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Connected to Africa: Prof Lorna Dreyer, advocate for social justice
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing
Published: 25/05/2023

​​​The institutional theme at Stellenbosch University (SU) for May this year is “Connected to Africa" and today we celebrate Africa Day with the rest of the world. Africa Day is the annual commemoration of the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity on 25 May 1963. SU has nurtured relationships with many institutions in other African countries over the past decades and our academics are collaborating with top scientists on the continent. In this series, we showcase a few of the SU academics who epitomize academic excellence through a meaningful footprint in the African context.  

Prof Lorna Dreyer served two terms as Head of the Department of Educational Psychology at SU. As a first-generation university graduate, she describes receiving a PhD as the proudest achievement of her academic career. All her research and publications have an underlying focus on human rights and social justice, principles she considers fundamental to inclusive education in Africa. 

Tell us about your academic background and how it led you to your current position.

I studied at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) during turbulent years in the country. I completed a BEd in human ecology, a BEd Hons (higher education) and an MPhil (cognition and teaching). This laid the foundation for my career as a teacher in primary, secondary and special needs education. The introduction to inclusive education (the focus of my master's research), paved the way to becoming part of the first group of Learning Support Advisors in the Western Cape Education Department. 

My interest in inclusive education and the provision of learning support led to the PhD (educational support) at SU. One year later, in 2009, I joined the Department of Educational Psychology as a lecturer. This was the start of a more academic career to the point where I served two terms as Head of the Department of Educational Psychology, from 2019 to 2022.

​​​Can you describe a particularly impactful research project or collaboration you have been involved in on the African continent?

If I must choose, I will say the project with Dr Dorothy Adimora from the University of Nigeria Nsukka. The project started with a book chapter titled Women in academia: work-life balance in neo liberal academia". We are now in the process of expanding on this project. Data from this research can lead to understanding contextual realities in pursuit of excellence in academia for women. 

Another rewarding project involved the Reformed Church University (RCU) of Zimbabwe. I played a leading role in editing and getting the conference proceedings of the RCU's first international conference on inclusive education published with support from the International Office at SU.

With the University of Namibia, we are conducting a collaborative, comparative project on Experiences of Students with Specific Learning Disability" which is still underway. This research can provide insight into students' experiences to promote authentic inclusive education and provide support in the African context.

As a National Research Foundation (NRF)-rated researcher, what responsibilities do you feel come with that title in terms of academic leadership in Africa?

Africa has a wealth of untapped knowledge and expertise. We need to work together to promote research on the continent with academics from the continent. As researchers, we have the responsibility to do research that reflects contextual realities. We tend to take on models from wealthier counties in the West that are not contextually responsive. 

How do you prioritise and approach issues of human rights and social justice in your research?

All my research and publications have an underlying focus on human rights and social justice. This is fundamental to inclusive education, particularly against the backdrop of colonisation in Africa at large, and the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing inclusive quality education in Africa, and how do you think they can be addressed?

The legacy of colonialism which impoverished nations in so many ways: educationally, economically, etc. While wealthier “developed" countries can focus on providing quality education through well-developed and well-resourced educational systems, “developing" countries' main focus is still on ensuring that all children have access to schooling. Many schools on the continent still face challenges of infrastructure and inadequate financial and human resources. 

The current upsurge in the significance of artificial intelligence (AI) may again come to be of value too late for the majority in Africa who already struggle with the cost of data and unreliable internet access. We need political will and intersectoral collaboration to ensure inclusive education and support of high quality.

What advice do you have for young researchers and students who are interested in educational psychology?

I would advise early career researchers to allow their own teaching and pedagogy to inform their research and publications.

There has always been a need for psycho-educational services for social impact and research in educational psychology. However, the recent Covid-19 pandemic has significantly amplified this need. Educational psychologists should allow training and teaching in the field to inform their research to grow as academics. 

The need for educational support within an inclusive education system is just as important. While there has always been a need for appropriate educational support for learners, Covid-19 aggravated the situation with mandatory school closures. Those who had the means could continue online, while most learners, mainly from the black (generic term) communities in South Africa fell behind even further. This is not unique to South Africa, as a colleague in Botswana mentioned that online was a problem due to access to smart devices and internet facilities. It was creating a “digital divide". 

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

I don't think I have a typical day. However, I work best in the morning, so I try to prioritise my own writing and reading my students' theses in the mornings. Then there are the constant emails, co-ordination of modules and the BEd Hons (educational support) programme. I also teach an undergraduate module and three postgraduate programmes. The past few years a significant part of my day was taken up by managerial responsibilities.

I also do all my housework, am a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter to an elderly father and involved in a local social services programme and church. Therefore, I juggle different roles during the day. I mention these non-work-related roles as it impacts on academia. 

What do you enjoy most about working at SU? 

The vast opportunities created to promote and support teaching and research. These opportunities include in-service training through workshops by the Centre for Teaching and Learning and various funding opportunities for research and collaboration, such as the Africa Collaboration Grant, amongst others.

Tell us something exciting or interesting about yourself that few people would expect.  

In high school, I was selected to play tennis for my province, and later I also represented UWC at Intervarsity. I was an 800 m athlete in high school and during my first two years at university.

Looking ahead, what are your goals in the coming years?

Retirement is awaiting me in the next few years. My goals are to supervise my post-graduate students to completion and work on the current collaborative projects to publications. Then I would avail my experience and expertise to support and mentor early-career women in academia. 

Photo: Stefan Els