Transformation Work as Activist Work
I teach what I am, I am what I teach: an intersectionality …, an interdisciplinarity, a complex epistemology, and pedagogical location. I live and perform my multiple social identities, both visible and invisible, and teach both through institutional knowledge and my own “embodied text” … As I teach through these embodiments, it has become apparent that the methods [I use] must be intersectional and interdisciplinary, while recognizing the body as a site of learning and knowledge. I identify as a Black woman, a lesbian, queer, a feminist, a scholar, and a teacher—thus living and teaching at their intersections. The ways in which my students [or participants] understand my identities becomes part of the project as they sort out the complicated ideas of race, gender, sexuality, and class through the interpretation of course texts, including my own embodied text. ( Lewis, 2011, pp. 49–50)
Lewis’s powerful statement asserts that transformation work is activist work, and activist work always occurs at the intersection of the personal and the political. As co-authors of this paper, it is important to acknowledge our own complex identity, political and intellectual locations, and the ways in which these formations of self influence and shape our work. Ours is an institution rooted in the histories of colonial and apartheid oppression, and our role (as women and gender queer persons of colour) is one which seeks to dislocate this oppression. As agents of change in higher education, we are put into a contradictory position, part activists and part managers, we struggle between meaningfully challenging oppression and taking forward corporate interests. While our role is to disrupt, we as authors are also part of the institution and complicit in it. When we refer to the University of Cape Town (UCT) or the University, we are in part writing about ourselves.
We start the paper with this acknowledgement so that we face the role of silence in our work, as both an oppressive tool when we’re forced into silence and as a strategic response to oppression ( Ahmed, 2010). Often transformation agents like ourselves are silent about our own positionality and complicity in oppression, leading to dishonest reflections on our programmes, and in contrast can be silenced by those in positions of power who are resistant to transformative change. In positioning this paper as an act of speech, we hope to inspire honest reflections on the nature and effect of transformation at UCT.
This paper focusses on two case studies which monitor and track transformation, inclusivity and diversity (TID) in higher education, namely the implementation of transformation benchmarks and an inclusivity survey. In locating these interventions, the paper will explore the turbulent higher education environment in South Africa and will ask: “how can we better monitor, evaluate and track TID-related progress in this turbulent environment?” In answering this question, we will unpack the friction between corporate approaches to monitoring and evaluating transformation, and activist responses which are more fluid in nature.
Transformation, Inclusivity and Diversity in South Africa
South Africa has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world ( IMF, 2020). This inequality is apparent in the huge disparities in income distribution, unequal access to opportunities (along race and gender lines) and high levels of unemployment. In a context of gross material, racial and gender disparities, what is the role of a higher education institution and what is our role as individuals working and learning within this institution?
The notion of transformation emerged in South Africa, in both primary and tertiary educational institutions, as a part of the broader struggle to end apartheid and to propose alternatives in education rooted in racial and gender justice ( Reddy, 2004). The use of transformation as a political and activist term can arguably be rooted in mobilisation and activism of Black students and student movements in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Badat (2004) argues that the apartheid higher education system was designed to reproduce through teaching, learning and research White and male privilege, and the oppression of Black persons and women, with transformation positioned as a response to this. The challenge and possibly opportunity with the way in which transformation emerged is that it allowed for pluralism, decentralisation and complementarity rather than singular approaches to activism within and for education ( Alexander, 1990)
This positions transformation in South African universities as an ambiguous, contested and not well understood practice which has resulted in varied approaches that leaves institutional transformation vulnerable to individual and political biases.
In the current moment, transformation is viewed, on one hand, as a demographic intervention around imbalances related to race, class, gender and language among other markers of injustice ( UCT, 2015, 2018; Soudien, 2010). This approach to transformation prioritises numbers and the skewed representation of demographic groups within universities. On the other hand, transformation is viewed as an issue related to privilege and power. Transformation then is an ideological process which engages and responds to domination. The emphasis here is on the (re)distribution of political and economic power in society and the design and implementation of processes for social inclusion. These two elements are related, and often occur simultaneously, but sometimes lead to tensions (which will be explored later).
The trajectory of transformation was formalised in 1997, when the Ministry of Education articulated that universities had an obligation to create mechanisms that reformed the institutional culture of universities. This call began to redefine the role of universities as sites of consciousness that influenced students’ thought and discourse ( Bernstein, 2001; Hames, 2007) where a “mix of institutional missions and programmes are required to meet national and regional needs in social, cultural and economic development” ( Department of Education, 1997, p. 37).
