Congratulations to Upenyu Majee for 2017 NAed/Spencer Fellowship

Seven of the 2017 NAed/Spencer Fellowship recipients are scholars from UW-Madison’s own School of Education. Among them is Upenyu S. Majee, academic coordinator for the State Department-funded Mandela Washington Fellowship/Young African Leaders Initiative. He holds MA degrees in educational leadership and policy analysis and African languages and literature from UW-Madison and is a joint Ph.D. candidate in the departments of Educational Policy Studies and Development Studies. He is working on a project titled, “(Re)imagining and (Re)enacting Competing Policy Imperatives. The Case of Post-Apartheid South African Higher Education.” 

Degree Programs: Educational Policy Studies & Development Studies

Focus Areas: Comparative and International Education & International Development Education

Hometown: Mutare, Zimbabwe

What influenced you to pursue Educational Policy Studies & Development Studies?

Growing up in rural Zimbabwe, education provided probably the best chance of escape from a limiting socioeconomic background. Due to my parents’ sheer determination, a government scholarship that catered for my otherwise out-of-reach high school expenses, the generosity of well-wishers, and my own relentless pursuit of a better future, I became the first in my immediate family to attend and graduate from college, as well as to undertake graduate studies abroad.

Ultimately, I was attracted to the cross-national and interdisciplinary nature of the Educational Policy Studies department and Development Studies Program, respectively. The two programs impressed me as ideal places to receive mentoring from acclaimed faculty whose work interrogates the power hierarchies that characterize relations between the global north and global south, and shape the roles of education in perpetuating or mediating the said hierarchies.

How did you become interested in researching higher education in post-apartheid South Africa?

As the regional economic hub, home to some of the top-rated universities in Africa, and so the most popular study destination in Africa, South Africa offered me a really fascinating country case for investigating the intersection of national, regional and global pressures on public higher education systems. My interest also stemmed from the fact that as a Zimbabwean, I come from the country that sends the single largest group of non-national students to South African universities. Considering the waves of xenophobia witnessed in South Africa (particularly in 2008, 2015, and most recently, in 2017 – and mainly targeted at fellow black Africans), I wanted to understand both what it means, and what it takes, for South African public universities to pursue a development cooperation agenda regionally, but also be simultaneously locally responsive and globally competitive. Lastly, I was curious to understand what the implications of the competing policy imperatives are for student (both South African and non-nationals) opportunities and experiences, and relationships across racial and national lines.

How do student voices factor into your research?

My research pays attention to both institutional logics and processes, and to the voices and experiences of individuals or groups who are differentially positioned within the institutions. As a result, the study captures both the story that the institution tells about itself and the diverse perceptions, reflections and experiences of the people whose daily work lives constitute the institution. In the wake of the student-led #Rhodes/FeesMustFall movements, uprisings targeted against institutional racism and the slow pace of transformation in South African public universities, student voices played a particularly central role in shaping the policy landscape that I explore in my dissertation. In fact, a significant portion of the dissertation draws on 1) personal observations of the launch and evolution of the #FeesMustFall movement in the first two weeks of the protests in October 2015, 2) one-on-one conversations with a range of the activists and students involved in the protests, 3) regular updates with individuals on the ground from November 2015 to July 2016 when I was not physically in the field, and finally 4) additional observations and interviews with participants during a four-week return to the field in August 2016.

Photo submitted by Upenyu S. Majee

What does the (re)imagined University look like?

My research examines and highlights the conceptualizations, contestations, and formalization possibilities of competing higher education policy imperatives in public universities in a postcolonial global south context with an entrenched history of racial conflict. The 2015-2016 South African student protests that broke out during the course of my dissertation fieldwork underscore the increasing pressures university administrators and government officials face to respond simultaneously to internal and external demands that often conflict over the missions and daily functioning of public universities in South Africa and around the world. At the heart of my research project are questions around who gets involved and whose views get privileged (or excluded) in the process of navigating post-/neo-colonial relations, re-inventing institutional missions in response to new mandates, and carving out universities’ place in an increasingly competitive, globalized marketplace for higher education. In other words, the research does not offer a single universal template for (re)imagining public universities. Rather, I ask and explore what roles student activists; university administrators, faculty and staff; state and supranational policymakers; funders and other stakeholders play (or might play) in constructing and shaping the purposes of public universities: to whom they belong, what knowledge they value and generate; and their place in the battle for increased racial and social justice within and across national boundaries.

What do you hope to accomplish or uncover through your research?

I see the research’s findings contributing to burgeoning efforts to challenge, reconstitute and appropriate dominant global north imaginaries and international development education policy models to foster economic and scientific dynamism in the global south. I hope to do so by explicating the tensions that arise for countries with long histories of deeply racist colonial relations as they determine how to balance and integrate competing policy imperatives: internal demands and/or claims for higher education equity; cooperation for intra-regional development; and internationalization goals. As noted above, these tensions, and universities’ responses to them have implications for thinking about the place of public universities in postcolonial societies, to whom they belong and are accountable to – are they:

  •  an apparatus of state power
  •  an organization for parents/students (and which parents/students?)
  •  an organization for the faculty, staff and administrators who work in them
  • an organization for the local communities where they are physically located
  • universal as their name imply
  •  or, do they belong unto themselves?

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

My career goals recognize that, although the nation-state remains a well-defined and well-bounded entity and that while national education policies may have served countries well in the past, the volumes of commerce and people flowing across countries increasingly demand co-operation with state and non-state actors beyond any nation’s borders. To the extent that my research interests revolve around intra- and inter-regional provision of higher education policy, I am particularly interested in working with and across the global higher education infrastructure (such as International Organizations, Think Tanks, Research Centers, Foundations, etc.) situated at the interface of policy, research, administration, and teaching.

I plan on utilizing the Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship term to complete and defend the dissertation for a May 2018 graduation. Thereafter, I anticipate a year or two of postdoctoral work to acclimatize myself to and in preparation for working in the higher education policy world.

A word of gratitude

I have come to recognize that any success that comes one’s way in this life is the cumulative input and selfless effort of many individuals and groups of people. How so unfortunate that the recognition-of-excellence systems in place in our world are such that an individual’s support system rarely or never gets acknowledged as much as it should. Personally, I owe a debt of gratitude to my family; my Educational Policy Studies and Development Studies advisers; church family/friends; colleagues and collaborators in graduate school; and internal and external sponsors/funders who have provided graduate assistantships, opportunities to travel and present my work at conferences, and blocks of uninterrupted time to pursue my research interests.