Partnership to help South Africa universities redress apartheid legacy

Jim Carlson
June 28, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State's College of Education has recently begun a partnership to help support and prepare South Africa’s next generation of university leadership. The project is the result of a successful proposal submitted by three South African universities, and now funded by South Africa's Department of Higher Education and Training.

A project named "Phakamisa" – meaning "to grow or lift up" – will enable 10 doctoral students from three South African universities – nine of whom are women – to use Penn State as a resource while attaining their degrees.

South Africa has been infamously known for apartheid, or a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that existed from 1948 until the early 1990s. Phakamisa is an effort to support doctoral education for women and blacks in particular, as a way to redress the legacy of apartheid because women and blacks were historically significantly underrepresented, according to David Guthrie, associate professor of education in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Penn State.

"It was easy to say yes to be part of something that is interested in cultivating a more just society; that was a really compelling part of it for us," Guthrie said.

The 10 South African doctoral candidates will come from three universities: Rhodes University, Durban University of Technology and the University of Zululand. The project is fully funded by the South African government.

"South Africa's higher education system reflects the legacy of apartheid; this shows up in the culture of the three institutions we are working with – an historically black institution (Zululand); a former Technikon, or technical institute (Durban); and a privileged historical white institution (Rhodes)," said Kevin Kinser, head of the Department of Education Policy Studies and professor of education (higher education).

"This gives us the opportunity to see how history continues to influence current educational structures even after the policies that started them have long been overturned. To me, this is an example of how our own legacy of racism in higher education continues to be relevant in higher education structures today," Kinser said.

The grant calls for the students as well as some faculty and staff to come to Penn State the next two summers (2019 and 2020), according to Guthrie. "We will provide the kinds of input that we can, and that they believe will be helpful to their preparation as doctoral candidates. That's the point; they are earning doctoral degrees. We're helping them prepare their doctoral students," Guthrie said.

Doctoral programs in South Africa differ from those in the United States in that there is no formal coursework; it's simply the candidate and a faculty member (or more) and they read and write independently, Guthrie explained. "It's very much of an independent learning project that culminates in a defensible dissertation," he said.

Guthrie said that South African colleagues were particularly interested in exploring different ways to do doctoral education. "Just by being connected to an American university helps to uncover that," Guthrie said. "This idea framed the presentation that Kevin and I gave during our recent visit to the University of Zululand to commence the project … how do we structure doctoral education in higher education over here?"

"They said, 'wow, you have to take all those courses,' and we said, 'yeah, we believe that's how you develop mastery that, in turn, prepares students to complete a dissertation of some topic of their choosing.'"

Sioux McKenna, a professor and director of postgraduate studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, said Penn State's expertise is ideal for the upcoming collaboration.

"Our project was focused on higher education studies and in particular on staff development, so we knew we wanted an American partner with expertise in (that) field," McKenna said. "We also wanted to work with an institution with a strong reputation for doctoral education. The model of doctoral education in South Africa is fairly traditional with a predominance of one-on-one supervision and very little by way of programs, project teams or coursework. The Pennsylvania State University stood out in all of these areas."

The reputation of Penn State's College of Education and its education specialties, such as education policy studies, "aligned well to the interests of the project," according to McKenna.

"We knew there was much we could learn from such a collaboration," she said. "It helped that Kevin Kinser was very warm in his response to our approach and has shown an interest in us and our students' projects, which indicated the possibility for a very fruitful and mutually beneficial relationship."

McKenna said while Phakamisa means "to grow or lift up," it can also work as an acronym – Ph.D. Academics Mentoring in South Africa. "We believe this name to be apt as over the next few years we are sure to develop and grow together," McKenna said.

Kinser believes that the new agreement not only enhances the College of Education's reputation but also is an indication of the strong global reputation Penn State has both as a program and as a university. "The important point is that Penn State's reputation opens doors for us to engage with communities around the world," Kinser said.

"More broadly," he added, "it is also important from a comparative perspective to learn how higher education works in other countries in order to reveal our own assumptions about what is normal or natural in the way we do things here.

"And as an example of building collegial relationships, we have no idea how what we do here will resonate in the years to come. But it is exciting to be a part of the project as it is developing, and the new colleagues that invited us to participate."


    A new partnership among the Penn State College of Education and three universities in South Africa will support doctoral education for women and blacks as a way to redress the country's legacy of apartheid. Two of the mentors to the doctoral students, Sioux McKenna and Lynn Quinn, are from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, and are seated upper left.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 18, 2018