Later, in 2008, the then Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor, announced the establishment of a Ministerial Committee on Progress Towards Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions to focus on transformation, in addition to other focal areas such as racism, gender and sexuality. This committee provided recommendations to combat discrimination and to promote social cohesion in the form of an education White Paper.
In addition to documenting how to achieve a values-led culture within universities, the Education White Paper 3 changed the role of South African universities from being not only places of learning, but also sites of community engagement that provided nurturing spaces that were aware of and responded to issues of access, governance, management, curriculum, pedagogy, inclusion and support services that promoted the development and throughput of students ( Department of Education, 1997).
It is evident in the Education White Paper 3 that the role of universities extended beyond that of academic development and contribution. Indeed, the White Paper stipulated the emerging role of universities as pivotal in the political, economic and cultural reconstruction and development of South Africa—one that contributed to community development, and the building of a new citizenry ( Department of Education, 1997).
During this time, in parallel to state-centric approaches to transformation, universities in South Africa began including a new focus on diversity ( Ahmed, 2004; also see the work of the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies). Diversity refers to patterns of social difference in terms of certain social categories. The foremost terms shaping discourses and policies related to diversity include race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, sexuality and age. Critical diversity acknowledges the role of power in constructing difference, and the unequal symbolic and material value of different locations. This approach locates difference within a historical legacy, as an outcome of social practice and an engagement with the transformation of these oppressive systems.
Despite the existence of broad objectives within national legislation and organic shifts within universities, many challenges remain. For example, placing the onus on universities to define their transformation goals led to disparate and sometimes incomparable outputs. In addition, universities dealt with transformation in academic, research, operations and social settings in very different ways. Without a shared discourse and or collective knowledge production efforts on transformation, some universities became vulnerable to assimilation within the existing performative patterns that resembled a “transformed university” or, as Ahmed (2004) argues, universities may practise non-performativity where the statement of transformation achieves the opposite of what it sets out to do. In simple terms, for institutions to survive untransformed they often invent institutional histories or narratives which serve their immediate ends whilst ignoring the “real past”, specifically the role of apartheid and colonialism, patriarchy and cis-heteronormativity ( Badat, 2004).
In the 27 years of democracy in South Africa, there has been a promulgation of several legislated acts and policy frameworks that govern social inclusion, disability, gender-based violence and the transformation barometer in the higher education sector ( Keet & Swartz, 2015). Each of these national documents includes their own measures of monitoring and evaluation in relation to transformation programmes. While these changes are important, the question remains: “how transformed are universities really?” At UCT, it became necessary to define what transformative actions would produce impactful change, and in doing so be better able to monitor and track transformation. UCT decided to focus specifically on transformation, inclusivity and diversity (TID). While transformation and diversity were already engrained within UCT and national policy and programming, inclusion was a new concept at UCT in 2017. The shift towards the specific action of inclusion was to ensure that each person within the university resonated in one or more ways with the university culture, values and identity—the end goal of inclusion being structural and systemic change to increase the feeling of belonging.
Inclusion is defined as creating empowering environments which affirm difference, where people can be themselves, comfortably contributing their full selves and all the ways in which they differ from others, and respecting others’ without making it difficult for others’ to be their full selves ( April & Blass, 2010). According to UNESCO (2017), inclusive education removes barriers limiting the participation and achievement of learners or students, respects diverse needs, abilities and characteristics, and eliminates all forms of discrimination in the learning environment. This approach prioritises the identification of and response to barriers and practices of discrimination within education which limit both participation and achievement.
It follows that, with the removal of barriers to inclusion, there is an increased sense of belonging as the university becomes more responsive to the lived realities of staff and students. Without this meaningful response, it is likely that the knowledge economy and the purpose of a university will come into question ( Habermas, 1987). This is especially important within a context where student movements like #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall highlighted the current gap between the university’s narrative of itself, and the demands from students for quality, free and decolonised education.
Through focusing on transformation, inclusivity and diversity, the university has the language to rethink governance structures, processes and systems (overlapping with teaching, learning, research and operations) to better include, support and enable success among marginalised staff and students. These terms are key conceptual frames for creating and analysing the case studies.
In acknowledging these key conceptual frames, it is also important to appreciate that each co-author enters this work from a different gate. Sianne has primarily focused on transformation of institutional systems; Nina brings along expertise on enabling inclusion in large institutions and Gabriel on using (critical) diversity to understand power disparities. While our work and expertise draw on and overlap these concepts, our own activism and backgrounds brought us to different gates from which we enter this work. Working collaboratively and vulnerably allowed us to identify gaps and draw on each set of expertise to respond to these gaps productively.
