Did South African higher education have a hand in our resurgent student voice? Absolutely, student activists would argue, but for its lack of transformation serving as an obstacle rather than an ally in the project of change. Campus debates on change relate not only to transformation but also to how prominent and capable student voices feature in struggles for institutional identity, values and curriculum. Much more than Mcebo Dlamini’s Hitler comments, it is the exciting commentaries on higher education change in campaigns such as #RhodesMustFall, #TransformWits and #OpenStellies that demand higher education examine its engagement of student provocateurs.

On the back foot
Despite their authentic attempts to expedite change, more often than not universities seem to be on the back foot when students disrupt established lines of thought and practice — a stance that would not be worrying if South African students could claim a well-established and accomplished position as co-creators of knowledge in the classroom and as co-authors of institutional transformation. A poo-protest to disrupt colonial history surely would read different when a university community already are engaged in difficult dialogues and openly debate difficult decisions on institutional change, as also would protesters chained to Paul Kruger’s statue to protect their heritage.

One problem key to students’ distrust of higher education transformation is that of a silent vanguard — the silent voice of the student affairs’ division in the higher education debate. As a penultimate institutional environment that concerns itself with the holistic wellness and development of students, the student affairs’ office offers campus communities access to and sites for talking and listening to students. There, in the residence hall, on the sport field, at the theatre or the freshers’ ball, across the forum table, on social media and in counselling sessions, student affairs practitioners hear, see and discover the hearts and minds of students — the full range of social spaces that students live with are its concern, and its classroom.

Student affairs as vanguard
For this reason, as students offer a vanguard to society, student affairs could do so for higher education. At its best, student affairs as a vanguard contributes most to institutional debates when it facilitates a vibrant student voice in the authorship of an institutional narrative – the lived experience and sense of identity of a campus community, and its story then told. Student affairs must do what a vanguard should – move with next generation to discover new perspectives and translate its discoveries for a campus community that follows. Get it right and the university community knows what debates the next generation will point at, but get it wrong, and the vanguard is silent, or worse still, silenced, and the student voice left to a nervous condition.

Students become authors when they achieve that level of wellness and capability to critically reflect on their life narrative, identity and aspirations in relation to that of others and their society, and ethically act to change their environment and serve the common good. This project succeeds outside the classroom when student development and support combine well in daily student life – opportunities to develop activist skills and social support for quality of life are sides of the same coin in student affairs practice.

Teaching under trees
But what many campuses misjudge is the complexity of this interface of learning and support – the landscape of curriculum logic and pedagogy as a major part of professional support and student development programmes. It is for instance a complex matter to mentor leaders, while also administrating the logistics of housing, but this is precisely what student affairs as a higher education vanguard must do. This is teaching in the mode of serving students holistically. This is teaching under trees, a way of life.

While campuses value the vanguard voice of student affairs differently, often in worst cases limiting its contribution to operational planning and practice as support service environment, student affairs often are silent more than silenced. Silent, when student affairs environments do not appropriately engage the educational project required to facilitate authorship among students, or do not appropriately translate the student voice institutionally.

Strong vanguard voice
Its educational project for student authorship should consist of the curriculum design, pedagogical practice and assessment of student development programmes, such as for student leadership development, but also for student life and wellness programmes co-created by students and student affairs practitioners. Its translation project for student authorship should consist of institutional advocacy for depth and reach of student participation, establishment of safe spaces for challenging dialogue and facilitating a vibrant student initiative.

In vigorous pedagogy and unrelenting advocacy lies a strong vanguard voice.

What recent student activism unmasks is the silence of our vanguard – silent not for its lack of an educational project, but for the hidden and hesitant position of its curriculum and pedagogy. What student affairs in South Africa now needs, is to make plain its vanguard pedagogy, its teaching under trees.


Rudi Buys

Rudi Buys

BR Rudi Buys is dean of humanities at Cornerstone Institute, a non-profit private higher education institution in Salt River, Cape Town. He previously served as dean of students at the University of the...

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