GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Archive for the ‘Sarah’s Posts’ Category

Free Thinking?

In Sarah's Posts on 2013/06/12 at 21:44
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Recently, Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s Minister for Higher Education and Training,announced that the country’s first universities to be founded since the ending of apartheid will open in 2014. Work on a university in Kimberley in the Northern Cape is set to begin in September, so that it can open in time for the beginning of the academic year in January. The second university will be based in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, a significant agricultural district about 340km northeast of Johannesburg.

Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly apparent that South Africa’s 23 publicly funded universities are not coping with the steep increase in the number of university applications since the mid-1990s. According to the Department of Higher Education, student numbers jumped from 473,000 in 1993, to 799,658 in 2008.

At the end of 2012, the University of Cape Town – the country’s top research university – received around 20,000 applications for 4,200 first-year places. The University of the Western Cape, established in 1960 as a university specifically for so-called ‘coloured’ people, admitted 3,800 students out of the 34,000 who applied.

The University of Johannesburg had 85,000 applications for 11,000 places in 2011. At the beginning of 2012, the mother of an applicant was killed in a stampede as desperate matriculants – high school graduates – tried to push their way into the university.

This situation is untenable, and the two new universities are intended to provide more places for those wanting to attend tertiary institutions. However, I have a couple of reservations about the plan.

Firstly, I’m not convinced that universities offer all students the best preparation for employment. South Africa has fifty further education and training (FET) colleges, the bar for entry to which is lower than for universities, and the tuition considerably cheaper, yet matriculants believe overwhelmingly that universities offer them a better chance of employability after graduation. To some extent, they’re correct: for years the sector was badly run and underfunded. Last year, the Department of Higher Education announced R2.5 billion (around $270 million, or £177 million) to upgrade FET colleges. I hope that this will fund a campaign – involving business and industry – to demonstrate the value of vocational training.

My second concern relates to the courses presented by the universities. As Nzimandeexplained, his department “is committed to increasing the production of graduates in engineering, the natural sciences, human and animal health sciences, and teacher education”. Neither university will offer humanities or social science degrees, but, rather, courses relevant to the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga; Nelspruit will emphasise agricultural science, and Kimberley, in a province which hosts some of the most sophisticated astronomical observatories in the world, will offer postgraduate degrees in astronomy.

I’ve no objection to science- and technology-focused universities, but this exclusion of the humanities and social sciences is part of a troubling trend in South African higher education policy. Early last year, the government published a charter for the future of the humanities and the social sciences, which aims to reinvigorate these areas through a series of new research institutes, as well as by encouraging academics to consider ‘eight points of reflection.’ These range from pre-colonial African historiography, to “a thorough discussion on the interface between the natural, social and interpretative sciences.”

As many academics have noted, this is an attempt to direct what universities research. John Higgins argues that the charter ‘subordinate[s] the humanities and social sciences to an instrumental agenda’ of ‘an applied nationalism.’ Although he suggests that committing to the project of an African renaissance could simply mean support for the renewal, revitalisation and extension of work across all fields of the humanities by African or South African scholars this could also mean “the undue narrowing down of the legitimate scope of teaching and research in the humanities to African subjects and topics only and exclusively.”

Coupled with a tightening of the Department of Higher Education’s control over universities, I am anxious that these two new universities represent a kind of brave new world of tertiary education where research and teaching are informed by centrally set targets informed by an unthinking Afrocentrism.

I was struck that the Kimberley university – based in a city best known for its central role in South Africa’s diamond industry – will offer courses in ‘heritage’, but not in history. To some extent, heritage is history repackaged for tourists. Students will not, though, be provided with the means of interrogating the ‘heritage’ which they study: for questioning why some sections of South Africa’s past are deemed worthy of study and celebration, and why others are not.

Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa and is a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be contacted at

Changing Places

In Sarah's Posts on 2013/03/21 at 01:11
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

On a recent trip to the UK, I visited a friend who works at the University of Birmingham. She took me on a tour of its really quite beautiful campus, ending at the Muirhead Tower, a brutalist monstrosity built in 1971. Its recent renovation has smoothed over some of the worst features of the original design, including the shards of concrete which had begun to fall off its exterior.