A Turbulent Theoretical Context
UCT, like most universities in South Africa, features in media articles which spotlight allegations of racism, bullying and alleged racist research. These stories are just some examples of the tension points which have emerged in recent years ( Whittles, 2020; Naidu, 2020; UCT Black Academic Caucus, 2020; Khan & Alves, 2020). Supporting these media articles are other public reports, such as the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission Report (2019), The Mayosi Panel of Inquiry Report (2020), the Inclusivity Survey Report (2019) and the statements of the Black Academic Caucus. All these reports highlight that oppression is entrenched within UCT. Furthermore, the UCT referred to here is not an entity outside ourselves. It’s important to locate and own up to the ways in which transformation agents are implicated. For example, between 2019 and 2021, the co-authors were directly involved in responding to cases of alleged systemic racism on campus. During this time, we often felt tied down by university policies which foregrounded procedural legal frameworks at the expense and often to the detriment of persons coming forward to share experiences of racism, among other forms of violence. During this period, none of those who came forward with stories of racism were able to access restitution, restoration or redress on their terms—meaning none of the persons who reported racism were satisfied with the outcome in grievance or disciplinary processes. As transformation agents we were forced to take on the role of entrenching oppression, rather than participating in liberation. This made it difficult to reconcile our activism and our role to implement policy.
These forms of oppression are not unique to UCT and are present in many (if not every) higher education institution nationally and globally. This oppression is apparent in the divisions between professional and administrative staff members (PASS) and academic staff members, in the paternalism employed in the treatment and framing of student experience, in the subtle forms of systemic racism present in everyday encounters and the policies and rules (especially those related to grievances and complaints) which do not yet meaningfully respond to oppression ( UCT, 2021).
Transformation is seen as a response to this oppression. Keet defines transformation as a “set of social changes or various internal states of transition along a continuum” ( Keet & Swartz, 2015, p. 20). According to this there are six economies of transformation which are in necessary tension with each other but must simultaneously be addressed through strategies that balance the competing goals and imperatives of the university. These economies focus on management, materiality, affect, socio-cultural, political and intellectual contributions to the knowledge economy ( Keet & Swartz, 2015, p. 20). The predicament of attempting to find balance between the pursuit of these economies—requires trust, consultation and, where possible, consensus. In identifying areas of transformation growth needed at UCT, we acknowledge that universities’ transformation performance is governed by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) transformation barometer. The barometer not only provides a structural framework against which the university may align itself, but it also provides a fair and transparent measure of performance for all university transformation initiatives.
In contrast to the above perspective, Alexander (1990) argued that one of the key challenges in the post-apartheid education environment would be the violent equilibrium. He described the violent equilibrium as a situation where those with power in society (whom we might define as rich, White, heterosexual, men, etc.) and the disenfranchised masses (whom we may describe as people of colour, poor, queer, womxn) are left in an equilibrium that is violent in nature. In this equilibrium, those in positions of power in partnership with repressive organs of the state develop technocratic responses to inequality, whilst those in positions of marginalisation rely on collective mobilisation and activism. The ruling class continue with reforms based on elite level cooperation while activist movements led by working-class people based on access to basic human rights continue to emerge. This causes development to zigzag between moments of popular discontent (the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall popular uprisings being recent examples in South Africa) and institutional efforts which align with state interests (such as the development of benchmark and barometer tools which rely on the cooperation and consent of those in power). In simple terms, DHET and the higher education sector guided transformation interventions which rely on the cooperation and consent of those in power occur in tandem with student led resistance and activism. To understand transformation, one needs to understand these contrasting poles and social change as occurring in a zigzag between them ( Alexander, 1990).
Furthermore, it is in this environment that higher education has become increasingly corporatised, with the public and social good interests of higher education being replaced by corporate interests. The focus has shifted from the quality and political relevance of education initiatives to breaking even and making profit ( Giroux, 2017). Existing economic inequalities lead to funding shortfalls, and these shortfalls are used to justify a shift of focus towards breaking even. The value of self in society and thereby one’s education is determined by what one can earn and consume. In this context the values of hierarchy, competition and excessive individualism regulate knowledge and pedagogical relations, and shift the focus away from public obligations and social responsibilities ( Giroux, 2017).
