing such a framework.