For such an unpleasant building, it has an unusually significant literary pedigree: as a plaque on a nearby building commemorates, it is one of the key sites in David Lodge’s Changing Places (1975). The first in a trilogy of consistently popular campus novels set in the fictional University of Rummidge, a barely-disguised version of Birmingham, the novel describes what happens when two lecturers in English literature, one British and the other American, take up visiting positions at each other’s universities. Hilarity and profundity ensue.

It’s in the Arts Building – the Muirhead Tower, in other words – that the American academic Morris Zapp, who usually lectures at Plotinus University (the novel’s take on UC Berkeley), discovers and is fascinated by the Paternoster, a kind of ever-scrolling, open-faced lift or elevator between floors of a building:

Morris … loved the Paternoster. … he…found it a profoundly poetic machine, especially if one stayed on for the round trip, disappearing into darkness at the top and bottom and rising or dropping into the light again, perpetual motion readily symbolising all systems and cosmologies based on the principle of eternal recurrence, vegetation myths, death and rebirth archetypes, cyclic theories of history, metempsychosis and Northrop Frye’s theory of literary modes.

Zapp’s ability to move from mode of transport – the lift – to a rumination on life, death, and literary theory is echoed in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), when a discussion between Jack Gladney and Murray J. Siskind moves from Elvis to Hitler, and then death. Indeed, a Paternoster also appears in AS Byatt’s Possession (1990), another campus novel, where it’s used to underscore the differences between two academics: poised, precise, and successful Maude who steps easily on to its steps, and shambling, struggling Roland, who almost falls off it.

I thought a great deal about these and other campus novels as I visited several universities during my stay. What struck me forcibly was the creeping managerialism in so many of these institutions. At one, someone mused about the ‘career management strategies’ of young academics. I have never – and hope never to have – a ‘career management strategy’. I have a fairly good idea of how I would like my career to progress, but I’m not going to try to predict what I’ll be researching in ten or twenty years time.

Much has been written about the implications of this managerialism for academic research and teaching. As universities have come under increasing pressure to demonstrate the ‘value’ (whatever we may mean by that) of their teaching and research, so lecturers have had to account for their time more carefully, plan their research often to a ludicrous degree (how many of us apply for funding only after we’ve finished the research project?), collect and respond to student feedback, and do ever-increasing amounts of administrative tasks. Every good academic in my acquaintance – who publishes, teaches, and does administrative work – is chronically over-worked, and seems to be in battle with a fundamentally unfair system.

I had coffee with a friend who had worked ten hours that day, and was about to put in another two. A friend’s research unit was threatened with closure unless he could raise enough funding – the amount unspecified by management – to prove its value to his university. Another friend was told to ignore her students if she ever wanted to be promoted. The members of an acquaintance’s lab competed to be the researcher who sacrificed the most weekends for work. And on and on and on.

Changing Places and White Noise satirise the kind of fairly pointless research that academics in retreat from the world occasionally produce. I am not about to call for a return of the Paternoster – I am not so starry-eyed as to appeal to a return to the academia of the 1970s and early 1980s – but what these novels, including Possession, remind us, is that academia used to be humane, that it was an environment that allowed academics the freedom and the time to pursue research and to teach, without falling into bed at 1am and being in the office six hours later. And without having negotiate a system which seems to be designed to never allow us to win. Academia was a space in which the apparently inefficient and – indeed – dangerous Paternoster could inspire a train of thought in a lecturer in English Literature. It was a place that was conducive to playful thinking. I am not sure that the managed, efficient, corporatised university of the future will be a space for similar contemplation.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Superstitious Minds

In Sarah's Posts on 2013/01/23 at 04:15
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

In a recent interview with Mother Jones, the author Philip Pullman admits: ‘I’m perfectly happy about being superstitious and atheistic.’ Pullman, who has been outspoken about his own lack of faith and has critiqued organised religion in much of his writing, describes a set of rituals he has around his writing: that he writes precisely three pages every day, and that he needs to write on a particular size of paper. He explains:

The state of mind which I put myself when I tell a story is one in which superstition flourishes very easily. And I welcome that because it helps me. A story, to me, has a particular sprite, like the angel of the spirit of that story – and it’s my job to attend to what it wants to do. When I tell the story of ‘Cinderella,’ the sprite does not want me to make it into an allegory of the fall of communism. The sprite would be unhappy if I did that.

Pullman and his ‘story sprites’ reminded me of one of the most reassuring pieces of advice I was given while working on my Ph.D. At one of my department’s annual welcoming drinks for research students, the guest speaker, a distinguished historian of early modern France, urged us to embrace the rituals and superstitions we developed as we worked.