It is important to see the relationship between corporatised and state or ruling-class-centric approaches, which abide by the violent equilibrium, and bullying, discrimination and harassment. Bullying (among other forms of harassment and aggression) occurs in relationships of disparate power, and corporatised and top-down approaches create an environment where power disparities are a necessary part of the corporatised order and identity ( Keashly & Neuman, 2010; Misawa, 2015).
In tandem with the above, TID-interventions in higher education work in a precarious conceptual borderland ( Valadez & Elsbree, 2005, p. 173). In this indeterminate space the huge economic, racial and gendered inequalities (among others) in South Africa overlap and play out in higher education institutions. Like the zigzag of border fences, TID-interventions occur in the space between institutional or state-centric models of transformation (relying on policy, benchmarks and barometer tools) and popular activism (relying on protest action, disruption and campaigns). The overlapping concepts of transformation, inclusivity and diversity emerge at the intersection (and through the acknowledgement) of political, social and economic struggles.
Transformation exists within this turbulent context and transformation work needs to recognise that, without a form of guidance, structure and/or support, transformation work would be compromised. It is in this spirit that the Office for Inclusivity and Change (OIC) at UCT developed transformation benchmarks as shared goals for the university and an inclusivity survey explored how staff members experience belonging within the university. The two case studies shared below are based on publicly accessible reports, and the analysis shares the challenges and opportunities these interventions offer. The case studies both apply transformation practice within the university environment, with the intention of contributing to national transformation praxis and thought leadership.
Case Study 1: The Transformation Benchmarks
What are the transformation benchmarks?
UCT developed transformation benchmarks to measure how well the university has integrated, responded to and acted on transformation, inclusivity and diversity. The benchmarks provide a measurement of progress across the areas set out in UCT’s Framework for Transformation (2018). The benchmarks fall into nine priority areas, with each priority having a specific set of basic actions expected of faculties and departments. In total there are 34 benchmarks. Each priority asks how the university has practised transformation in the previous twelve-month period. For each benchmark a department provides a qualitative response and a self-rating score on how well the benchmark was achieved ( UCT, 2020). The benchmark results are not seen as a scorecard; instead, they reveal where the university has been effective and where additional focus is needed. The benchmark categories are listed below:
The strategic integration of transformation: Within the institution how well is transformation mainstreamed within basic strategic actions?
Student access and support: How is the institution supporting diverse students with disparate backgrounds to be included, to fully participate and to succeed within UCT?
Staff access and support: How is the institution supporting diverse staff members from disparate backgrounds to be included, to fully participate and to grow within UCT?
Place and space: language, names, symbols, artworks and identity: How is the university affirming the dignity, acknowledging the contributions and experiences, and placing special attention on those who have been historically marginalised?
Institutional responses to unfair discrimination, harassment and violence: How is the university practising its zero-tolerance approach to any form of unfair discrimination, harassment, sexual violence and behaviour that demeans others?
Community engagement: anchoring UCT in community: How is the university supporting, building solidarity with and providing professional services to communities?
Curriculum support: decolonisation, marginalisation and accessibility: To what extent is the curriculum and pedagogy employed meeting the needs of and accessible to marginalised persons? How has curriculum, pedagogy and the broader learning environment been decolonised?
Owning UCT’s African identity: How is the university centring its African identity through scholarship, teaching and learning practice, or activist initiatives?
Innovations, alternate approaches and best practices: What are the innovations and best practices which have been employed to further transformation, inclusivity and diversity?
This approach to benchmarking is adapted from practices used by other large entities such as the United Nations Women’s System-wide Action Plan (UN-SWAP) monitoring matrix ( UN Women, 2019), UN World Food Programme’s gender-transformation benchmark matrix ( World Food Programme, 2019), the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa’s qualitative approach to mapping access to human rights in southern and east Africa ( Grant & Gerntholtz, 2014), and the transformation barometer for higher education in South Africa ( Keet & Swartz, 2015). In each case, benchmarks were identified. Benchmarks are a standard set of actions and reference points on which all entities within UCT can be compared. They offer criteria onto which the university can track movements towards enhancing transformation, enabling inclusion or supporting critical diversity ( UCT, 2020, 2021).
This approach to benchmarking involves collecting evidence of what has been achieved, an example which highlights how an initiative or action took place rather than an explanation giving reasons for or clarifying progress. The evidence acts as a milestone of progress. While an explanation can be compelling it may not clearly outline the steps UCT has taken to create positive change.
The evidence collected through this process is useful as it offers a baseline for the university, but more importantly allows faculties and departments to assess their current capacities, achievements and gaps.
