Rural students’ transitions to and trajectories through higher education in South Africa: geographies, knowledges and intercultural relationships

Symposium Chair: Sue Timmis, University of Bristol, UK

Discussant: Ann-Marie Bathmaker, University of Birmingham, UK

This symposium presents 4 papers from the ESRC/NRF/Newton funded project – Southern African Rurality in Higher Education (SARiHE) exploring the transitions into and trajectories through higher education for students from rural backgrounds at three very different universities in South Africa through a co-researcher methodology where students have worked in partnership with academic researchers longitudinally.  

The symposium is dedicated to our colleague and friend Brenda Leibowitz who was the South African Principal Investigator on the project until she passed away in April 2018.

The symposium is set within current debates on decolonisation and decoloniality within higher education in South Africa (e.g. Leibowitz 2017; Oyedemi, 2018). This acknowledgement of the continuation of colonial thinking and practices is particularly important in South Africa, where the legacy of the colonial past is still very much in evidence. Rural students are amongst the most marginalised groups (Mgqwashu, 2016) and there has been a tendency towards ‘spatial blindness’ which assumes rural students need to become less rural, or are ‘other’ (Roberts and Green, 2013).

In seeking to address such injustices, De Sousa Santos (2016) calls for a recognition of an ecology of knowledges where all knowledges are to some extent incomplete. Embracing other knowledges thus requires ‘intercultural translation– searching for common concerns, revealing underlying cultural assumptions and developing hybrid forms of understanding (de Sousa Santos, 2016).  We use these ideas to interrogate the project findings and practices spatially, culturally and relationally, exploring competing and contested knowledge domains for those experiencing higher education in South Africa, within a productive but challenging international collaborative partnership.

Paper 1 – An introduction to the Southern African Rurality in Higher Education (SARiHE) project: aims, research questions, methodology, theoretical framing 

Sheila Trahar, Lisa Lucas, University of Bristol, Kibbie Naidoo, University of Johannesburg

Paper 2 – Methodological conversations: Reflections on using participatory methodology across three data collection sites in the SARiHE project

Kibbie Naidoo, University of Johannesburg, Emmanuel Mgqwashu, Rhodes University, Patricia Muhuro, University of Fort Hare

Paper 3 – The SARiHE project: Negotiating the transitions from rural contexts into and trajectories through higher education in South Africa

Patricia Muhuro, University of Fort Hare, Gina Wisker, University of Brighton, Sheila Trahar, Karen Desborough, University of Bristol

Paper 4 – Co-generation of knowledge through international research collaborations in higher education? Multiple perspectives from the SARiHE experience

Emmanuel Mgqwashu, Rhodes University, Thea de Wet, University of Johannesburg & Sue Timmis, University of Bristol



de Sousa Santos, B. (2015). Epistemologies of the South: Justice against epistemicide. Routledge.

Leibowitz, B. (2017) Power, Knowledge and Learning: dehegomonising colonial knowledge, Alternation, 24, 2: 99-119.

Motsa, Z. (2017) When the lion tells the story: a response from South Africa.  Higher Education Research and Development, 36 (1) 28-35

Mgqwashu, E. (2016). Education can’t be for the ‘public good’ if universities ignore rural life. The Conversation, 16 March 2016. Retrieved from

Oyedemi, T. (2018): (De)coloniality and South African academe, Critical Studies in Education, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2018.1481123

Roberts, P. and Green, B. (2013) Researching Rural Places: On Social Justice and Rural Education. Qualitative Enquiry. 19 (10) 765-774.