Social justice and participatory parity: Students’ experiences of university residence life at a historically disadvantaged institution in South Africa
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The shortage of appropriate student housing in South Africa has been under the spotlight for the past few years. This has been made explicit by the Report on the Ministerial committee for the review of the provision of student housing at South African universities, revealing shocking realities regarding the State of student residences and deplorable conditions under which many students are forced to live. The inequalities in higher education as a result of the legacy of apartheid reflect glaring gaps in resources between Historically Advantaged Institutions (HAIs) and Historically Disadvantaged Institutions (HDIs). The inequity present within higher education impacts on student learning, as HAIs have more resources than HDIs, giving students attending these institutions a different exposure to opportunities. Having a safe, conducive space that facilitates learning is key to ensuring that students are able to learn properly. This research study uses the work of Nancy Fraser to understand how her notion of social justice and the ability to participate as equals (participatory parity) relates to residence life at a HDI in South Africa. Fraser contends that economic, cultural and political dimensions influence participatory parity and either enable or impede the achievement of social justice. The research study considers what suitable institutional arrangements need to be put in place to facilitate more equitable participation for students to enable them to flourish at university. This study is located at the student residences of the University of the Western Cape (UWC). A participatory action research (PAR) design was used, with the study conducted in two phases. The first phase targeted 40 students across UWC residences and used Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) techniques, including the ‘River of Life’ and ‘Community Mapping’. The second phase, involving the same 40 students, comprised a Photovoice process and individual interviews. Nancy Fraser’s participatory parity framework and the dimensions was used as a lens to make sense of the data. The findings of this study revealed several constraints and enablements which affected student learning, namely economic, cultural and political dimensions. The economic dimension revealed constraints relating to poorly resourced facilities, insufficient and ineffective services and problematic technology. Students reported how maldistribution of resources affected them when the lack of those resources prevented them from participating as equals in relation to their peers. The cultural dimension indicated whose status at residences held esteem and whose did not, and consequently what perceived attributes are valued and devalued at residences. Differently abled students, students struggling with poverty, students living with mental health issues, LGBTIQ issues, issues of gender, as well as foreign national students, found themselves being devalued, meaning that they were misrecognised because of their status. The political dimension was used to examine whether students felt that they had a voice in decision making and whether they felt that their needs and opinions were represented. The study also examined whether students were misframed. Misframing occurs when students are excluded from the frame of justice and determines whether they count and have a valid claim to justice. Foreign national students reported experiencing misframing at residences since, in some respects, they did not qualify as claimants for rights. The study highlights how Fraser’s dimensions are mutually intertwined and reciprocally influence and reinforce one another but that none is reducible to another. Referring to each of the dimensions, the study examines affirmative and transformative strategies for remedying injustices, focusing on existing strategies as well as possible strategies which could bring about participatory parity for students. Finally, the study presents a list of recommendations which the university could consider to improve student learning at residences.