The importance of the Focus Conference as a platform where people involved in the higher education sector share their research results and their observations about what is happening in the sector, has been affirmed by the high number of people who made presentations. A total of 135 presentations by delegates from almost all the Republic’s universities, and one from Canada, over three days, with 30 of these presentations made by MUT staff. As it was the case in yester years, the state of education in the country was the central point. This was highlighted by the guest speaker of the first day, Professor Extra-ordinaire at the Stellenbosch University, and Professor Emeritus at Rhodes University, Chrissie Boughey.
Explaining the situation in the higher education sector, Professor Boughey lauded applying common sense understanding to students’ experiences. “We are just reproducing the status quo”, Professor Boughey said. Professor Boughey said that this approach does not allow leaders in the sector to conceptualise the problems. For instance, she continued, “When you look at the reasons why the students fail, it is often said that they are not motivated; they’re not working hard; they lack something. That is a common justification of the lack in our success rate”. Professor Boughey said that what was needed was a theory that would allow us to see how the university itself functions. A theory that will allow us to understand the kind of knowledge it teaches; and the kind of language it uses. Professor Boughey emphasised that the problem was with the universities, not the students. She said the theory exists, but it is not used, because it is strange to us. We are so captured by the fact that the problem is the students. Even though we say the university needs to be transformed, we are not prepared to delve deeply into the problem.
Professor Boughey said the theory she was referring to was called critical social theory. “We have to leave our common-sense account and use this powerful theory to integrate the university,” she said. Professor Boughey added that the use of this theory would lead to a different understanding of the students and allow universities to make better decisions.
Professor Boughey said that universities were designed for students with middle-class backgrounds. She said that was a problem. “We are only developing that class now. The number of black people with degrees is still very small. Most black students are the first in their families to go to the university, she said. According to Professor Boughey, ignoring the different backgrounds of the students is one of the causes of the problems in the higher education sector.