Towards equity – Simply opening HE doors is not enough

For thousands of poor Black African students, gaining access to higher education in South Africa is the first step towards the promise of a better life, but only 24% of those enrolled in three-year degrees graduate in the minimum time – far lower than their white counterparts at 43%. Against this backdrop, universities are recognising that if they are to take a lead in creating a more equitable society, greater attention needs to be given to student success.

“Policies such as subsidised free higher education have put much of the emphasis on access, which is important, but I’ve also seen so many disappointed students and their families exit the system without a qualification – and this actually makes the situation worse,” said Professor Francis Petersen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, a previously whites-only, Afrikaans-language university based in the city of Bloemfontein, the country’s judicial capital.

According to Petersen, rather than simply being a microcosm of society, universities should be living models of what an ideal society could be – “the kind we want, rather than the kind we have now”, as he puts it.

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In the context of deeply divided and unequal societies such as South Africa, still reeling from centuries of colonial and formalised race-based oppression, universities have a particular responsibility to actively build equity and transform society, he argues.

“Our history in South Africa has a specific dimension and there is a moral and ethical obligation on leadership of universities in South Africa to ensure we do the right thing: that we allow people to feel that they belong and allow platforms to be occupied by people with different views.”

Petersen said it was important to ask two questions about universities: ‘What are they good at?’ and ‘What are they good for?’. The latter question, he said, speaks to the university’s purpose, part of which is to contribute to the building of a better and more equitable society.

“Our role is not only about producing thinkers and people with the qualifications to build society and grow our economy; it’s also about the kind of knowledge we produce as a result of our infrastructure, human resources and the fact that we offer a space where academic freedom is respected and things can be questioned without potential risk of being shut down.”

The limitations of access

In a bid to enrol more Black African students in the wake of political changes in the early 1990s, the University of the Free State (UFS) introduced a University Access Programme, which facilitates access to university study for applicants who do not possess the requisite academic points demanded by the institution – mainly as a result of poor quality schooling and the deleterious impact of an impoverished upbringing.

The University Access Programme, which still exists, and similar programmes being run at previously advantaged (white) universities around the country have contributed to the tripling of enrolments in South African higher education institutions since 1990.

However, while Black African students represent more than 70% of enrolments in public institutions, those total enrolments still only make up 16% of African youth between the ages of 20 and 24, according to Centre for Risk Analysis data. In comparison, white students represent 16% of all enrolments, which translates into 53% of white youth between 20 and 24 years of age being enrolled.

In the face of such intransigent demographics, as well as student protests under the banner of #FeesMustFall, which exposed a widespread sense of alienation among black students attending formerly-white universities, institutions are increasingly shifting their focus towards improving student success rates through the creation of a more supportive environment for students.

“Widening access without providing an environment that maximises the chances for success erases much of the progress made through broadened participation,” says Professor Francois Strydom, director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at UFS, which offers a range of academic support services for staff and students.

Student engagement

The Centre for Teaching and Learning also administers the South African Survey of Student Engagement, which collects data from students – and from lecturers in some cases – from 16 of the country’s 26 public higher education institutions with the aim of better understanding students and putting in place the interventions they need to succeed.

Defined as the time and effort students spend on academic and other ‘educationally-purposeful’ activities and what institutions can do to channel students’ energy towards these activities, student engagement is increasingly being recognised globally as an effective concept by which to assess student behaviour and intentionally focus institutional interventions.

Various iterations of the local survey measure the expectations and experiences of first-time entering students, lecturers’ perceptions of their students’ behaviour, and gaps in perception between lecturers and students in the same module.

“The student engagement surveys provide actionable data for improving student retention and progress, help to identify constraints in the teaching and learning environment, and facilitate the development of academic interventions such as high-impact curricula,” says Strydom.

Defining student success

At UFS “improving student success and well-being” is now the first of seven goals in the university’s Strategic Plan for 2018-22 and the university defines student success as “increasing the numbers of graduates from diverse backgrounds (while decreasing achievement gaps) participating in high-quality learning that results in attributes that are personally, professionally and socially valuable”.

In order to achieve this and to challenge the structural inequalities that persist in South Africa, a holistic response is required. Services offered by the institution therefore range from academic and psychosocial support to language development and the provision of food bursaries for students who literally cannot afford to feed themselves.

Data from the Financial Stress Scale, included in the South African Survey of Student Engagement in the wake of the #FeesMustFall protests, show that 36% of Black African male first-generation students and 34% of Black African female first-generation students say they run out of food and cannot afford to buy more on most days or every day.

Related to this are high levels of stress on the part of first-generation Black African students with regard to financing their education: 40% of students surveyed cite tuition fees as a potential reason for leaving university, and 30% cite living costs.

Responses from student beneficiaries of the UFS food bursary scheme, called ‘No Student Hungry’ (NSH), suggest the support is fundamental to success, and this is reflected in the comments from one recipient, known only as Thabiso: “Before I got the food bursary it was hard to stay in class. I could not concentrate because I had no food, so I used to go home. Thanks to NSH, I now attend all my classes and am doing well in my academics. One day I’ll gladly pay it back and support the NSH programme. I would not have been here if it wasn’t for the generosity of the programme.”

Institutional leadership

Petersen told University World News the UFS Centre for Teaching and Learning is doing “fantastic work” and he is pushing for its expansion – for the benefit of regional, national and international higher education sectors.

“I believe the centre should be strengthened even further, particularly in its research activities, so we can critically reflect on the issues around student engagement in a global context and share research findings and perspectives.”

For Strydom, having student success recognised as the number one goal in the university’s strategic plan, under the leadership of Petersen, is tangible evidence of essential “buy-in and support” from institutional leadership for the idea of a supportive and equitable teaching and learning environment and the successful efforts of the centre and others in trying to achieve it.

“We need to create equitable university environments, rather than simply equal university environments. This means designing the physical, social and intellectual architecture of our universities to provide all students with an environment in which they feel at home and are able to reach their potential,” he says.