Author(s):Sue Timmis (presenting), Brenda Leibowitz, Lisa Lucas (presenting), Sheila Trahar, Karen Desborough

Conference:ECER 2017

Network:22. Research in Higher Education


Session Information

22 SES 11 D

Paper Session



Chair:Kaarel Haav


The potential of participatory research in influencing curriculum policy change in South Africa: SARiHE – researching rural students lived experiences

This paper considers the role and challenges of participatory research in addressing policy change in South Africa, drawing on the SARiHE (Southern African Rurality in Higher Education) project that began in October 2016 (funded by ESRC/NRF). Whilst the project includes perspectives from across nine southern african countries, the fieldwork is located in South Africa. The paper introduces the context, aims, research questions and theoretical framing before discussing participatory methodology, its purpose and efficacy in conducting research in the policy and practice context of South Africa.  The paper offers reflections on the methodological challenges of the first phase of the research. It concludes by considering the potential of participatory methodologies for influencing changes in policy within universities and national bodies.

The South African government’s Innovation towards a knowledge based economy: Ten Year Plan for Africa 2008-18 recognises the crucial role of higher education in building modern South African society and as a key driver of ‘equity, social justice and democracy’ in the vision for 2030 (Dept of Science and Technology, 2007). There continues to be a significant lack of academic achievement of students from historically under-represented backgrounds but one of the most marginalised social categories, affected by historical inadequacies, is rurality, especially as it interrelates with race and ethnicity. The concept of rurality is demographic, geographic, cultural and contextual (Roberts and Green, 2013). In Southern Africa, space is a deeply political matter due to the displacement effects of apartheid and rural students are one of the most marginalised groups,attracting little attention in widening participation research to date (Mgqwashu, 2016).

There has been limited research on rural students in South Africa especially in relation to HE participation (Author2 et al, 2015). Jones and colleagues (2008) found that a multiplicity of factors affect transitions from rural areas, including geography, financial resources, schooling, and language. They suggest that it is not only students who are disadvantaged, but institutions that are not prepared to support their needs. However the study does not consider strengths those students may bring to university, or focus on the curriculum and modes of teaching delivery. Furthermore, in an increasingly digital world, technology plays a powerful role in maintaining social connections and opening up possibilities for new knowledge and modes of learning, which can challenge institutional forms of learning (Säljö, 2010).

The research questions focus firstly on the conceptual complexities of rurality. We are investigating how students negotiate transitions to university and the influence on their higher education trajectories. We examine the practices that shape approaches to learning of university students from rural areas including in relation to digital technologies. Finally we explore the challenges for students from rural contexts facing curricula which remain imbued with colonialism and inclusive alternatives that build on all (including rural) student experiences.

A sociocultural perspective on learning recognises that human actions are mediated by physical, social, cultural, historical and material means (Daniels, 2015).  Schatzki (2001:11) highlights that practices are ‘embodied, materially mediated arrays of human activity centrally organised around shared practical understanding’. We take this further, examining how students’ historic and current practices have contributed to the negotiation of transitions from rural contexts into and through higher education as they encounter different ‘figured worlds’ (Holland et al, 1998). Figured worlds are social encounters in which the positions of those taking part matter, they are socially and culturally organised and located in particular times and places. This perspective, based on the work of Vygotsky, Bakhtin and Bourdieu, enables us to explore the influences of rural figured worlds upon the new worlds of higher education and the adaptations students make in relation to participation and studying. 


The study employs a participatory methodology, which can be argued to be a ‘decolonising’ mode (Bozalek and Biersteker, 2011), as it avoids a deficit positioning of under–represented students. Students will be recruited as co-researchers to contribute to the research alongside academic researchers. They will be involved in a number of ways, initially through collecting account of everyday practices in the form of digital documentaries including diary entries, drawings, photographs and other artefacts using an ipad and contributing to discussions and focus groups. Multimodal methods are important as they can reduce students’ reliance on writing and language, particularly when the dominant language is a second language (Rohleder and Thesen, 2012) as for many of the rural students. Student co-researchers will also contribute to data analysis, presentations and writing and publishing both on the website and in print. This methodology draws on previous work by author 1 (Author1 et al, 2016) conducted in the UK where co-researchers consistently reported on the positive benefits they found in being a co-researcher for supporting their own learning and academic experiences. The fieldwork will be conducted by co-researchers at three sites: the University of Johannesburg (an urban ‘comprehensive’ university with a balanced focus on research, teaching and technology), Rhodes University (a rural, research-led and ‘previously advantaged’ university) and Fort Hare University (a rural, teaching-led, ’previously disadvantaged’ university).