The graph here (drawn from the UCT Transformation Report) is for benchmark A called the strategic integration of transformation. The scores represent the achievements of departments and faculties in 2019. The specific actions allocated to this benchmark are labelled A.1–A.6 and these are examples of the basic transformative steps all faculties and departments should be taking. The benchmarks provide a framework to monitor and track TID, and an analysis of the benchmarks allows the university to evaluate the effectiveness of transformation.
When and how were the benchmarks implemented?
Faculties and non-academic departments (dubbed entities) are invited to report on their work each year in December. Entities report their actions against the nine transformation priorities and the 34 specific benchmarks, this ensures that the reports capture how transformation is mainstreamed within teaching and learning, research and operations at the level of the entity.
The transformation benchmarks were first implemented in 2019 and were implemented in 2020 and 2021 too. In 2019, 2020 and 2021 a cross-institutional report was produced based on an analysis of the benchmark results. In 2019, twelve benchmark reports were received; in 2020, 13 benchmark reports were received and in 2020 15 benchmark reports were received. It is important to note that the number of reports varied from year to year, and we did not receive reports from the same entities each year. It has been difficult to get all faculties and departments to report on their actions. This makes apparent how reporting on transformation is not seen as a priority, and the few reports received indicate that more needs to be done in intentionally leading transformation.
The benchmarks allow the university to track UCT’s transformation journey. While departmental and faculty benchmark reports give us some indication of the direction, pace and quality of transformation efforts, it doesn’t paint the whole picture ( UCT, 2020). To fill the gaps, the OIC also conducts focus group discussions and interviews with transformation agents. A transformation agent refers to transformation committee members, members of the university community conducting transformation actions (in their professional or personal capacity), students, professional and administrative staff (PASS) members, academics and researchers interested in and contributing to transformation in some way ( UCT, 2020, 2019). The individual benchmark reports nevertheless provide a rich and varied reflection on transformation at UCT.
Example benchmark findings
The graph displays the way in which UCT met the transformation benchmarks over the 2019 to 2021. It is important not to use a comparison of the three years to draw conclusions about UCT’s progress or regression in terms of transformation ( UCT, 2021). Different departments and faculties completed their benchmark reports in each year, and the emergence of Covid-19 offered an incomparable challenge and shifted priorities in transformation work. Over a longer time, it may be possible to track progress; however, over a three-year period these can only be appreciated as preliminary trends.
What these benchmarks do highlight are some of the areas of strength and challenges for the university. For example, supporting students and staff in terms of how marginalised persons can access, fully participate and succeed in the university have emerged as priorities in line with the traditional understanding of transformation. While other areas including curriculum support (specifically themes related to decolonisation, marginalisation and accessibility), community engagement and institutional responses to discrimination, harassment and violence score a little lower. The benchmarks indicate how transformation actors are driving transformation in the university. It also suggests where work lacks reach or complexity, or where more budget could be assigned.
Case Study 2: The Inclusivity Survey
What is the survey?
An Inclusivity Survey was identified to assess and shape the trajectory of pathways to inclusion for staff. The InclusionIndex (applied at UCT by Aephoria Partners), a psychometrically accredited and validated tool ( April & Blass, 2010), was used as the instrument for the survey. The tool includes ten standard academically researched dimensions of inclusion, identified to assess the impact of the perceived levels of inclusion across multiple demographic groups, including:
– Executives: The extent to which participants view senior leaders to value inclusion and demonstrate inclusive behaviour.
– My direct manager: How inclusive staff perceive their direct manager to be. This is defined as the person of a higher grade who takes the closest interest in a staff member’s work and/or performance appraisal.
– Values: Perceptions and experiences of the values and ethics of the university and the way they are treated, including experiences of work/life balance and flexible working.
– Recruitment: This dimension focusses on the extent to which the recruitment process is perceived to be inclusive and free from bias.
– Advancement and development: This section aims to establish whether the system for advancement and developing people is open and fair. It relates to perceptions of promotion, advancement, and development.
– Fitting in: This section relates to the extent to which individuals feel they fit into the institution.
– Bullying and harassment: Bullying and harassment could mean physical bullying or violence, verbal harassment, or simply forcing someone to do something against their will. This section does not include sexual harassment.
– Dialogue: This section covers the dialogue around diversity and inclusivity. Dialogue is more than just communication. It refers to the way diversity and inclusivity are talked about and promoted at the university.
– Institutional belonging: Institutional belonging is the extent to which individuals imagine being part of the university, both now and into the future, and their perceived level of commitment to the institution.