I avoided guide books and lectures about the best way of pursuing a doctorate – they served usually to make me anxious, as my way of researching and writing seemed to contradict all their guidelines and checklists – but this guidance proved to be immensely helpful. I had become aware that my daily routines were becoming increasingly ingrained: that I’d begun to glare at hapless scholars who had taken ‘my’ desk at the British Library; that my day couldn’t really begin unless I’d had coffee in a particular mug; and that I could only use a special kind of notebook for research notes.

These routines weren’t unique either to me, or to my Ph.D. I had written all of my school and university exams with my special, beautiful fountain pen. And from conversations with fellow Ph.D. students, I realised that as we became more stressed, so our routines and superstitions grew more significant to us. There is a link between anxiety and obsessive behaviour – as we use routine to establish order and, seemingly, control over complex and stressful situations – but I wonder if academics more generally are especially superstitious about their work.

At least in my experience, I have had friends and colleagues who have peculiarly strict routines and superstitions around their research and writing. I think this is partly because academia can be a profoundly stressful and competitive environment. For those of us at the beginning of our careers, it is a precarious one too. I develop all sorts of strange rituals when applying for jobs and funding – and these only become worse during the often interminable wait between application submission deadline and the committee’s decision.

We spend so much time on our own, thinking, and caught up in our own, particular research interests that it’s hardly surprising that we begin to believe that the control we exert over our own projects can be extended to other facets of academic life. For historians and anthropologists interested in the shifting symbolic value of the material world, objects can take special meaning too. I was not the only doctoral student in my department who placed particular significance on the fact that my supervisor’s desk used to belong to our hero, Eric Hobsbawm.

I think it’s worth taking closer notice of our routines and superstitions because we work in such overwhelmingly rational environments. We defend our work on the grounds that we attempt dispassionate, logical analysis of problems, and yet many of us indulge in fairly irrational behaviour, specifically around our research. I wonder if – like Pullman – we were to acknowledge that we are both superstitious and rational, much of the anxiety within academic life would begin to reduce.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Who do you think you are?

In Sarah's Posts on 2012/11/08 at 03:19
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.


When I graduated in March last year, I expected to enjoy the pomp of the ceremony, the sumptuous and faintly ridiculous robes and hat of formal academic dress, and the joy of receiving my doctoral degree with my parents in the audience.

And I did enjoy all of this, but what surprised me was my pleasure at being able to call myself Dr Duff. I have a title which is absolutely gender neutral, and it reflects the decade’s worth of hard work which went into my university education. But I never expected to insist that others use my title, and I still feel slightly odd calling myself Dr Duff.

During my Ph.D. studies, I taught at two universities in London. At both of these institutions, academic staff and students were on first-name terms. This came as something of a surprise to me. I had completed my undergraduate and MA degrees at – what was then – a conservative and largely Afrikaans university in South Africa. There, nearly all students addressed staff by their titles, with only doctoral candidates – possibly – calling their supervisors by their first names.

When I lectured and tutored in South Africa, I was always Ms. Duff, which amused me considering that I was only a few years older than my students. But while working in Britain, everyone – from the most senior Professor to the very newest first year – was called by his or her first name. I really liked this. Not only did it make tutorials and seminars less formal, but I felt less intimidated by my colleagues. I hope that my students found me more approachable too.

Admittedly, the two universities which employed me are both fairly unusual: one has a very high proportion of mature, part-time students, and the other is a small institution which focuses exclusively on the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Partly as a result of this, I taught students who were particularly receptive to more egalitarian and less hierarchical learning environments.

Crucially, my students understood that even though they could call me by my first name, they still had to respect my authority in the classroom, as well as my expertise on the subjects I was teaching.

Yet since returning to my old university in South Africa, I have, increasingly, begun to insist that students call me by my title. This is largely because it remains the norm at the university for all academic staff to be called by their titles, even if it is a considerably more liberal place than it was when I left it six years ago. I do, though, have two other, equally significant, reasons for insisting on being Dr Duff, rather than Sarah.

The first is connected to the fact that many undergraduates do not seem to understand the role and purpose of the university. When I commented to a group of final-year undergraduates that my main role at the university is to produce research, they were shocked. They believed that I was primarily a teacher. This accounts, I think, for many students’ confusion and, occasionally, anger when I am not always in my office, or when I cannot to assist them with administrative or computing snarl-ups.

