Figuring the future: from the geographies, materialities and cultures of rural South Africa to the technocracy and continuing coloniality of higher education

Dr Sue Timmis, University of Bristol 

12:00 - 2:00pm Paterson's Land 1.19, Moray House School of Education

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South Africa is the most urbanized and industrialized country in Africa and yet, one of the most unequal in the world. Despite wide ranging policies to address equity and access to higher education, there continues to be a significant lack of academic achievement of students from historically under-represented backgrounds (Cooper, 2015). Furthermore, students in South Africa who do access higher education are faced with curricula that remain imbued with colonialism and a technocracy and ‘technocratic consciousness’ that strips lived experience of its aesthetic and ethical features (Fischer, 1990, p. 41), remakes the vital as rational and privileges technical training and specialized knowledges over social meanings derived from experience or cultural practices (Danforth 2016). All of the above have, arguably, contributed to high levels of recent student dissatisfaction and unrest, demonstrated in the past two years for example by the #feesmustfall movement. Amongst the most marginalised social categories, is rurality, especially as it intersects with race, ethnicity, class and gender (Bob 2001) and through the continuing legacy of apartheid. Rurality is not just a matter of geography; it is multidimensional including space, history, power, culture, material resources and identities.

This paper draws on an on-going ESRC/Newton funded (SARiHE) study of rural students’ transitions to and trajectories through higher education at three universities in South Africa. The paper situates the study in the wider political landscape and current debates on rurality and decolonization before turning to examine the technological practices and socio-technical challenges of students both before and during their time at university. Rural students’ experiences, particularly in relation to technology are explored through the work of anthropologist Holland on ‘figured worlds’ (Holland et al, 1998; Holland 2010). Figured worlds are social encounters in which the positions of those taking part matter, they are socially and culturally organised and located in particular times and places. Through the theoretical framing of figured worlds, which draws on the work of Bourdieu, Vygotsky and Bakhtin, and related ideas on culture, agency and identities, I highlight the influences of rural figured worlds upon the new world of higher education including practices, discourses, sociomaterial, spatial and temporal configurations and the adaptations students make as they move between worlds, face challenges, improvise and develop new identities. I argue that not only do students from rural backgrounds face particular challenges when encountering the technocracy and the continuing colonial legacy of apartheid but that the cultural practices and indigenous knowledges from home communities are largely ignored or marginalized. The paper concludes by considering how ideas from de Sousa Santos’ work on Epistemologies of the South (2016) can help to rethink and redress the technocracy of coloniality of higher education in South Africa and in other parts of the Global South where similar issues are faced. 


Sue Timmis is a Reader in Education, School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research focuses on students’ lived experience of higher education and understanding and addressing the challenges facing higher education in a changing world where access, success and participation are increasingly being undermined. Since the 1990s, Sue’s work has focused principally on the use of digital technologies, social practices and learning in HE and more recently in relation to widening participation, diversity and social justice in the UK and now expanding into Global South, post-colonial contexts. She is Principal Investigator on an ESRC/Newton funded project based in South Africa called SARiHE (Southern African Rurality in Higher Education) and is also currently working an EU funded widening participation project called Access4All ( From 2013 – 2016, she led a study funded by the University of Bristol’s Widening Participation Research Fund called ‘DD-lab’ or Digital Diversity, learning and belonging, investigating the role of digital media in fostering a culture of belonging amongst undergraduate students from non-traditiona backgrounds.

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Date of Event
Event Leader
Dr Sue Timmis
Paterson's Land 1.19, Moray House School of Education
Research Area
Digital Cultures