28 Aug 2019

Interview with Maya Sutherland, Stellenbosch University, South Africa

In this interview, we talk to Maya Sutherland, from the Centre for Academic Planning & Quality Assurance at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Maya Sutherland manages the Quality Assurance/Evaluation process at Stellenbosch University, of all academic departments and support services divisions. She joined Stellenbosch University in 2012. Prior to this she worked at the University of Natal, which is now the University of KwaZulu Natal. Her association with higher education spans over forty years and she actively participated and was a representative on an executive level on various National/Southern African committees and forums.

With her passion for the development of students, she was involved in many local and national projects, both at the university and outside, such as Peer Education, Train the Trainer, HIV/AIDS, Diversity, Transformation, Career Counselling, Graduate Attributes, Women in Leadership, etc. and one of her projects, the Graduate Recruitment/job placement programmes, led to her initiating the life skills (psycho/socio) training and career counselling programmes for students. Her volunteering/community outreach projects included working with the Durban Reach for a Dream Foundation, the Durban Chamber of Commerce (assisting small businesses), Women in Motion and others.

1. What does the phrase student engagement mean to you?

For me, student engagement means the entire learning experiences of students, within and beyond the classroom. The interest they show and the efforts they make to get involved and be part of the bigger learning space. At the same time, the learning spaces, environment and opportunities must be created for students by the institutions, thereby also contributing to student engagement.

2. And how does the context of South African higher education shape that understanding?

During apartheid, higher education institutions were separate and since access is now open to all students, universities have diverse groups of students, some with diverse languages and some coming from inadequate schooling systems. Three decades into democracy and transformation is still a key post-apartheid focus within South African higher education institutions, towards addressing equality and redress. A multifaceted approach to the understanding of student integration and engagement is necessary, taking into account the complexities of the South African context.

Against this backdrop, student engagement, in my opinion, is mainly viewed through the lens of historically disadvantaged students and across race and gender when examining this to academic performance. Student success and the number of graduates they produce is of critical importance to South Africa and student engagement is seen as one of the drivers to achieve this. The Council on Higher Education (CHE) looks to the data obtained using the South African Survey of Student Engagement (SASSE), and states that this has the potential to help identify conditions and drivers of success under the control of institutions that can be used to improve the success rates of students. For this to happen, says the CHE, the design of the student experience will have to become more intentional and will require students to participate in activities that will contribute to their improved chances of success.

3. Tell us about your own work on student engagement at Stellenbosch. What have you been trying to achieve?

Working with the various departments and divisions at the university, I am often asked the question “what are students supposed to do as part of the Quality Assurance self-evaluation committee?” Student representation (participation) on the self-evaluation committee is a policy requirement of both the institution and the Council on Higher Education. It would seem that the interpretation of this was to include a few students to be interviewed by the external evaluation panel during their site visit, but whilst part of the committee itself, students were silent. They knew nothing or very little on quality, its process within the university or how this impacted on the quality of their own education. As you know, the self-reflection phase of an evaluation is critical for further development and changes for the department, university and the students themselves, and yet their voices were silent.

In the absence of appropriate structures or clear guidelines on how students can participate or contribute to such a process, I decided to research what others are doing and how. I want to say here that I am, and was, so grateful when I came across the website for sparqs. I knew straight away that I was on the right path and hence my making contact with Eve Lewis, and I remember I could hardly contain my excitement and enthusiasm when she video-called me. I am extremely grateful for her encouragement and without her knowing, her call and subsequent emails changed parts of my life.

Sorry, back to answering the question…!

Working at Stellenbosch University, in my opinion, I realised that changes or introducing new initiatives can take many discussions and approval stages and I was afraid that my ideas will become one of a focus group project and with the hierarchical structure, my voice will be lost and more importantly valuable time will be lost. Hence, I decided to use my lunch times to embark on my project and wanted to talk about the success of such an initiative.

With the approval of the Dean of the Faculty of Theology, thirty-six students attended the workshop where students are informed about quality, the quality assurance process and the themes and criteria that are used as guidelines for such a process. The focus-group sessions allowed for open and honest discussions amongst the students and through the understanding of Ubuntu, how to give constructive feedback, which not only impacts on the quality of the university but for the development of their own learning experience.

4. You presented on your work at our conference in March. One of the themes of your presentation was the need for staff and students to agree and understand, nationally, institutionally and individually, about the role of students in reviews. Tell us a bit more about why that question is so important to quality.

The feedback, comments and the responses from the students and the Dean from my case study with the Faculty of Theology was overwhelmingly positive and showed that there is a dire need for focus group discussions around the issue of quality and quality assurance within institutions and beyond. My presentation highlighted many ways in which students can contribute and give voice to their learning environment and their better understanding of how the institution functions.

I often wonder why South African universities do not engage more with their students. South Africa and its universities are still transforming from the apartheid era and the recent student protests, the high unemployment rate and many other socio-economic challenges, show that much more work is still to be done towards democracy. Students are at the centre of many of these issues and I see the role of students in reviews as small steps towards contributing to big challenges faced at universities and beyond.

I would like to add here that as part of the workshop/focus group discussion that I offer I include the concept of Ubuntu. Positioning Ubuntu within this initiative, I see this as small steps towards a democratic education space that allows for shared rights and responsibilities of students as ‘partners’ to higher education, thereby contributing towards their own learning experience and building bridges between students. Student engagement is one way to bring democracy to life and the opportunity to understand the concepts of Ubuntu especially in the changing diversity of higher education. Based on their individual idea of Ubuntu they were mindful of how they engaged with each other, listening and listened-to, being open and honest with one another and providing constructive feedback. Maintaining respect for each other, understanding and accepting that each individual had different experiences based on their own background, was key to these group discussions. The concept of Ubuntu has a place to be at the centre of the learning spaces of students and encouraging them to reflect on their own cultural and social background towards critical citizens of the country.

