The annual SANRC FYE conference forms part of the work of the recently-established South African National Resource Centre for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition (SANRC). The SANRC has grown out of various attempts to consolidate the work of universities in the field of First-Year Experience, including that of HELTASA’s First-Year Experience SIG. The idea of a national centre focused on the First-Year Experience came to fruition in 2015 with a Teaching Development Grant (TDG) from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). Underpinned by the founding vision of Dr Andre van Zyl, Director of the Academic Development Centre (ADC) at University of Johannesburg, the SANRC became fully operational in 2015. The annual conference is now an established part of the work of the SANRC and has helped to fill a gap in knowledge for many FYE scholars and practitioners. With the inaugural conference having been held as recently as 2015, the rapid growth and popularity of the conference is remarkable and warrants some reflection on South Africa’s increasing ‘appetite’ for research and knowledge on matters of student success and support.
The fourth annual SANRC FYE Conference was recently held on 23-25 May 2017 at the Garden Court Marine Parade in Durban. The conference was well attended and had 130+ delegates in attendance from different universities in South Africa. Accordingly, there was a full programme with 73 papers being presented in addition to a number of workshop and poster sessions. The turn-out at the conference ensured that the programme was full and the conference was a lively and bustling event.
Keynote speakers help to set the academic tone for a conference and often serve as important doses of inspiration and motivation for delegates. Toward this end, keynote speakers can also be important drawcards for conference attendees. The three keynote addresses for each day of SANRC FYE Conference 2018 collectively provided delegates with opportune moments to reflect on key changes in the space of teaching and learning, as well as higher education itself.
On day one of the conference, i.e. 23 May 2018, Prof Sandile Songca, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning at University of Zululand (UNIZULU), addressed the plenary about the concept of the First-Year Experience, how it has developed historically and how it is expressed in various national and international contexts. He spoke most specifically to his own institution, i.e. UNIZULU, and the array of initiatives, some of which are data-driven, that are being implemented at UniZulu in order to better support its first-year student population.
On the second day of the conference, i.e. 24 May 2018, Prof Emmanuel Mgqwashu delivered a keynote address which spoke centrally to the multi-institution project ‘The influence of rurality on students transitions to higher education’ on which he is working with a team of researchers. Issues of social justice and decolonisation in higher education featured as central themes in his keynote address. Prof Mgqwashu captivated delegates with his own personal history of overcoming poverty and disadvantage in a rural community. Toward this end, he also brought to the fore, the difficult and highly divisive issue of English as the main medium of instruction in higher education and the challenges presented therein for teaching and learning. This keynote address illuminated many of the complexities and dilemmas with which contemporary higher education is continually confronted through the persistent and strident calls for decolonisation of the system.
Dr Laura Dison, senior lecturer at Wits School of Education (WSoE) delivered the final keynote address of the conference on 25 May 2018. As the co-coordinator of the Post Graduate Diploma in Higher Education at Wits University, Dr Dison reflected on professional development as a means of promoting deeper learning for lecturers as well as better learning outcomes for students. Institutions of higher education rarely require or encourage higher education professionals to be trained in pedagogical techniques or to upgrade their existing qualifications. Dr Dison used qualitative data from the Wits Post Graduate Diploma student cohort to help illustrate her contention that professional development can be used as a means of the continual improvement of teaching in higher education institutions. She advocated passionately for building a strong community of practice focused on high-quality teaching.
The conference also included an innovative new session called ‘Student-Led Coffee Conversations’. This session was intentionally student-focused, with a view to soliciting the views of students about their experiences in the higher education system in a way that encouraged meaningful and authentic interaction between students and conference delegates. This session featured the inputs of students from two Durban-based universities, i.e. Durban University of Technology (DUT) and Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT). The session was set up along the lines of a typical World-Café workshop format. Coffee stations and comfortable bean bags were used to help facilitate the comfortable atmosphere which is one of the key criteria of this kind of collaborative group dialogue. The session was widely lauded and many institutions enquired if they too could use a similar format to ‘talk’ to their students.
A particular point of interest about the conference is its truly national character. While it was observed that the TVET sector is regrettably notably absent from such a conference, the presence of the diverse spread of South Africa’s universities indicates that a truly national conference is now in the making. Through the annual SANRC FYE Conference, South Africa’s FYE community has now a national gathering space which can serve as a platform for the work of institutions as well as collaborative work that can be done across institutions. National networking is a key goal of the SANRC. Hence a ‘community’ can be seen to be growing out of the often disparate group of scholars and practitioners who share the common purpose of working on and being committed to, matters of student success and support.