Partnership between College of Education, South African universities flourishes

Jim Carlson
June 13, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A project to dramatically bolster the number of doctoral degrees awarded in South Africa is in full swing, and academic leaders from three of that country's universities are working with Penn State higher education faculty members to bring about its success.

The program is known as Phakamisa, a Zulu word meaning to grow or lift up. Three universities in South Africa — University of Zululand, Rhodes University and Durban University of Technology — are partnering with Penn State's College of Education in the project funded by South Africa's Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Phakamisa is an effort to support doctoral education for women and black South Africans in particular, as one way to redress the legacy of apartheid. The lead universities include one historically disadvantaged institution (UniZulu), one historically advantaged institution (Rhodes), and one merged institution (DUT), representing the racial legacy of the South African system.

A group of seven academic leaders and 10 doctoral students from a total of six South African universities began a visit to the United States with five days (June 4-8) in Washington, D.C., before spending five days (June 9-13) at University Park.

Azwi Kutame, the coordinator of the DHET grant that made Phakamisa a reality, expressed enthusiasm for the opportunity to be in the United States.

“This marks a major milestone for the program and the objectives of the program," Kutame said. "I trust that our Phakamisa scholars will make use of the resources both here and in South Africa so that, after three years, all will have a doctoral degree and will then be able to engage in research activities including article writing, conference presentations, and supervising other doctoral students on their research activities.”

Kevin Kinser, department head in education policy studies (EPS) and professor of education (higher education) at Penn State, and Dave Guthrie, associate professor of education in EPS, are coordinating the effort for Penn State. They visited South Africa in 2018 and will do so again in 2020 with a trip to Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

Doctoral programs in South Africa differ dramatically from those in the United States in that there is no formal coursework; it's simply the candidate and a faculty member in a master-apprentice model where the student is guided in independent reading toward the development of a dissertation. Doctoral students in Penn State's College of Education higher education program must complete 17 courses prior to drafting a dissertation.

Visiting staff and students are cognizant of the stark academic differences. Sioux McKenna, a professor at Rhodes University, director of postgraduate studies, and coordinator of higher education studies, was blunt about comparing doctoral education approaches between the two countries.

"Within South Africa, the model of doctoral education is very unstructured, there's very little support built into the curriculum, it's very vague, very individualistic," she said. "This particular model of having coursework, having cohorts working together … I love it and I'm going to take a whole lot back with me."

"Sometimes you learn more about your own context because you take it for granted until you see a completely different context and you say, 'Hey, this isn't the only way of doing things.'"

— Sioux McKenna, professor, Rhodes University, South Africa

She said South African universities are constrained by legislation but she relishes the opportunity to view different U.S. models.

"Sometimes you learn more about your own context because you take it for granted until you see a completely different context and you say, 'Hey, this isn't the only way of doing things,'" McKenna said.

The three South African universities chose to partner with Penn State because of its "reputable" higher education doctoral program, according to McKenna. 

"We could approach any American college and we had to find an American partner," McKenna said. "It was just knowing this department is really well-known internationally for the work that it does and its research. It was kind of an easy choice, I think."

Kinser likewise applauded the partnership.

"We've talked a lot about language differences and trying to understand how we have similar kinds of issues but we're addressing them in different sorts of ways," he said. 

"We've described the problems we have differently but really, fundamentally, we're trying to do quite similar things. We focused on a couple of issues related to diversity of the higher education system and how we're adapting to a different set of challenges within the diversity of our system, particularly by making distinctive choices with institutional ties."

The 10 visiting students already are academics, already all teaching, and they have positions in their respective universities.

"The point of the grant is to help Phakamisa students to earn Ph.D.s because in the South African system, you have to have a Ph.D. in order to supervise a Ph.D.," Kinser said. "The Phakamisa scholars will eventually become 10 new Ph.D.s that, in turn, can supervise another 10 and so on and leverage this program to dramatically expand the number of Ph.D.s in the South African system."

McKenna said the 10 students enjoyed their time at Penn State.

"I think they're just loving it, obviously on the social level," she said. "Just the most incredibly warm, supportive, generous people we could ever wish to meet. And seeing the physical resources … they are just phenomenal (at Penn State)."

Part of their campus tour included a tour of Pattee and Paterno libraries from research librarian Ellysa Cahoy and an overview of the Humphrey Fellows Program from director Leila Bradaschia. The group also heard from faculty members John Cheslock, Alicia Dowd, Leticia Oseguera and Guthrie, who explained how they teach the four core courses in the College of Education's higher education program.

"Since they don't have classes, there are very few opportunities for students collectively studying for a Ph.D. to provide support for each other, and the visit showed them a model of how to do it, and I think that's a really powerful result."

— Kevin Kinser, department head, education policy studies, Penn State

The South African contingent also met with current Penn State doctoral students and presented their research interests to them and some faculty. An example of some of their research interests were: "Social Realism as a Theoretical Lens"; "Traditional Perceptions of the Academic Role Toward a More Holistic Academic Role"; and "Emotional Intelligence: Life Skills Program in Prevention and Management of Bullying Behavior."

One student, Puleng Motshoane, cited the low number of Ph.D.s awarded in South Africa based on 2010 data as only 27 per 1 million South African citizens.

The group also visited St. Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania, and attended an Altoona Curve baseball game. Additionally, they heard an overview of Penn State World Campus operations and met with Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Kathy Bieschke and Distinguished Professor of Education Karen Murphy.

"We tried to create nine days of resources for them based on what I know of their interests and what they're working toward. We tried to put them in touch with websites and people and organizations and initiatives," Guthrie said. "In terms of the kinds of things over these nine days that they experienced, I think it was amazing, especially because they don't have any structure like we do in terms of coursework.

"A lot of our students are full-time, working with faculty members on a daily basis; Phakamisa scholars don't have that opportunity. For them to see parts of the U.S. system, for me, that was mission accomplished, that they could do some comparative analysis and pick from things we do here that could be useful to them in the South African context," he said.

Another visiting professor from the University of Zululand, Dumisani Nzima, termed the visit as "important" to understand what the American education system looks like. 

"How they address the issues such as supervision of degree students," said Nzima. "Americans have a very good system that we need to implement ourselves in order to improve the quality of education for our students."

He, too, marveled at Penn State's facilities and said his students were impressed as well. 

"One is the excellent facilities which we don't have in South Africa. We're looking at the space as well as the staffing," Nzima said. "We have an influx of students who want to further their education but the challenges would be significant with the insufficient supervisors or advisers to help get those students to upgrade their qualifications."

Kinser described the Phakamisa visit as a success on many levels.

"Particularly because it's established for them a model of how cohorts and peer mentoring can be quite supportive in developing these higher education Ph.D. programs that they have," he said.

"Since they don't have classes, there are very few opportunities for students collectively studying for a Ph.D. to provide support for each other, and the visit showed them a model of how to do it, and I think that's a really powerful result."

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Last Updated June 19, 2019