First-years are not arrogant, entitled or lazy – Survey

Are South African universities making optimal use of the attitudes, aspirations, academic skills and resilience of their first-year students, or are they focused too closely on where students are perceived to be lacking?

That question is at the heart of a recent survey of South African first-year students aimed at extracting actionable data that can be used by universities to improve their levels and quality of student engagement – the time and effort students spend on academic and other "educationally-purposeful" activities.

The findings of the Beginning University Survey of Student Engagement (BUSSE), published and disseminated recently in partnership with the Universities South Africa (USAf), challenge perceptions of students, particularly in the wake of the #FeesMustFall protests, as under-prepared, arrogant, entitled and even lazy. They find instead that South African students at first-year level have positive attitudes towards their studies and are optimistic about their potential to succeed; they also have high aspirations and demonstrate strong intentions to work hard.

Conducted by the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at the University of the Free State, the survey was administered to 14,872 entry-level students from 2015 to 2017. The students were from nine of the country’s 26 public higher education institutions, made up of three traditional universities, two comprehensive universities and four universities of technology.

According to Professor Francois Strydom, director and head of the CTL, the survey results point to the need for public institutions that recognise the needs of students “where they are” rather than where academic staff assume they should be.

Mainstream support

The report argues that more equitable experience can be achieved by creating a more supportive mainstream environment for all students rather than pursuing the more traditional route of access programmes.

“By providing universal support to all our first-entering students – rather than continuing on our tradition of particularly targeting struggling students – we’re likely to register bigger successes than we have done to date,” he notes.

His colleague Dr Sonja Loots agrees: “We want to maximise the chances of success for all students who put in the work,” she says.

Drilling down into some of the specific survey findings, the report shows that most first-year students possess some of the academic skills, such as critical thinking, required to succeed at tertiary education level, and suggests that these can serve as a strong foundation for universities to build upon. On the upside, incoming students are also well-prepared for and in fact expect a diverse and collaborative learning experience.

However, as the survey shows, first-year students in South Africa are also an extremely vulnerable demographic.

Most students carry the burden of inadequate basic education systems, adding fuel to perceptions about their lack of preparedness, their unresponsiveness to traditional teaching methods, and the erosion of critical thinking skills and basic literacy.

These perceptions carry explicit and implicit blame which is often unfairly directed towards the students themselves, argues the report. Instead South Africans within the academy and beyond need to accept a collective responsibility for the academic success of the next generation of students.

First-generation students

Among the survey’s significant findings is the fact that 70% of students entering first year are first-generation – the first in their family to study at university. Research suggests that first-generation students are at much greater risk of failure. Therefore, if universities want to see their students pass, they may need to think differently about how they orientate and support students, argues Strydom.

Another feature of the contemporary South African student is their older age. Only 9% of the students surveyed were 18, while 58% were 19-20 years old. This implies that many students come to university with responsibilities that go beyond passing (support for children, siblings and other family members). They generally have more experience of life and work, all of which need to be factored into the learning approach taken by lecturers, suggests the report.

Another significant finding is that students’ choice of both institution and study programme do not seem to be determined by informed decision-making. For example, many students are guided in their choice of institution by where their friends will study and only two thirds (62%) end up studying at the institution of first choice, suggesting that the advice they receive during high school about the choice of degree may be inadequate.

“Most of our students are simply driven to study anything that might help them and their families into a better life,” Strydom notes in the report.

While students say they are determined to work hard, the study also reveals they have unrealistic expectations of the academic demands of higher education – 77% expected to receive marks averaging over 70% during first year. While this may be interpreted as a potential strength, it means institutions have the added responsibility of managing expectations in a way that does not demotivate the student or encourage dropouts.

According to Strydom, the first round of academic assessments at university is a particularly critical time for both students and institutions that seek to support their students and keep them in the system.

“The student’s self-image can take a knock when they get the results of their first assessment. As institutions, we need to be sensitive to our students’ disappointment, exploring opportunities to help students transition academically and providing the academic and non-academic support needed to keep them motivated and committed,” he notes.

Why measure student engagement?

In a book published last year and co-authored by Strydom, CTL colleague Dr Sonja Loots, and global student engagement expert George Kuh (reviewed in this edition of University World News – Africa), the concept of student engagement is described as how much time and effort students spend on academic activities and other educationally-purposeful activities.

However, the role of institutions in facilitating this engagement is increasingly being examined. According to Kuh, who founded the widely used National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) – upon which the BUSSE is based – the concept of student engagement also includes the way in which institutions allocate resources and organise learning opportunities and services to help students participate in and benefit from such activities.

Understanding students and their needs then becomes a first step in the process. Describing the findings of the BUSSE survey as “both hugely exciting and sobering”, USAf CEO Professor Ahmed Bawa refers in the report’s conclusion to the “lessons” to be learned by universities based on the BUSSE survey’s findings.

“The architecture of our universities, the way in which they are organised and connected must be honed according to what we learn about our students. They must mesh with what students bring with them and create the conditions for their integration into that architecture,” he says.

As Bawa notes, the survey data highlights areas where more targeted support might be necessary. For example, according to the survey, 12% of entering students do not feel adequately prepared in terms of writing, speaking, using technology, and working in a team; 19% believe they need extra help with quantitative reasoning; and 35% of students anticipate that finding academic help will be difficult.

“These are difficult questions that are central to the project of realising the transformational aspirations of our sector, and ultimately, social justice,” Bawa notes.