5. Did you enjoy your time in Scotland generally? Besides the conference itself you also went on some of the study visits. How did you find that and what did you learn?

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Scotland and hope to re-visit in 2021 to give an update of my work.

The opportunity to visit the various universities and to attend the conference was invaluable to me. It was an opportunity to see and understand first-hand how student engagement is vital for students attaining attributes, skills, knowledge and contributing to their own learning experience. A learning experience that prepares them for the workplace and to be leading citizens.

What was very evident was the willingness of the universities to share good practices and openness to constant engagement with each other. With sparqs playing a central role in guiding, training and supporting all universities in the UK and others, this affords the students and universities the space and time for discussions towards continuous development and enhancement and to focus on what is important, i.e. student success. This culture of enhancing student engagement in the quality of their learning experience came through in the presentations and university visits.

I got the sense of a strong commitment from the university and students, for meaningful transformation to take place and it is my view that in order for a transformative student experience to take place, students must be actively involved in such a process, something that is sadly lacking within the South African higher education system.

Every university was warm and welcoming and I am most appreciative and thankful to everyone for taking the time to share information, ideas and experiences. May I say thank you again to each and every one and to also say thank you to the delegates for sharing their own experiences with me.

6. What ideas or examples did you take away from the visits?

The facilities and resources available to students at each of the different universities were most impressive. The way communities were included into the university spaces is remarkable, especially at Heriot-Watt University with first-class facilities. The University of Dundee too works closely with the city boasting the motto “One Dundee” and of course have the shared space of the newly designed museum at the waterfront.

What was new for me was the fact that student leaders are full-time positions and that they are paid to be in these positions and manage quite a huge budget. This practice is uncommon in South Africa. Besides the impressive payment, I see this practice as intentional, focussed and an opportunity for student leaders to fully engage in student matters and matters pertaining to students and management of the university. This shows me the commitment from both the students and management of the university.

At every university, student engagement awareness campaigns, projects and competitions was unbelievably on top of the agenda – the hype, enthusiasm and commitment was impressive!

In South Africa we have eleven official languages and have students from diverse backgrounds, so I was indeed impressed to learn that at the University of the West of Scotland, Paisley Campus, they have about 15,000 students drawn from at least 140 different nationalities and are regarded as the most diverse university in the UK. I heard, more than once, from the students, that tolerance and respect for all students, was key. At this university I was also impressed to learn that one of their projects opened up the opportunity to “learn and earn”. A project where the university provided the space (building) and students bought vintage/old unwanted clothes and were able to make or remake their own creation and showcased this via a fashion show, which brought in more funds.

The trip to Dundee for the International Delegates’ Day was one of the highlights of my trip. This was well organised and I got to meet most of the international delegates. The newly designed V&A Waterfront historical Museum, by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, was certainly worth the visit.

“One Dundee” was how staff and students referred to the relationship between the University of Dundee and the City of Dundee. What an excellent strategy to work together, aiming to do good to make a difference in the lives of students and bringing the students fully on board in all the decisions that are made. This is practical and inclusive and seems to strike the right balance on what matters most to the university (staff and students), and the city itself. The practice of zero tolerance on racism, sexism and religious discrimination, caught my attention, as in my opinion, this is something we are still working towards here in South Africa. I got the sense of a welcoming university with strong mutual respect and trust with all parties mentioned.

The conference itself and the awards evening were the other highlight of my trip. In one evening I could see all the valuable work that sparqs has been doing, which is highly admirable.

7. What’s next for student engagement in Stellenbosch and South Africa more generally? Given your recent progress, what are the challenges you are now moving on to?

In my opinion, change must come from the top. The Council on Higher Education (CHE) has the mandate to change its policy to ensure that student engagement in the quality assurance process must move beyond just being representatives on the self-evaluation committee but that they need to be fully engaged in such a process.

In South Africa, the Student Representative Council (SRC) is the official, recognised student body but in my opinion, the limited number of SRC members cannot fully engage on so many committees and other structures within a university. The SRC students are also full-time students. Further, often the SRC enter into the “end part” of processes as in the case at Stellenbosch University, thereby offering comments and making contributions after the fact. I point this out because when the subject of including students to become more engaged in the quality assurance process at Stellenbosch University was raised, I was told that the SRC is the recognised student body and that they are already represented on the various committees.

From my experience working within the higher education environment for such a long time, I can say that policies from the higher levels can make a difference and I know that institutions (including Stellenbosch University) will abide by these policies and mandates. Through my research it became evident that the CHE are also concerned by the lack of student voice in higher education institutions and nationally and are looking at ways of how to be more inclusive.

I am hoping that Stellenbosch University can be the leaders in practices that ensure the full engagement of students in the quality assurance process, in an inclusive manner. Although there are many other “student engagement” activities spread throughout the university, in my opinion, many operate in isolation and/or are not inclusive of others showing interest in their activities. I have often found the “same people” sitting on these student engagement activities with little or no interest in the actual development of students but because they are hierarchically placed to be there. Students too are seldom invited to attend these meetings and yet discussions are around the planning for their benefit. Changes must take place in order to move forward and I look to the CHE and management within higher education institutions to set the tone for such changes.


Thanks to Maya for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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