At the beginning of every course, I make a point of explaining to students my research interests and qualifications. As petty as it may seem, insisting that academic staff are called by their proper titles is one way of demonstrating to students how university systems work: that in South Africa, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere, the title ‘Professor’ is bestowed only on those academics deemed to be exceptionally talented by their peers. Even if they intend to leave university after three years, undergraduates are part of this academic system, and should understand where they stand in relation to other members of academia.

Secondly, I insist upon being called ‘Dr’ because students consistently assume that my male colleagues are better qualified than I am. Students are quick to promote all my male colleagues to the rank of Professor, while I and other women are usually called ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’. Male colleagues have little trouble keeping order in class, and their expertise is never questioned.

In this environment, I use my rank to impress upon students that am equally – if not better – qualified than many male lecturers, and am as deserving of their respect and good behaviour in lectures.

When I began my Ph.D. degree five years ago, I had very little idea of how much these two letters before my name would come to mean.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

The Triumph of the Ephemeral

In Sarah's Posts on 2012/09/01 at 00:57
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa. 

About a month ago my colleagues and I moved back into our old building. For slightly more than a year, we’ve been housed in a collection of offices around campus as our own department was rebuilt after a devastating fire. Caused, apparently, by a workman using a blowtorch in a high wind on an adjacent building site, the fire roared through the beautiful, wide corridors, and airy, high-ceilinged offices of our building, and burned and melted everything in its path: lifetimes’ worth of research, book collections, and lecture notes.

In some ways, my colleagues will never really recover properly from the loss. Books and computers can be replaced, but some information – which wasn’t properly backed up – has gone forever, as have notes and other ephemera.

I was very lucky not to be affected by the fire at all, although I now have an inkling of what it must be like to lose so much research.

As academics, we tend to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that however vulnerable our computers may be – to crashing, to theft, to coffee spills – we can back up their contents, on other hardware, and, now more frequently, on the Internet. If mechanics fail, then the collection of cables that constitute the Internet can keep our research safe.

But as I discovered a few weeks ago, things can disappear even from the internet.

It began with a call from a friend, saying that she’d received an email from me asking for money after a mugging in Madrid. I’d read about this kind of email hacking before, and, cold with panic, I tried to log into my Gmail account. It was locked: the hacker had changed both my password and the security question, so there was no way I could access it.

While trying to answer a deluge of texts and messages from concerned friends on Facebook and Twitter, I filled out a form on Gmail, answering questions – the date when I opened the account, the addresses I email most frequently – to prove that it was mine, and about twenty minutes later, my account was returned to me.

But every, single email – in the archive, under each label, all my sent mail, and all my drafts – was gone. Five years worth of emails, charting my PhD research, trips abroad, friendships and relationships, new jobs, and the beginning of my postdoctoral fellowship, as well as attachments containing lecture notes and drafts of chapters and articles, had disappeared into the ether.

It felt like I had nothing to show for what I’d been doing for the past five years. The loss made me realise how much I had come to depend on having ready access to my email, and an account with apparently limitless storage space: I used my Gmail account as much to communicate with people as I did as a kind of virtual notice board and filing system.

Although an initial request to recover my mail was turned down by Gmail, I knew that because my emails would be saved on the company’s servers for a month after the hacking, I would be able to recover them. I contacted a friend-of-a-friend who works at Google, and within a day, my account was fully restored.

I have now backed up my account, but the experience has made me suspicious of the apparently fail-proof Internet. At around the same time as my hacking, the server of 3:AM, a literary webzine, was switched off, taking with it the website as well as twelve years of archives. After a byzantine search for the server’s administrator, 3:AM, as well as its unbelievably rich collection of stories and articles, was saved.

Reflecting on the experience, 3:AM’s editor, Andrew Gallix, comments: ‘The web is a Library of Babel that could go the way of the Library of Alexandria. … It is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk – “the catalogue of catalogues”… – but it also marks the triumph of the ephemeral.’