– Emotional wellbeing: This section covers the emotional wellbeing people experience at work, as measured through self-reporting on the frequency of emotions experienced at work. These are integrated into two sub-scales, namely distress and morale.
In addition to the above standard dimensions of the tool, the university requested the integration of two additional dimensions as aligned to the transformation and inclusion agenda of the university, including:
– Safety: The extent to which individuals feel safe and secure at the university, including questions about sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
– Discrimination: The unfair treatment of different categories of people based on their membership of a group, a characteristic or a part of their identity.
When and how was the survey implemented?
The survey approach was underpinned by a grounded theory methodology, described as a systematic approach generating theory from data ( Belgrave & Seide, 2019). The overall deployment included two phases, a quantitative and a qualitative phase. The quantitative phase comprised the administration and distribution of an electronic and hardcopy survey in three languages, namely, Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa. The survey contained 73 questions and could be completed in 20 to 30 minutes.
In all, 2,804 staff members responded to the survey, which represents a 40.6% staff participation rate. The responses included a fair spread of different genders, ages and racial groups, pay classes and professional roles, and other important demographic categories (including sexual orientation, religion and nationality).
Following the initial coding and analysis of the quantitative data, the qualitative data was collected through focus groups and individual interviews, to provide context and build depth of the quantitative data. Participants of the focus groups included the top-performing, as well as lowest performing, faculties and departments for deeper insight and understanding of respective experiences. A total of 16 focus group discussions occurred and one special meeting was held with the Black Academic Caucus. Individual interviews included staff who volunteered to participate, with 54 interviews held in total. After focus groups and individual interviews were concluded, the data were examined and integrated into the overall survey analysis. The data were presented in an overall institutional report, together with individual faculty and departmental reports, acknowledging the respective context, including strengths and challenges, of faculties and departments across the university.
The study received ethical clearance from the Ethics Committee of the Commerce Faculty, while considering the anonymity of participants, data security and researcher reflexivity in interpreting the data.
Example survey findings
The mean InclusionIndex score for the university was 68.4% which falls into the category of average levels of inclusivity when compared to other deployments of the questionnaire. The overall survey findings indicated a strong sense of institutional belonging, with staff generally feeling that they fit in at the university. A good relationship with their individual line managers was further indicated by staff, while acknowledging that leadership within the university prioritises inclusion and emphasises the importance of transformation.
At the same time, areas for concern were identified and subsequently prioritised as the focal points for the overall inclusivity approach for the university. The data showed that many staff felt bullied, while others were still dealing with the trauma experienced during the 2015–2017 student protests and suffered from depression and anxiety as a result. This decrease in emotional wellbeing resonates with the alarming global trend, which shows that staff in higher education, worldwide, are experiencing concerns regarding their overall wellbeing and, therefore, the university needs to provide meaningful and effective wellness programmes for staff ( Egan, 2021). Transparency in recruitment, development and advancement processes were also highlighted as a concern.
A comparative analysis of the data was further presented across the various demographic groups, including age, gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, seniority, religion, work basis (part-time/full-time contracts), geographical locations, highlighting the key proposition of intersectionality, in that individual identities contribute to the lived experiences, as persons negotiate contextual influences ( Mitchell et al., 2014).
The benchmarks and the survey are parallel and complementary actions which focus on operationalising and shifting affect and perceptions related to TID respectively. They occur in tandem, and often departments or faculties interacting or responding to either do not differentiate between them and may see them as one rather than two separate tools.
Limitations and critique
Several critiques have emerged of both case studies highlighted in this article. One entity argued that benchmark approaches have a heavy data collection burden. In some faculties there are more than ten departments and getting each department to respond to 34 specific benchmarks is difficult and time consuming. This burden is often placed on transformation committee chairs who are expected to draw all the information together. Some entities at UCT also argued that the reporting template didn’t allow the entity benchmark report to capture the richness of individual departments, which on their own had implemented meaningful and complex transformation initiatives. This faculty argued that the process encouraged transformation to be a box-ticking exercise instead of a process for growth and development.
A second entity expressed resistance to the top-down approaches employed through the benchmarking and survey processes. Some individuals in this entity felt that transformation primarily occurs at a departmental level; as such, departments should set their own benchmarks, and the benchmark categories may be too narrow to adequately capture the actions initiated by departments. Other individuals argued that the benchmarking approach was distasteful because it suggested scorekeeping.
