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Critical University Studies Project at CriSHET

by Jenny du Preez, Hashali Hamukuaya, André Keet, Qhama Noveve, Nobubele Phuza, and Luan Staphorst

Critical University Studies (CUS) is at the heart of the epistemic and social justice work under the Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET) at Nelson Mandela University. Professor André Keet is the research grant holder from the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) for the years 2020 to 2022. This grant funds a research project aimed at paving the way forward in this critical, yet fledgling, field of inquiry in South Africa. Professor Keet leads the team as the grant holder. The project is coordinated by Luan Staphorst, assisted by Hashali Hamukuaya, and Qhama Noveve is the grant bursary holder and doctoral candidate. Other projects in the field are the NRF-funded postdoctoral project held by Dr Jenny du Preez, and Nobubele Phuza’s doctoral study.

The key premise of this project is that the policy and legislative architecture of the South African higher education system and the ‘philosophies’, ‘orientations’ and ‘praxes’ of agencies such as the Department of Education and Training (DHET), the Council on Higher Education (CHE), the National Research Foundation, and others, have framed the key organising principles of higher education transformation within discursive fields that construct the ‘ideal type’ university along historically produced hierarchies and distributions of worth.

Stated differently, the system's categories of self-understanding are locked into discursive fields that ‘simulate’ change on the one hand, while justifying and legitimising systemically-anchored discriminatory outcomes on the other. The deep transformation of higher education in South Africa is inhibited by the programmes and interventions that ensue from these discursive fields that govern its organising concepts, principles and praxes.

CUS is proposed as an approach that can disclose and deconstruct the construction and functioning of these discursive fields to develop alternative, more productive frameworks for university transformation. CUS, for this project, is to be understood as the study of universities through “analyses of power, privilege and authority, focusing on the production of the discursive fields of higher education transformation (the actors, players, histories, frames, etc.); the social structure of the academy; the power-relations embedded within the organisation of knowledge, its disciplines and disciples; the mechanics of authority and power within knowledge generation processes, research subjects, objects, topics and trends; the politics of knowledge and academic publishing; pedagogical typologies; the construction of professional and student identities; institutional culture; and the relationship between university and society” [1].

The project has three overarching goals to this end:
1. To map the field of CUS in comparison to Higher Education Studies (HES) and Higher Education Transformation Studies (HETS) in South Africa and beyond, and deconstruct the discursive fields that frame higher education transformation in South Africa.
2. To analyse the research and programmatic propositions of CUS critically, nationally and globally, and build collaborations and research networks.
3. To connect South African, and other, scholars to explore the intellectual and pragmatic value of CUS and develop ideas for strengthening the field; as a key contribution to alternative studies of university transformation.

Qhama Noveve’s doctorate is a qualitative ethnographic study that looks into the transformation agenda in relation to race and gender. It aims to answer the question of the state and quality of transformation for black women by exploring the institutional cultures that impede or promote transformation and identifingy evidence of racial and gendered inequality (pastoral support, access, research funding, promotions etc.). This study offers an intersectional lens into the realities of black women in the “ivory tower”, problematizes transformative discourses and gender multi-vocality, epistemic injustice, citizenship and binary views of women’s public/private lives, politics and tactics of exclusion, institutional racism, the presence or lack of proactive transformation initiatives, and how institutions engage to create and maintain safe spaces to foster collegial relationships for a democratic culture. Its intellectual significance lies in the in-depth exploration into structure and agency, and the complex ways gender/racial cultures embedded in social justice are programmatically encoded in institutional scripts for democratic culture and transformation. This work adds to the growing field of CUS as it questions masculinist credentialized knowledge ideologies and normativity, race relations and governmentality, and how the university can begin to have open and honest conversations on racial and gendered inequality.

Dr Jenny du Preez’s postdoctoral project aims to bring together the established discipline of Literary Studies in English (LSE) with the emerging field of CUS in productive ways. LSE has often been framed as a critical project, but what critical resources it might offer CUS is not transparent. Thus, this project intends to explore what LSE can offer African CUS, specifically in South Africa, to strengthen the critical capacities of both fields of study to respond to the challenges in the HE sector. At this early stage, the project entails foundational literature review and mapping work of the critical, transformational and social justice engagement of LSE, as well as how it has intersected with critical study of the university.

The working title of Nobubele Phuza’s doctoral study is “Power, Politics and the Protest Fields: Interpretive Case Studies in Sexual and Gender Justice Movements in Eastern Cape Universities”. The proposed thesis focuses on the mechanism and architecture of protests related to gender and sexual justice in Eastern Cape universities. It traces the divergence of #RUReferenceList, #RapeAtAzania #EndRapeCulture and #AmINext campaigns from the historical Silent Protest. To do so, Nobubele analyses protest repertoires, ideologies and the influence of place on these movements and what their institutionalization means in the context of South African protest politics. The thesis views these protests from the position of subalternity in relation to the masculine and violent forms of protest that dominate South African protest fields. This implies a feminized resistance or the emergence of a subaltern public field where womxn lead, prioritize women and gender issues, and openly contest patriarchy. Leaning heavily on Bourdieu’s field analytic and Laure Bereni’s (2019) women’s cause field theory, the thesis hopes to contribute to social movement scholarship that sees protests as not only relational but gendered as well.


More on this project, and the broader discussions around CUS at CriSHET, will continue to be shared on this platform. For specific information about their work as it happens, see here.


[1] André Keet & Michael Cross. 2020. Introduction to On Higher Education book series. In: Decolonisation and Scholarly Engagement: Views from South Africa, The Netherlands and the United States. Eds. Maurice Crul, Liezl Dick, Halleh Ghorashi & Abel Valenzuela Jr. Stellenbosch: Africa Sun Media.p. xxi.


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