This is useful advice for academics. We need to be more careful about how we store data. The Internet is often held up as a way of making research and teaching cheaper and more efficient: whole libraries of journals can be replaced by a computer with access to JStor or Ebsco. Courses can be taught to students all over the world via the Internet. This is all fantastic, but how much thought have we given to the fact that with one crashed server, all this information can disappear as easily as when a fire destroys a library?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Mind Your Language

In Sarah's Posts on 2012/07/03 at 09:01
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

We’re halfway through the academic year in South Africa, and like many of my colleagues, I’ve been catching my breath after the deluge of marking which arrived at the end of the first semester. I’ve taught since beginning my graduate studies, and have marked students’ essays and exam scripts both in South Africa and the UK. Over the past eight years, what has struck me is that the quality of students’ writing and research hasn’t varied all that greatly; I can remember a few very bad, and some brilliant, pieces of work, but I haven’t noticed a decline or marked improvement in the standard of the work submitted to me.

This year, though, while marking slightly more than a hundred essays written by final-year students, I was astonished by how poorly they were written. The grammar and, to a lesser extent, spelling were so faulty that, often, I was unable to understand the essays. What concerned me more, though, was that students did not seem to understand the language they were using: some could not distinguish between ‘feminist’ and ‘feminine’, for instance.

This left me in a quandary. I am an historian and in all of the departments where I have worked, I have tended to ignore spelling and grammar errors as I mark because I am more interested in how students argue, in how they construct their essays, support their statements, and analyse primary and secondary material. I only deduct marks for bad spelling or grammar when they inhibit my ability to read an essay.

This policy stems partly from the most useful training session I attended when I began tutoring: a course on identifying and helping dyslexic students. It made me rethink how I marked and evaluated students’ work, and I came to the conclusion that if I could understand their meaning, spelling and grammar were not all that important. After all – having helped to edit a number of journals – I know that many good historians are indifferent spellers. Bad grammar does not make a bad argument.

In addition to this, my university has a bilingual language policy and more than half of my students write in their second or third language. They have the choice to write in either English or Afrikaans, and most prefer the former, usually because they want to improve their proficiency in a language which, they feel, will be useful in finding employment after graduation.

Indeed, I believe that it is precisely for this reason that the essays were so badly written. I have noticed that students feel that they should switch to language which is more complex – more sophisticated – than that which they speak or write informally. As a result of this, they produce convoluted, over-complicated writing which is rendered almost incomprehensible when accompanied by faulty grammar and bad spelling. Those students who wrote in Afrikaans produced clear, concise essays. Ironically, students’ writing in tests and exams – when most prefer to write in their mother tongue – tends to be considerably better.

But I think that the reasons for my students’ poor writing go deeper than attempting – and failing – to reproduce a formal, ‘academic’ tone in a second or third language. I am concerned that they don’t read enough academic writing. As a student, I tried to replicate the style of the historians whom I most admired. Scholars like Eric Hobsbawm are readable precisely because they write simply and avoid unnecessary jargon.

Also, as class sizes and academic workloads have increased, it’s relatively rare for students’ essays to be comprehensively commented upon.  Lecturers and, more frequently, postgraduate tutors focus on students’ arguments and essay structures, rather than their language use, because this is a far quicker way of getting through an enormous pile of essays.

I wonder if my usual view – that correct spelling and grammar aren’t all that important as long as an essay is comprehensible – has contributed to this problem. As a lecturer, I don’t feel that I should correct students’ spelling and grammar. My university has an excellent writing laboratory to which I direct students in need of help with their essays.

But as an historian I feel strongly that we should train young scholars who produce writing that is accessible both to other academics and to the public. And as a lecturer, I don’t feel that it is responsible of me to allow students who can’t write comprehensibly, to graduate. So should universities provide students with spelling and grammar classes?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Open Access

In Sarah's Posts on 2012/05/03 at 21:39

Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa

Over the past few weeks,  I’ve been avoiding the inter library loans sections of my university’s library. Guiltily, I’ve been clicking ‘delete’ on the several emails they’ve sent me to remind me to return about twenty books borrowed from other South African libraries.

Like many academics, I am a forgetful borrower of library books, but I do return them promptly when another user requests them. I’m stalling on these sources because I’ve just started writing a few articles based on my research project. I’m working in, what is for me, a relatively new field, which means that I am more than usually reliant on these texts to ensure that I produce rigorous and useful scholarship.

I also feel a little resentful about being loaned these books for a relatively short period of time. These sources – all published fairly recently by mainstream academic publishers – are standard historical texts which a university library should stock. Mine, though, does not. In fact, with the exception of its excellent archive and Africana collection, my university’s library’s history section is not particularly good; it lacks significant works, and does not reflect new trends and new fields in the discipline.

