Implications of theoretical perspectives for student affairs

Over the last 15 years I have had the pleasure to correspond with Philip G Altbach on different aspects of his half-century of research into student activism. On a number of occasions, I would take him up on something he wrote repeatedly in the 1980s and 1990s. Namely, Altbach used to argue that “student activism is a highly complex and many-faceted phenomenon for which there is no overarching theoretical explanation”.

Having read his work from the safe distance of my academic home in Cape Town, I relished in challenging him on this point. More than once I wrote that in studying student activism across the globe for over 50 years and inferring many empirical generalisations, he himself had actually developed precisely such theoretical explanation.

While Altbach’s global theory of student activism has explanatory power across so many varied contexts, at the chalk face of every university and campus there is a practical theory of training student leaders and guiding, supporting, and to some extent managing and defending, students’ expression of their political commitments and activist impulses on a daily basis.

The scope of students’ political interests may vary greatly between institutions and countries. Where in some, students may be committed to far-reaching political, environmental, economic, or social causes, in others the focus may be inwardly directed, concerned with the student experience on campus, matters of teaching and learning, living and loving.

From one student generation to the next, one outgoing student government to the incoming, there are student affairs professionals entrusted with the student governance function. This function is one of the most challenging domains of Student Affairs and Services or SAS. It is politically involved and sensitive; a careless spark may light a raging fire when the tinder is ripe and dry.

Theoretical perspectives and their application in SAS

If the research of Philip Altbach – and more recently, of Rachel Brooks, Lorenzo Cini, César Guzmán-Concha, Manja Klemencic and many others – has produced increasingly impressive literature on student politics, student representation and activism, there is much less SAS-specific literature related to student governance in particular.

Unlike other domains of SAS, which are underpinned by disciplinary knowledge, student governance is an SAS domain where literature tends to be rare, immediate, narrow and practitioner-focused, without much attempt at theorisation.

In section X of the newly published handbook Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education: Global foundations, issues, and best practices, edited by Roger Ludeman, Birgit Schreiber and others, I try to bridge the gap between the scholarly and practitioner literature.

My focus in the section is on discussing relevant theoretical perspectives and their application in SAS practice. I propose that there are three theoretical perspectives which raise important concerns and have significant implication for the student governance domain:

(1) The conceptualisation of the student-university relationship and role conceptions of students in relation to those of other policy role players, particularly at the institutional and sub-institutional levels of governance.

(2) The principle of academic freedom and students’ claim to academic freedom, their rights and responsibilities as they apply to governance.

(3) The knowledge-centred conception of student engagement and its implications for student leadership development and student interest representation.

Some years ago, I spent a few weeks with Peter Maassen and his colleagues at the University of Oslo. In his introductory curriculum to higher education studies, Maassen used Burton Clark’s work extensively.

This work continues to provide a useful point of departure for understanding matters of higher education governance with respect to the multi-levelled nature of the organisation of knowledge production and, concomitantly, the multiple levels of authority and governance in the sector; the different groups that stake their claims in the governance of higher education and their various interests, including students; the maze of formal arrangements and informal relations that simultaneously enable and diffuse academic and professional authority; and the variation in systems and institutions that hint at their unique historical development.

Students and decision-making

Building on that, it is possible to discern several arguments for and against the inclusion of students in formal decision-making processes in universities which are linked to different conceptions of students such as those of students as consumers, stakeholders, citizens or junior members of the academic community.

The implications of this work for the student governance domain of SAS is that student representative systems must take into account different levels and domains in a university’s organisation of decision-making, different degrees of justifiable involvement of various interested groups in key fora, and the different issues under consideration. It thus provides practical guidance for the design and review of such systems.

Furthermore, for student representatives to contribute constructively and effectively, students must be capacitated to make up for their lack of governance experience, institutional memory, and expertise as it applies.

Secondly, traditional notions of academic freedom dating back to the Humboldtian model of the university have included the idea of Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn) alongside that of Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach), whereby the former includes student freedoms such as free choice of learning programmes and student mobility.

Graeme Moodie and André du Toit have argued that academic governance can be conceived as the conventional exercise of academic freedom in the decision-making processes of a university.

A recent study I conducted with Anye Nyamnjoh on South Africa’s #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall related protest movements showed that academic freedom also provides a relevant framework to analyse student activism in relation to matters as diverse as tuition fees, racism on campus, or the decolonisation of the curriculum.

Several countries have constitutional and-or legal provisions that enshrine some aspect of academic freedom in general, or students’ academic freedoms in particular, and there are many more universities that have student constitutions, student charters, or other kinds of university rules that include statements of students’ legitimate expectations, rights and responsibilities.

It is among the functions of SAS to act as trustees of students’ rights and responsibilities and ensure that successive generations of student leaders are aware of and empowered to enact and defend students’ academic freedom.

Finally, the most recent theoretical perspective that I discuss in the section relates to the notion of student engagement. Here, the work of Paul Ashwin, Debbie McVitty and others is pertinent for the student governance domain.

An important take-away from their work is the conceptualisation of 'non-engagement' or 'dis-engagement', and the argument that any concept of student engagement ought to involve the object of engagement, different degrees or modes of engagement (such as consultation, partnership or leadership) and the connectivity of student engagement to knowledge. Klemencic’s work on matters of student agency is also practically relevant here to the student governance domain.

Evidently, the implications of the theoretical perspectives on the student governance domain of SAS are manifold. They can be considered in terms of a framework for operationalising students’ claims to academic freedom and critical student engagement with society, university, campus life, and the student experience.

They can be used for analysing and ‘diagnosing’ the nature and extent of existing provisions for student participation in decision-making, and configuring and re-configuring student affairs interventions, projects and services towards a full-scale curriculation of student leadership development and governance programmes.

They also provide a way to conceptually integrate various SAS functions by showing how they interrelate with student governance, including SAS functions like advocacy and guidance, organisational and logistical support, campaign support, coordination and oversight, learning facilitation and training services, legal support, counselling, and research and policy advice.

Thierry M Luescher is research director for post-schooling and work in the Human Sciences Research Council and associate professor of higher education at the University of the Free State, South Africa.