To succeed, students need funds, food, beds and guidance

Resolving problems around student fees, accommodation, food and career guidance had to take precedence when discussing student success in South African higher education, as ignoring these issues only perpetuates an unequal society, says University of the Witwatersrand Vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib.

He was commenting on discussions at the second annual Siyaphumelela Conference held in Durban from 28-30 June. Only once those four challenges had been addressed could South African universities look effectively at more esoteric issues like curricula change.

Siyaphumelela, which means ‘we succeed’, is an initiative funded by America’s Kresge Foundation and coordinated by the South African Institute for Distance Education. It is working to improve the capacity of five South African universities to collect and analyse student data to boost student success.

Student suffering

Habib’s summation followed a presentation by University of Venda student representative council member Mashudu Nthulane, in which she highlighted the disconnect that existed between higher education institutions and the new generation – typically poor African students entering university as trail-blazers in their families.

Nthulane said African students had limited or no access to career guidance at school level, which constrained their success in securing tertiary education places as disinterested students developed poor study habits and extensive social lives.

Universities had to take cognisance of students’ family and educational backgrounds, specifically when the bulk of students at particular institutions came from poor environments and from poorly educated, often illiterate parents.

“However, higher education institutions focus on staff support rather than student support, resulting in poor academic records. Students require student counsellors and advisory structures to boost success rates,” she said.

Socio-economic background played an equally vital role when students faced harassment for not paying fees and, once they had dropped out for economic reasons, faced being blacklisted with credit bureaus. Students received a R450 (US$31) monthly food allowance and R1,500 for textbooks when one nursing textbook costs R3,000.

Those still within the system faced problems with accommodation, food, language and cultural issues and often received “poor treatment” in off-campus accommodation.

This forced them to return to campus accommodation and Nthulane said she and seven other students currently live in one room in which they cook, eat, sleep and study.

“Can students achieve academically when in this position? Students need support from their first day to ensure their success,” she said.

Habib called for the government to “flood the system with money” by identifying key issues and then investing in those areas. This was the approach Europe, India and the United States had taken when their institutions opened to less affluent students.

However, approaches should be tailor-made for the requirements of individual institutions.

The University of the Witwatersrand has less than 10% of its student body emanating from poor families and more than 80% from middle-class black and white family environments. Stellenbosch University was likely to have a similar situation, while the University of Venda suffered under a completely different environment.

Success rates improving

Dr Diane Parker, deputy director-general (universities branch) at the Department of Higher Education and Training, said that unfortunately not everyone could go to university.

Currently South Africa has more than 18 million people older than 20 years who have not completed secondary education and who require adult education, most of whom will never cut the grade for university.

At a tertiary level, the system can accommodate one million new university entrants annually as well as 700,000 in technical colleges or vocational education and training facilities, and another 300,000 via adult learning centres.

“The reality is only 20% to 30% of matriculants can go to university – and that is being generous.

“However, if South Africa is to raise its student success statistics, there must be data across the whole education system such that students are making appropriate, informed career choices and higher education institutions must be questioning what they can do with that data to promote success,” Parker said.

Department statistics reflected that in 2004 South Africa had a first-year success rate of 69.8%, and this rose to 77.8% in 2014. The cohort throughput rate for undergraduate contact programmes after six years was 49.3% in 2004, rising to 61.4% in 2014.

Parker said South Africa was clearly making progress in student success.

Still, data must be used to ensure students enrol in the right study programmes to achieve success. Thereafter, it was critical that students received quality education so that they could graduate and become economically active and productive.