I think that part of my annoyance is the result of the fact that I wrote most of my PhD in the British Library where I was able to order every book which I needed. Given that my dissertation was on a fairly obscure aspect of South African history, this was particularly impressive. Returning to South Africa has made me realise how important it is for academics to have ready access to the secondary sources they need to do research.

There are some excellent university libraries in South Africa, but books here are expensive, largely because they are taxed as a luxury item. Despite lobbying to reduce or eliminate the tax, our Government remains loath to do so. Also, ordering books online can be fraught with anxiety, as our postal service is terribly inefficient. In fact, for a while Amazon ceased posting orders to South Africa altogether because of the number of packages which simply disappeared.

It’s here that ebooks become extremely useful to South Africans, academics and otherwise. This week, an edited collection of essays on mass education and citizenship, to which I contributed a chapter, was published. The publisher is posting complementary copies to authors, which is great, but what’s even better is that they’ve made the Kindle edition immediately available. Both editions cost roughly the same, although without postage, the ebook is a cheaper option for academics here.

I was lucky enough to be given a Kindle for my birthday last year. Like many academics and bookish people, I had mixed feelings about Kindles: part of the pleasure of reading is the tactile nature of books. Also, the demise of bookshops dismays me, and I like to support them as much as I can.

But, equally, I need to have access to the sources I need for my research. So I made a promise to myself: my Kindle is for academic books only and over the past few months it has proven to be invaluable. Not only are ebooks frequently cheaper than hard copies, but they arrive almost immediately.

It’s here that I think that universities in the developing world should consider the usefulness of ebooks in allowing academics and students to keep in touch with international scholarship. I don’t argue for the abolition of university libraries – particularly because librarians can be so important in helping us and our students to do research – but, rather, for a rethinking of how we access research produced abroad.

Moreover, ebooks and the Internet open up the ways in which we share our research. There is a gulf between academics and the public in the developing world. Bridging this requires us to be creative in communicating our research. In sub-Saharan Africa where access to the Internet via mobile technology is increasingly widespread, this offers researchers an opportunity to make contact with a public who would not normally be aware of our work.

Instead of seeing Kindles and other devices as a threat to the book – and, even, as some have suggested, to literacy – we should think of them as allowing us to open up access to our research to a far wider audience.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

New Beginnings

In Sarah's Posts on 2012/03/24 at 05:48

Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa

Today is the end of the first week of teaching in the South African academic year. It’s been an experience that any academic at any university around the world would recognise: the chaos of finding timetables and new lecture venues, the inevitable problems with IT and parking spaces, the long queues at university bookshops, and in the midst of all this, a new group of anxious, happy, first year students.

They are like first year students anywhere. But in South African terms, they are deeply unusual. In January, Angie Motshekga, the Minister for Basic Education, announced with some fanfare that 70.2% of the pupils who wrote the examinations for the National Senior Certificate – usually referred to as matric – passed. In a country with such high levels of deprivation and poor resource allocation, this appears to be a magnificent achievement.

Unfortunately, the celebrations around the pass rate hid a few worrying facts: that in 2011, there was an 8% drop in the number of pupils writing the exam, and that of the 923,463 pupils who began Grade 1 in 2000, only 496,090 wrote matric in 2011. Nearly half dropped out during their school career. When measured against all those who began school in 2000, the real matric pass rate falls to 38%.

Moreover, of the 70.2% who did pass, only slightly less than a quarter of these achieved marks high enough to qualify for university entrance. The tragedy is that even though such a tiny proportion of school leavers have the marks to enter university, there are not enough places to go around. Last month, a stampede at the University of Johannesburg killed the mother of a potential student, and injured several other people. Thousands of parents and prospective students had turned up to register – in all, around 85,000 students applied for only 11,000 places.

The government has announced measures further to open up access to higher education: in his state of the nation address, President Jacob Zuma announced the building of two new universities, and Minister for Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, has committed to expanding the whole further and higher education sector.

I’m lucky to work at a university which attracts the best students in South Africa, but, even so, many of the first years here aren’t properly prepared for university. Here and at other universities, academics have to make up for students’ poor preparation for tertiary education at school. I feel very strongly that a lot of students shouldn’t be at university in the first place – that they should have proceeded to Further Education and Training (FET) colleges where they would receive an education more narrowly focused on preparing them for the job market.