In February and March 2017, second year undergraduate students will be recruited from STEM and Humanities programmes in each university (approx. 12 from each discipline, 24 in total per institution) with a balance of gender and students who are first generation at university. Rurality is a very complex category and this complexity is part of the focus of the study. For sampling purposes, we will select students who have attended school in a rural area for at least seven years. The majority will be from a rural background and born in South Africa, allowing for some students born outside of South Africa.
Co-researchers will receive initial training and be supported throughout the data collection period by a series of workshops, social events and regular communications in an online safe space. For this methodology to be successful, special attention needs to be paid to ensure that co-researchers can develop a sense of community and belonging and have a good understanding of the research aims and how they can contribute to shaping these as the project progresses (Author1 & Williams, 2013).

Expected Outcomes

The paper shares some of the preliminary findings from the first phase of the research (March – Jul 2017). It then offers our reflections on and analysis of, the methodological challenges of conducting the participatory research across multiple sites. Specifically, we consider the challenges of adapting the co-researcher methodology to a South African context where higher education is experiencing such rapid changes and considerable disruption and unrest. We then discuss the potential of participatory research methodologies for influencing and effecting changes in policy within universities and national bodies, including the importance of student voice in convincing policymakers and institutional leaders. The SARiHE study provides a broad scope across diverse institutions located in different parts of South Africa, which can represent multiple voices from across the country. In the following stage of the project, we will engage with academic staff and institutional leaders through focus groups and interviews to explore how inclusive and ‘living’ curricula (that address diversity at multiple levels) might be developed. In the final section of the paper, we consider the potential of participatory methodologies such as that outlined here to bring student voice more powerfully into the discussion of post colonial curricular and the role of authentic accounts of practices and narratives as demonstrations of the effects of continuing colonizing policies. By introducing student voice directly to policy discussions and engaging with institutional and policymakers in co-constructing curriculum change, we reflect on both the strengths and the weaknesses of participatory methodologies to influence higher education policy. Finally, the paper will briefly discuss the plans for next stages of the SARiHE project and its potential outcomes.


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Author1 et al. (2016). Digital Diversity and Belonging in Higher Education: A Social Justice Proposition. In E.L. Brown, A.Krasteva, M. Ranieri, (Eds) International Advances in Education: Global Initiatives for Equity and Social Justice, Volume 10. E-learning & Social Media: Education and Citizenship for the Digital 21st Century. Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, N.C.

Author2 et al. (2015) Institutional Context Matters: the professional development of academics as teachers in South African Higher Education. Higher Education, 69 (2) 315 – 330.

Bozalek, V. and Biersteker, L. (2010) Exploring Power and Privilege Using Participatory Learning and Action Techniques. Social Work Education. 29(5) 551-572.

Daniels, H. (2015). Mediation An expansion of the socio-cultural gaze. History of the Human Sciences, 28(2), 34-50.

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Jones, B., Coetzee, G., Bailey, T., & Wickham, S. (2008). Factors that facilitate success for
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Rohleder, P., & Thesen, L. (2012). Interpreting drawings: reading the racialised politics of space. In B. Leibowitz, L. Swartz, L. Nicholls, P. Rohleder, V. Bozalek & R. Carolissen (Eds.), Community, self and identity: educating South African university students for citizenship. Cape Town: HSRC Press. 87–96

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Author Information

Sue Timmis (presenting)
University of Bristol
Brenda Leibowitz
University of Johannesburg, South Africa
Lisa Lucas (presenting)
University of Bristol
Graduate School of Education
Sheila Trahar
University of Bristol, United Kingdom
Karen Desborough
University of Bristol