A third entity stated that the benchmark framework and the inclusivity survey didn’t adequately respond to or criticise how institutional governance structures and systems failed staff and students, and rather allocated a poor score to a department or faculty itself. This takes responsibility and accountability away from a biased and exclusionary institution and places responsibility on individual departments. The inclusivity survey did identify discord amongst staff with regards to systems and processes; and with these findings, the university was pressured to take responsibility for exclusionary practices within the institution. These reflections echo rather than contradict the critiques put forward earlier, such as the notion of the violent equilibrium ( Alexander, 1990) and non-performativity ( Ahmed, 2004) where top-down transformation efforts may thwart the popular activism on transformation or transformation itself.
Apthorpe (1996) puts forward a theoretical critique appropriate to these case studies. Apthorpe argues that, the more hierarchical an organisation becomes, the more its discourse tends to emphasise “bottom-up” values and approaches, and human aspects. This emphasis doesn’t always align with an actual commitment to be participatory, and instead hides practices within the institution which may be hierarchical or exclusionary. He goes on to say that the focus on naming, framing, numbering and coding in development policy and strategy (such as a benchmark approach) does not and cannot adequately capture the social elements of the phenomena (transformation) it seeks to understand. For example, in capturing results related to benchmarks, the sense of being, state and conditions of social actors are missing ( UCT, 2020). In quantifying change in this manner, aligning with corporate interests, the meaning within social categories (such as transformation, inclusivity and diversity) may be lost ( Apthorpe, 1996). This assessment aligns with the key limitation of the benchmarking and survey approaches: in naming, framing, numbering and coding, the complexity and contradictory nature of transformation may be lost.
In addition, Ellsworth (1989) argues that the key goals and pedagogical practices fundamental to approaches rooted in critical theory, namely “empowerment”, “student voice”, “dialogue” and even the term “critical”, can be used in a manner which reproduces relations of domination. When universities attempt to practise principles such as empowerment, student voice and dialogue, universities exacerbated rather than helped the very oppressive conditions universities are trying to work against, including Eurocentrism, racism, sexism, classism and “banking pedagogy”. This is because these discourses are embodied and practised in repressive and top-down ways, and the transformative programme itself becomes a vehicle of repression ( Ellsworth, 1989).
For example, neither approach meaningfully or adequately includes or captures the voices of students and student activists. The benchmarking approach does invite student representatives to share their voices, and while the Department of Student Affairs has shared a benchmark report, the Student Representative Council or other student groups have not. This means that student experiences are filtered through staff, and student voices are directly or adequately captured. In addition, the Inclusivity Survey focused on staff inclusion, rather than inclusion more broadly within the university. A stronger or more meaningful focus on student inclusion would strengthen this approach and would respond to Ellsworth and Apthorpe’s critiques.
This criticism is extremely important both practically and theoretically and has been taken on board to improve both interventions. In addition, these UCT interventions are in conversation with national-level tools such as the transformation barometer. UCT’s benchmarks reflect, expand and occasionally contradict these national benchmarks.
In thinking through these benchmarks, it is important that we as co-authors acknowledge our own complex position whilst implementing these interventions. On the one hand, implementing these interventions is guided by the activist principles we hold onto and our desire to align with a broader arc of justice and fairness. On the other hand, we are also implementing actions which are limited and constrained by the higher education environment we work within.
Transformation in higher education exists in a landscape of contradictions and trade-offs. For the institutional benchmarks to fully realise their purpose of meaningful inclusion, there needs to be increased autonomy by transformation units to allow for these critical allies to amplify the voice and agency for all members of the university community. Without the principles of transformation, inclusivity and diversity present and protected by the university itself, there is a very real threat of slippage into assimilative complicity and non-performative forms of transformation.
The two case studies offer structured and complementary approaches for monitoring and evaluating transformation which rely on civil society and corporate approaches. The InclusionIndex and transformation benchmarks produce metrics that enable the university to assess and monitor ongoing progress towards TID across demographic, faculty and departmental dimensions. Metrics that offer comparative analyses further allow the tracking and monitoring of diverse experiences across the university, while identifying potential pockets of excellence that could serve as learning opportunities, as well as those areas that experience more challenges. Moreover, bespoke initiatives and targeted actions for change could then be adjusted accordingly to address individual, structural and contextual challenges. Importantly this allows transformation, inclusion and diversity approaches and strategies to be responsive to the organic, ever-changing and turbulent nature of oppression and hence transformation.