This is the crux of the issue: despite the fact there are about 600,000 unemployed graduates in South Africa, university education is seen as the only pathway to employment. I would rather the Department of Higher Education and Training invested in FET colleges – expanding access to their campuses, improving the quality of their diplomas, and providing scholarships to those who can’t afford tuition fees.

As an academic, I am torn between wanting to help my students do well, and pursuing my own research. I can only earn research funds by publishing, and I can’t publish with a heavy teaching load. I can’t teach students how to study independently, use a library, do research, and write essays without sacrificing my own research time. This dilemma becomes even more fraught as universities are placed under even greater pressure from the Department of Higher Education to produce more graduates – to ensure that as many students as possible complete their degrees. Getting students to pass requires more input from me, even though my research-oriented university rewards me for doing research.

So do we continue failing students who don’t make the grade? Or do we drop our standards and allow as many to pass as possible? Given that seventy percent of South Africa’s youth is unemployed, I don’t think we even be arguing about university entrance at the moment. We should be fixing our education system, and making affordable, good quality vocational training – which could conceivably lead to university education – more easily available.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Entry Requirements

In Sarah's Posts on 2011/12/15 at 00:38

Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

I have been invited to present a seminar paper at the Institute of Historical Studies in London in December, but my excitement is tempered by the inevitable visa application. As a South African citizen, I need a visa to gain entry to most of Europe and Asia, all of North America, and parts of Latin America. Most people need to apply for visas for long stays for study or work in foreign countries, but those of us from the developing world need visas for short visits as well. I am not going to add to the debate about the fairness or otherwise of the visa system, but, instead, want to describe its impact on my work as an academic in a developing nation.

Every country has a different visa application procedure, but all require applicants to provide evidence of income – pay slips, bank statements – to show that they have adequate funds to support themselves abroad; proof that they will return to their countries of residence (return tickets, an employment contract, a letter from an employer); itineraries, hotel bookings, or a letter of invitation from a host, with copies of the host’s passport and visa or residence permit; and a completed application form in which applicants must list every trip outside of their country of residence in the past decade, and declare any criminal convictions.

I live in Cape Town where most major countries have consulates, so attending visa interviews is usually not a problem. However, if I were to apply for an Austrian visa, I would need to fly to Johannesburg. Schengen visas, which are required for most countries in the European Union, cost only $80 and tend to have the most straightforward application processes. Fees for British and American visas start at around $140, but whereas the US occasionally grants visas which are valid for a decade, a British visitor’s visa lasts only for six months. I have spent more than $200 on British visas in the past eighteen months. Luckily, I paid for these visas with travel grants, and my applications were successful. If they had not been, I would have been allowed to appeal, but I would not have been refunded the visa fee.

One reason why visas are occasionally refused is because applicants request the wrong kind of visa. This can be quite complicated.  I am travelling to the UK to present a seminar paper. Logically, that means I should apply for a Business (Academic Visitor) visa. But because I will be paying for my visit, I had to apply for a General Visitor’s visa. It seems petty, but a small mistake, like confusing which visa to apply for, can be pricey.

I describe the expensive, time-consuming, and often quite invasive procedure of applying for a visa to explain why they influence my work. Because my American visa is valid until 2015, I jump at the chance of attending conferences in the US. Next year, I hope to present at a conference in Australia, but I will only attend if I manage to secure travel funds which will cover the cost of the visa (another $100). I recently presented a paper at a conference in London via Skype because I had neither the time nor the funds to apply for a British visa.

My postdoctoral project considers the work of the Mothercraft Movement, a global organisation which worked around the British Empire during the twentieth century. I want this project to have as broad a focus as possible, and visa applications have shaped my research plan to some extent. I have included India and east Africa in my study because Indian visas for South Africans are free of charge, and I do not need visas to travel to Kenya and Tanzania. I will choose between Canada and Australia because both charge hefty visa fees. I may include New Zealand as South Africans do not require visas to visit there.

As a South African at a respected, well-funded university, applying for visas is time-consuming and expensive, but I am usually guaranteed that my applications will be successful. For colleagues in other parts of Africa or south Asia, where consulates tend only to be located in major cities and where applications are viewed with suspicion, the process is even more fraught.  Restricting our ability to travel means that we in the developing world must work twice as hard to produce good research, as our colleagues in Europe, North America, and Australia.

Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Her research project, ‘Imperial Babies: Mothercraft and the Politics of Childhood in the British Empire’, considers the global impact of the Mothercraft Movement between the two World Wars. She is interested in histories of age, the body, food, and consumerism, and writes a blog,, on food history. Sarah also volunteers for Right2Know, a freedom of information campaign. She can be contacted at

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

An Impossible Position?

In Sarah's Posts on 2011/10/07 at 10:55

Sarah Emily Duff writes from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Today I found myself in an impossible position. After my lecture – I’m teaching an introduction to South African history to the first year undergraduates – I was approached by two students. One asked if he could read my lecture notes because he, an Afrikaans speaker, was having difficulty following my lectures (I lecture in English). The other, an exchange student from Germany, complained that she hadn’t understood a word of her tutorial that morning because it had been in Afrikaans.

I am a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Based in the wine lands region near Cape Town, the University is one of the best in South Africa, has a growing international profile, and a difficult history which casts a long shadow over its activities in the present. Stellenbosch was closely associated with the apartheid government, educating Prime Ministers and nationalist ideologues. That said, the first questioning of apartheid within Afrikaans society came from Stellenbosch as well, and, since 1994, the university has worked hard to encourage a more socially-diverse campus.

One of the remnants of Stellenbosch’s contact with Afrikaner nationalism is its commitment to being an Afrikaans university. Afrikaans – which evolved from Dutch in the kitchens and slave quarters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – was transformed into a language of academia and science at Stellenbosch during the 1930s. After 1994, debate turned to whether Stellenbosch should remain Afrikaans.

I taught at Stellenbosch during the early 2000s, at a time when the taaldebat (language debate), was at its most ferocious. Afrikaans students were fiercely protective over the language. One group distributed stickers bearing the slogan ‘Engels, Engels, alles Engels’ (English, English, everything English) which echoed the rallying cry of the first Afrikaner nationalist group to emerge during the 1870s. When there was a mix-up over the translation of notes from English into Afrikaans for a course I was teaching, both I and my Head of Department were inundated with complaints.

But even then it seemed as if the pro-Afrikaans lobby was fighting a losing battle. By 2005, half of the undergraduates at the Faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences were English-speaking. This faculty adopted a bilingual teaching policy, and I was, and am, free to lecture in English, as long as all the course reading was available in both languages and students could ask questions and write assignments and examinations in whichever language they preferred. In 2006, Stellenbosch’s revised language policy decreed that postgraduate study would be in English, and that undergraduate courses could be bilingual.

This is the case at other universities too: McGill and Ottawa Universities in Canada have a similar set of rules as regards English and French. But the difference at Stellenbosch is that Afrikaans is spoken exclusively in South Africa. For Stellenbosch to be recognized internationally, it needs to operate in English, and students themselves are beginning to realize this – and to effect change.

When I started teaching at Stellenbosch again this year, I realized that things had changed when I noticed that Afrikaans students preferred to use the English course reading packs. When I taught a module on revolutions in world history, the course readers were only in English because of the dearth of Afrikaans-language scholarship on the topic. Not one student complained. These are young, middle-class students – both white and black – who are bilingual and who expect to work in English-speaking environments. Many plan to work and travel abroad. They feel comfortable in a globalized world.

Nevertheless, there are Afrikaans-speaking students, those who are white and from the country’s rural areas or who are working-class and “colored” (a non-pejorative term in South Africa), who attend Stellenbosch precisely because their English is poor. They resent the creeping Anglicisation of Stellenbosch, but they are in a shrinking minority. As a result, their voices are seldom raised in protest.

I find myself as a lecturer in an impossible position: between two groups of students who have equally valid claims to be taught in either English or Afrikaans. As an academic, I resent having to spend time translating notes into Afrikaans, but sympathize with Afrikaans students who feel that they were misled into believing that they would have a fully Afrikaans tertiary education.

Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Her research project, ‘Imperial Babies: Mothercraft and the Politics of Childhood in the British Empire’, considers the global impact of the Mothercraft Movement between the two World Wars. She is interested in histories of age, the body, food, and consumerism, and writes a blog,, on food history. Sarah also volunteers for Right2Know, a freedom of information campaign. She can be contacted at

This post was also published at Inside Higher Ed.