PROJECT TITLE: Positioned on a ‘tight rope’: The reception of equity-agenda development programmes in a rapidly transforming higher education context
Collaborating researchers: Dr Dina Zoe Belluigi (Queens University Belfast) and Dr Gladman Thondhlana (Rhodes University, South Africa)

This research project is concerned with the complexities of relational and interactional diversity of academic staff which have emerged once the minimum expectations of standards of numeric access of black student participants were met in an historically white university. In the national context of South Africa, a number of well-funded, meticulously planned, and prestigious affirmative action programmes were created precisely to ‘assure’ the quality of individuals selected from historically under-represented groups to be ‘future leaders’ in key academic positions in higher education. Structured institutional evaluation processes and relationships were established to ensure the quality of the recipients of such programmes through the ‘development’ of the recipients’ research, teaching and civic engagement. These programmes have been deemed largely successful in terms of safeguarding quality while increasing staff diversity, and thus have been rolled out nationally, with funding now mainstreamed by the state.

However, this study surfaced the ways in which those represented as a supplement to transformation have paid a tremendous cost by being positioned on the continuum between transformation as redressing demographic imbalances and the quality assurance of academic faculty. Our role was not to ascertain the quality of such programmes, but in response to a request by some of the recipients, we aimed to explore the more fundamental and nuanced problematic of institutional transformation through inviting insights into the lived experiences of the programmes’ recipients. Of the 27 who actively participated, data was generated via a questionnaire, followed by presentation of our analysis to small discussion groups. Additional engagement occurred through postcards with metaphors chosen from the questionnaire responses which invited participants to compose messages to imagined readers of their choice within the institution.

Journal article outputs currently being peer-reviewed from this project:

  • ‘Why mouth all the pieties?’: Lived experiences of the recipients of faculty equity-agenda programmes for the transformation of South African higher education
  • Transformation or ‘training the dog’? Faculty insights into approaches to access and equity within an historically white institution in South Africa
  • Beyond numbers: The paradox of belonging as black and women academics at ’transforming’ South African university
Vessel Cirlce 2Project title: Transformation in Higher Education and Staff Evaluation (THESE): Independent vetting mechanisms to ascertain the ways in which institutional evaluation of academic staff impact substantive transformation

As one of the most powerful mechanisms of assessment, the evaluation of academic staff has a significant impact on the power of those agents. Quality assurance and transformation initiatives are rarely aligned because their purposes differ, as do the interest of their stakeholders. Informed by the findings of a wealth of critical research into issues of equity in our various contexts, the Project aims to provide what is lacking – resources to independently vet the intersect between evaluation and transformation, in ways that hold institutions accountable for what they espouse, and inform the ways in which they can align their transformational aspirations with the power of their assessments of quality.

Quality assurance is the lever used to enable or constrain change. In contexts with a legacy of inequality, the goals of the quality and equity of academic staff in higher education are cast in tension, where gains in one area are seen as tipping the scale in the other. This Project challenges such zero-sum thinking by shifting the conventional focus on safeguarding quality to the significance of that risk-averse impulse, by establishing an internationally-assessed portfolio of methods for critical research in this pressing area of concern. Contributors from different geographic locations, intellectual traditions and professional contexts, will engage in a rigorous iterative process to assess and develop powerful resources to establish: Which methodologies enable research into the nature of the relationship between processes of institutional transformation intended to further equity, and staff evaluation? It is at the intersect between these two, where staff positioned as representative of diversity pay the highest cost, most notably where evaluation coerces them to perform and assimilate to established rules of the game. The methods will address the large research-implementation gap between transformation initiatives (such as staff development, diversity and inclusion initiatives; affirmative action and equity policies), and the structures and cultures which assure academic staff quality. Conventional research approaches have proved ineffectual, partly because those in privileged positions of power most often act in their self-interest to replicate the status quo, and partly because of the professional risks when posing challenges from within. Thus the primary drive of this Project is to produce methods which can be utilised independent of institutional processes of evaluation, but which have been authoritatively vetted internationally. The methods will inform ground-breaking research which holds public institutions to account, challenges conservative thinking about quality, and develops evaluation approaches which better enable the transformation that is claimed or is aspirational, for the heterogeneous future of higher education.

The Project aims to bring together central collaborators who have been actively engaged in transformation in diverse ways from different geographic locations, traditions and professional contexts, and who recognise that our cumulative energy is imperative if we are to develop powerful resources for accountability and change in this sector. These currently include:

Dr Dina Belluigi (Queens University Belfast, Northern Ireland); Dr B Radha (Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, India); Dr Fabian Schuppert (Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland); Dr Grace Idahosa (University of Johannesburg, South Africa); Dr Gabriel Huddleston (Texas Christian University, USA); Dr Jennie Winters (Plymouth University, UK); Karol Veiker (Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden); Dr Venice Thandi Sule (Oakland University, Rochester, USA); Dr Gladman Thondhlana (Rhodes University, South Africa); Simon Eten (University for Development Studies, Ghana); Carla Queiroz (Deputy Director of Quality Assurance, Angola).

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