From promising practice to proven student success models

“We want to move away from promising practices into proven institutional models, to demonstrate that students from all types of background can succeed,” says Jenny Glennie, executive director of the South African Institute for Distance Education or SAIDE, which is leading a four-year initiative that uses data analytics to improve student success and graduation rates.

Five universities selected to the Siyaphumelela – 'we succeed' – programme profiled their work at the second annual conference of the initiative, held from 28-30 June in Durban on South Africa’s east coast. They were joined by a range of governmental and institutional groups working with some urgency in the area of evidence-based student support.

The Siyaphumelela universities have spent a year developing data analytics capacity and innovations, and now the US$2.9 million project funded by America’s Kresge Foundation is anxious to create South Africa-appropriate data analytics models that can be applied more widely across the higher education sector to make a major impact on student success rates.

Closing the conference, Glennie said it represented but “a small proportion of people in South Africa who are rooting for more and better graduates, particularly low-income students. It has become absolutely clear to us in the last year that this is essential.”

Department of Higher Education and Training or DHET teaching grants support projects in universities such as foundation courses, the first year experience, tutoring and mentoring, and the conference learned that these grants would continue in different forms. Government also created Career Help, an “amazing” initiative reaching two million radio listeners that last year received 123,000 helpline enquiries.

The statutory Council on Higher Education’s Quality Enhancement Project works to improve student success, and among the array of other activities is the University of the Free State’s South African Survey of Student Engagement and initiatives under the South African Higher Education Learning Analytics association.

Said Glennie: “There are all sorts of other players.” There are also many innovations – from tracking systems to dashboards – being deployed. “Each of us has our position in leadership in the quest for student success.

“We have to understand what others are doing, but evidence-based practice is our niche. The issue for me is to be really careful about how we work together, so that we don’t fall over ourselves and do not compete with each other.” Rather, the Siyaphumelela universities are encouraged to share practices and move in the direction of open educational resources.


Having opened the doors of higher learning to many more students – close to one million in universities – from diverse backgrounds including large proportions of first generation students from poor households, South Africa developed a problem with student success.

As has happened in many countries, expansion was accompanied by plummeting graduation rates, which dropped below 50% and were acute among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. So while greater equity in access was achieved, equity in success lagged far behind.

Improving student success, especially for black students, has become a priority for several reasons, including equality, social mobility, providing routes out of poverty and stemming the financial wastage that accompanies students repeating years or dropping out altogether.

The Siyaphumelela programme

Siyaphumelela was launched in 2014, when the Kresge Foundation invited public universities to apply to participate in the project aimed at enhancing the use of data analytics to improve student retention and success.

In November 2014 Kresge awarded four-year grants to four institutions – the University of the Witwatersrand, University of Pretoria, University of the Free State and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University – as well as SAIDE to coordinate the initiative. More recently, the Durban University of Technology was also selected.

Each produced a plan to improve their capacity to collect and analyse student data and integrate it with research, information technology systems, academic development, and planning and academic divisions to increase student success.

Kresge is providing up to four years of institutional support and potential bonus grants. Siyaphumelela’s specific goals, says its website, are to:
  • • Improve capacity to collect student data and integrate it with institutional research, information and communication technology or ICT, academic development, planning, student support and academic divisions.
  • • Create South African models of universities using successful data analytics to improve student outcomes.
  • • Create a greater awareness and support for data use to improve student success in South Africa, collaborating with existing and new national initiatives.
  • • Create and highlight a shared vocabulary and consensus on especially effective practices to improve student success.
  • • Enlarge the cadre of experienced data analytics professionals supporting student success.
The Siyaphumelela Conference is held to encourage the sharing of experiences. The theme was “Promising practices towards systemic interventions for student success”, and it featured South African as well as international speakers and students as well as workshops.

Topics explored were understanding factors in student success, supporting students through data analytics – including early warning systems – the ethics of data analysis, and building a community of practice for student success.

“The launch conference in 2015 represented an opportunity to begin to weave together these various strands into a national discourse,” says the Siyaphumelela website. The 2016 event focused on deepening understanding of emerging practices that will contribute to successful systemic interventions to promote student success, underpinned by inclusion of students.

Access gains, but lack of equity

Professor Francois Strydom, director (academic) of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of the Free State, wrote in a report for Siyaphumelela that last year’s student movement #FeesMustFall highlighted inequalities students face in accessing higher education due to lack of funding.

“It is well accepted that although there have been gains in higher education access there is still a long way to go. In terms of success it appears that our institutions (systems) have not moved significantly enough to produce more equitable results.”

Calls for transformation were therefore understandable. What transformation means is hotly debated, but not really from a success perspective.

“In terms of its approach to academic success one could ask whether higher education is focused on equality more than equity.” While this was understandable in the light of the country’s history, a focus on equality tends to result in institutions ‘overlooking’ the specific perspectives, assets and developmental needs of individual students.

Strydom argued for an equity focus on student success. It allows recognition of the individual assets, perspectives and needs of students entering universities, and “could help create learning experiences that reduce stereotype threat”.

Is this possible in a resource-scarce environment? Yes, he wrote – predictive analytics and existing technology infrastructure provide a possible way forward.

The integration of data and predictive analytics could complement existing efforts to support students academically, reconceptualisation of extended degrees to maximally support student progress, the refocusing of student activities to support learning, and transforming curricula to recognise and strengthen different perspectives on knowledge.

“This approach will require institutions to think differently about how they can use all the data at their disposal to better advise their students and to integrate success initiatives, thereby building systems that are designed for more equitable student success,” Strydom concluded.

Moving forward

An example of a Siyaphumelela outcome is the University of Pretoria Career App·tizer – a career exploration tool completed last October by four students in the department of infomatics.

Poor career knowledge and choices is an important inhibitor of student success, and Career App·tizer gets school pupils and first-year students exploring courses and careers at the university, including an online career interest survey.

It is such developments that Jenny Glennie is hoping to hear more of, to start scaling up Siyaphumelela’s impact. She said there had been much discussion during the conference around three key outcomes.

One was that there was learning – “that as a sector we learn how to do this and we share what it is that we have learned”. One activity would be to gather together open access information and resources, so that they are easily accessible, and there was discussion about developing a community on student advising.

“There’s a second outcome around doing – building our sustained capacity to implement and manage a data chain. We realise how hard this is. What data do you collect? How do you collect it? How do you analyse it? And how do you use it in a morally defensible way?

Siyaphumelela is planning symposia, and one will be on ethics, data collection and use. Also out of a workshop was a suggestion that Siyaphumelela could be a useful convening initiative, to bring together different bodies working in the area of student success.

And the third outcome was developing a positive culture, “which I think we are getting to in South Africa as a whole – there are lots of other bolstering initiatives where we are talking more and more about evidence”. At Siyaphumelela, said Glennie, “we are wanting to work together so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts".