An exploratory study of Heads of Departments’ responses to student calls for decolonised higher education


Central to the tumultuous student protests of 2015 and 2016 was an urgent call for the decolonisation of South African universities. Existing curricula, including teaching and assessment practices, as well as institutional cultures and structures were challenged. Against this backdrop, this article focuses on the academic leadership role of Heads of Departments (HoDs) at Rhodes University. In this small-scale project cultural historical activity theory was used as an analytical tool to interrogate how HoDs conceptualised their roles in this uncertain and complex context. Data were generated from an online questionnaire administered to all HoDs. The data analysis pointed to a number of contradictions in the ways HoDs conceptualized and enacted their roles. Also emerging from the analysis were institutional enablements and constraints which influenced their ability to offer transformative leadership. This was particularly in relation to the concepts of social and epistemic inclusion/exclusion; central to debates in the decolonising literature. The findings indicate that the role of HoDs has become increasingly complex. Despite this, the issues that were raised during the protests catalysed HoDs into reclaiming stronger academic leadership roles.