Study reveals a home away from home

Turbulence at universities has accelerated in the last few years. To be sure, the pendulum swings up and down with moments of perilous high tides punctuated by relatively calm ebbs. 

A sizeable body of research in higher education is about the system as a whole or aspects of it addressing largely policy, structural and legislative issues. These constitute the macro dimension.

But less attention has been paid to the micro dimension — the minute texture of internal social relations among various players, their identities, tensions and the effects of the specific attendant dynamics on the academic experience. Rarer still are studies on the experiences of international students in shared learning or living spaces alongside South Africans, that is, until a recent study by Everard Weber.

A Home Away from Home casts a critical lens on the experiences of international students at a particular university in South Africa. The theme is topical because it is situated in a broader space characterised by instances of virulent nativism or xenophobia in the larger South African social environment.

International students in the university residences are relatively insulated from the brunt of xenophobic violence experienced elsewhere but the study provides evidence of prejudices though not frequently expressed in a violent manner.

The case study involved 92 students (36 women and 56 men, a few South Africans and a wide spread of ages). From the in-depth semi-structured interviews and focus groups, Weber locates the study in a high-level national-global framework, reflecting internationalisation trends in higher education and their effect, positive or otherwise, on local universities in areas such as epistemology, pedagogy and curriculum.

The study employs a set of theoretical tools and conceptual constructs to facilitate deeper understanding and to give meaning to the complexities of individual identities. Intersectionality of the identities — the inescapable hybridity that is birthed by the prevailing social relations in the residences and the relative resilience imposed by their national origin, gender and race — are also critically analysed.

Weber’s sober scholarship is exemplified by his even-handed critique of globalisation encompassing its inglorious effects on the one hand, and how, on the other hand, it allows for the germination of new streams of consciousness engendering change in individual attitudes and behaviours at the micro level. This eventually, or potentially, 
has an effect at the macro systems level.

Weber’s study is relevant in that it addresses current social realities at the University of Pretoria; in its broad sweep it even grapples with heady issues such as decolonisation and Africanisation. It also demonstrates a wholesome and useful combination of methodology, theory and other relevant constructs thus serving as a good example of excellent research. Through the skilful interviewing process, Weber is able to elicit rich responses from the interviewees that he in turn subjects to rigorous, sophisticated and nuanced analyses. Moreover, the narration is exquisite and scholarly.

The obverse of this otherwise virtuous side is the rather overly formalistic format (typical of most scholarly works) that would dampen the appetite of the general reader. But, I suspect Weber’s targeted reader a registered inhabitant of the Ivory Tower, in which case its formalism is inconsequential. Importantly though, the sensibilities the book evokes need to be spread widely.

Mokubung Nkomo is an independent academic

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