What's it like to study while Black at university?

South African tertiary education institutions are embroiled in a process of change and transformation motivated by the need to overcome past inequalities and find their own voice. In the midst of this ferment, a five-year study has been researching the core of the student experience.

Published towards the end of last year, Studying while Black: Race, education and emancipation in South African universities, authored by Sharlene Swartz, Alude Mahali, Relebohile Moletsane, Emma Arogundade, Nene Ernest Khalema, Adam Cooper and Candice Groenewald, is a monograph based on a report produced by the Human Sciences Research Council for the Education and Emancipation project conducted for the South African Department of Higher Education and Training.

The study is accompanied by a documentary, Ready or Not! Black Students’ Experience of South African Universities.


The study, “An account of what it is like to study while Black in a South African university”, took a small group of students from eight universities in South Africa and tracked their “journeys through university (and sometimes out of it), asking what obstacles the students encountered, and what they, along with the institutions, were doing in response”.

Running from July 2013 to March 2017, the study included 74 Black students, 6 Coloured students, 2 Indians and 6 White students. Contact was lost with 11 students and the final number tracked was 69, 43 of whom were female. By the end of the study, 27 had graduated, 35 were yet to complete their course and seven had left to take up a job or seek employment before completing their degrees.

In 2015, the third year of the study, the #RhodesMustFall movement and the subsequent #FeesMustFall protests and others threw into sharp relief the issues raised by the students in the study.

According to the study’s authors, the high failure rate among students, low course completion rates on time, and the lack of equity in enrolment and completion between Black and White students are among the key challenges facing South African tertiary education.

“While the number of Black students enrolled has increased since 1995, nearly four times as many White youth [as a proportion of population size] are enrolled at university than Black students (15% vs 54% White in 2014). Furthermore, White completion rates are on average 50% higher than rates of Black students,” the authors note.

Multiple needs

Universities created during apartheid for a White minority elite “have not adequately dealt with the multiple needs and challenges that confront students who were previously excluded, and who are often ill-prepared to enter universities due to different histories and prior education experiences, which influence their ability to settle into university”.

“The students observed discrimination in various aspects of student life, from access to resources, student housing and language policies.” Black students identified themselves as being at the “lowest level of the socio-economic ladder” and said their inability to pay fees often left them “feeling isolated and ashamed in comparison to their peers in other race groups”.

Racial imbalances were evident among university staff: though administrative staff were more reflective of South African demographics, this was not the case with academic staff, where Black staff occupied lower positions while senior posts were mainly staffed by Whites.

In addition to a lack of equitable racial representation among academic staff, students also expressed concerns about the curriculum. “Students felt that 23 years after the end of apartheid, they are still being directed to curricula that were designed to advance colonialism and apartheid. Most Black students in particular felt that they are far removed from the curriculum content, which they claimed does not reflect their lived experience.”

This is a sentiment shared by Indian and Coloured students “who felt all the disciplines (except natural sciences) such as psychology, sociology, law and so forth advance Eurocentric and Western knowledge and do not reflect the South African context … Calls for a decolonised curriculum were resounding.”


Language was another hurdle. Though South Africa has 11 official languages, the “overwhelming majority of instruction at universities is conducted in English or Afrikaans”. This in a country where the language of university tuition might be a second or even third language for the student.

Despite a language policy for higher education released by the Ministry of Education in 2001, the use of English has increased substantively. “So while attractive official policies exist, the persistent dominance of English and Afrikaans in South African universities remains an impasse that prevents success.”

According to students, academic and financial factors were the two “most debilitating obstacles that inhibited access and continued participation in universities”. Academic factors included inadequate preparation in advance for the study programme; poor quality lecturing; ineffective channels for complaint; lack of academic support and fears of intellectual inferiority.

On the financial front students thought monetary troubles posed a greater barrier to success than academic stressors. Often dependent on the erratic National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) or finding part-time employment to fund their studies, students felt finances were beyond their control, especially given extra costs for textbooks, expensive and onerous registration and administrative systems, plus issues around inadequate accommodation on or off campus.

Despite such challenges, the students in the study had “a positive outlook on their life trajectories. They tended to see education as the most important aspect of their life in terms of its capability to lay the foundation for better career pathways.”

“The students we encountered were not apathetic nor did they predominantly blame others for their failures. Instead they came up with a myriad of ideas for what needs to be done in order to help them achieve their dreams,” the authors wrote.


Studying while Black recommends various actions to remedy the current situation, including assisting students from disadvantaged backgrounds to understand course requirements, career choices and funding opportunities; the promotion of mentoring and peer exchange, plus flattening hierarchical structures.

“There is a need to look at what is structural and what is individual,” co-author Alude Mahali told University World News: “There is something for everybody to do – students, lecturers and university heads.”

The monograph was sent to the Department of Higher Education and Training and other government departments as well as to all participating institutions, and the authors are currently holding a series of workshops and seminars at tertiary institutions utilising the study and the documentary, Ready or Not!

Some of the developments that occurred during the study, such as the #FeesMustFall campaign, have already provoked moves towards addressing issues raised by the study, according to co-author Relebohile Moletsane.

“Universities (and government) have acknowledged that the students’ demands for free education are justified and that something needs to be done. Where government and universities differ is with reference to the form of intervention that is possible and-or sustainable.”

She said demands for a decolonised curriculum, while understood differently by different constituencies, “are receiving unprecedented attention in many institutions, with several interventions and policy changes aimed at understanding ‘decolonisation’ and developing curricula aimed at reflecting this understanding”.

Co-author Sharlene Swartz agrees: “There’s certainly a lot more awareness of the issues, but many of the struggles are repeated each year, for example, the lack of student accommodation. NSFAS is trying to sort itself out with some success. So I’d say some progress has been made but still more is needed.”

Studying while Black: Race, education and emancipation in South African universities is available as a free download if you register on the HSRC Press website.

The documentary Ready or Not! Black Students’ Experience of South African Universities can be viewed on YouTube.