These approaches use both qualitative and quantitative markers to track progress towards transformation. In addition, they offer a deeper qualitative understanding of individual experiences and let real or potential conflicts be considered in the broader institutional life, and not in isolation, allowing for the identification of structural or operational contradictions rooted in inequality or oppression ( Tierney & Lanford, 2018). They ensure that some (but not all) social elements of the phenomena of transformation are meaningfully captured ( Jansen, 2014).
It is important that approaches are complementary rather than siloed, as this ensures that stakeholders aren’t overwhelmed and prevents duplication of TID efforts. Alignment of approaches enables stakeholders to connect and collectively develop solutions for solving complex institutional challenges. It further ensures that resources and strategies are given due consideration in setting institutional practices and assessing implementation capabilities ( Ahammad et al., 2018).
In addition, it’s important that TID approaches consider, acknowledge and affirm the fluid forms of activism which emerge in the ever-changing transformation environment. TID approaches need to be adaptable to diverse contexts, including university operations, teaching and learning, research and student environments.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Writing this paper was difficult, as throughout we attempted to make ourselves vulnerable through openly and transparently critiquing our work and foregrounding our positionality. In doing so, we hope to challenge the practices of silence which often stifle transformation work. While it is important to position these case studies as useful practices within the higher education environment, these practices are experimental and should be adapted and changed, rather than adopted. If we had the clear solution to oppression in higher education, we wouldn’t need to do this work. These practices indicate what works and what doesn’t and adapting these is likely to lead to stronger practices with even better outcomes.
[I have] explored the notion of mutual vulnerability as a pedagogic tool to counteract the potential social, economic and epistemic violence that some students experience when confronted with knowledge and knowledge practices that are different to their own social, cultural and emotional norms. Mutual vulnerability is about recognizing students’ vulnerability as they are confronted with counter-normative or conceptually difficult / challenging knowledge while risking making oneself, as the teacher, vulnerable as well. Mutual vulnerability can be used in pedagogic contexts by making curriculum norms visible and being prepared to surrender, expand, or adjust our norms in order to be part of a collective (learning) process. Making the familiar strange and the strange familiar is central to this way of engaging with students. This means making explicit the workings of academic practices and ensuring that students get the opportunities to learn and to engage in those practices in safe spaces. ( Knowles, 2016, p. 26)
Transformation work is vulnerable work, and interventions which aim to enable TID require both the implementer of the programme and the participants who join in to be somewhat vulnerable. This vulnerability acknowledges that TID work is slow, and changes occur over long periods of time. The process is difficult, and progress is never linear. The two case studies presented here offer an imperfect but innovative basis for tracking TID and accounting for some of the complex journey. Both allow a university to track the direction it is going in and to acknowledge the gaps, silences and blind spots.
In order to better track, monitor and evaluate transformation in turbulent times it is important for TID interventions to be:
– Adaptable and flexible enough to capture, support and affirm fluid forms of social activism.
– More responsive to structural inequalities in the university and should seek to disrupt, trouble and unravel oppressive norms and practices more actively.
– More conscious of the dynamics of silence (often disguised as diplomacy) and the need to take direct actions to clearly respond to oppressive and harmful discourses.
The paper started with a personal anecdote and will end with one. Implementing TID efforts and processes to monitor them includes many personal conversations. For these interventions to be successful, students, staff members and community members want to feel included, heard and appreciated. The authors, as practitioners, needed to also be open to share their experiences and build trust with the persons they serve. This mutual vulnerability and intersectional honesty were powerful tools that energised the case studies. The case studies could be conducted without mutual vulnerability, but they would be poorer for the lack.
In writing this paper, we the co-authors had to face and overcome many personal and political challenges. Within our workplace we collaborated and critiqued each other (both not easy tasks) in the process of realising these interventions. We challenged and were challenged by administrative and managerial systems which thwarted our activist spirit and efforts. We survived through a pandemic which hugely affected our work and professional lives. In acknowledging these messy and lovely realities, we hope to zigzag away from only centring institutional and state-centric interventions to acknowledging the central role of affect, emotion and vulnerability in this work.
This paper explored the turbulent and contested nature of transformation in South African higher education. In doing so the paper unpacked two examples of interventions that attempt to track progress in terms of transformation, and the praxis of vulnerability which accompanies this work. These interventions use transformation benchmarks and the InclusionIndex as tools. These tools offer complimentary corporate and civil society mechanisms for furthering transformation in higher education. Both of these tools have limitations; however, they also offer concrete steps the university can take to further transformation. While institutional approaches to transformation such as these is useful, it’s imperative for transformation actors to not lose sight of activist principles, emotion and vulnerability in their work.