Calitz, Talita Martha Lydia (2017). 'A multi-dimensional participation index as an intersectional approach to decolonising South African higher education' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The student-led #Feesmustfall movement at South African universities has marked a watershed moment in the transition from apartheid to democracy (Luckett 2016; Luescher-Mamashela 2016; Mbembe 2016). The Fallist movement calls for free, quality and decolonised higher education, in response to the need for institutional transformation of universities, and their responsiveness to growing socioeconomic inequalities. While universities have historically been instrumental as centres of resistance during apartheid, they are also complicit in reproducing structural inequalities (Boni & Walker 2013).  In the call for education that is accessible to poor students, the protest movement has drawn attention to the intersecting injustices that constrain students’ equitable entry into and participation at universities. Increasingly, higher education research is addressing the fact that because of unequal opportunities and resource distribution, poor, black, and rural university students in particular are vulnerable to exclusion and diminished well-being (Calitz 2016; Wilson-Strydom 2015).


However, there is insufficient knowledge produced in the global South about how the intersection of inequalities associated with race, gender and socioeconomic status contribute to structural injustice at South Africa universities. In response to this knowledge gap, the first part of the paper outlines an intersectional approach to student experiences of structural inequality in higher education. The paper presents a multi-dimensional participation index for higher education that is used to measure and assess the equality and quality of student participation. The participation index is structured as a participatory assessment tool that measures vulnerability at the intersection of an individual student’s racial, gender and socioeconomic profile. Drawing on the policy directives embedded with the sustainable development goals, the index incorporates a range of indicators aimed at creating inclusive and enabling structures for students facing intersectional inequalities in South African higher education.


The second part of the paper demonstrates how the participation index was informed by an exploratory, participatory research project that focused on the experiences of university students who resisted and negotiated intersecting injustices. The intersectional research lens focuses on the convergence of race, class and gender in collecting information about structural inequalities at a South African university. Drawing on this in-depth qualitative data, the paper tracks the transition to the mixed-methods design, in response to the following research questions:  How could the design and implementation of a multi-dimensional participation index measure vulnerable students’ equality and quality of participation? How could the empirical results collected by the index be used to inform the design of knowledge and practices for more enabling and inclusive higher education institutions? Using a participatory approach, students are positioned as central actors in creating knowledge and resisting inequalities. As such, the paper contributes an intersectional perspective to higher education as a public good, as a contribution to a growing number of studies concerned with diverse university student equitable access to and participation in higher education (Boni & Walker 2013; Walker & Wilson-Strydom 2017). 

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