In search of a new ecosystem for student success

While gains have been made in respect of student numbers passing through the South African tertiary system over the past two decades, too much young potential remains wasted, making it crucial for a new ecosystem to be created for student success, according to Professor John Volmink, chairperson of the Umalusi Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training.

Addressing delegates at the annual Siyaphumelela Conference held from 25-27 June in Johannesburg, Volmink said for years South African institutions accepted the Senior Certificate as the best predictor of academic success at tertiary institutions. However, the introduction of a new qualification, the National Senior Certificate (NSC), in 2008 created uncertainty among universities.

This uncertainty reflects in the NSC pass rate by qualification type over an eight-year period between 2009 and 2018, he said. For example, at bachelor’s level in 2008, the pass rate was 20.1%, dropping to 19.9% in 2009, before rising to 23.5% in 2010, another increase in the following year to 24.3%, 26.6% in 2012, and a high of 33.6% in 2018.

Volmink said in 2008, the NSC exams produced unusually high bachelor pass rates. As a result, in 2009, universities experienced an abnormal influx of first-year students, and several institutions complained of higher-than-normal failure rates.

This prompted a study by Umalusi in 2017 to investigate the relationship between NSC matriculation subjects (English, mathematics and physical sciences) and academic success among first-year students from a sample of seven public universities. It was premised around the question: “Is there a relationship between NSC results and academic success of first-year students at higher education institutions?”

According to Volmink, the findings showed that:

  • • The numeric- and natural sciences-related faculties revealed that mathematics and physical sciences have the strongest correlation with academic success.

  • • The non-numeric- and social sciences-related faculties revealed that English has the strongest correlation with academic success.

  • • Physical science was the leading predictor in most faculties, even if it was not required for admission.

  • • In most faculties, over time there were no clear trends among the subjects.

  • • Although there is correlation observed between the NSC subjects and the Grade Point Average, the correlation is of moderate strength.

The implications of these findings, he said, is that faculties which admit students with high NSC marks (equal to or greater than 70%) produced strong correlations.

This also has implications for a review of the pass requirements for the bachelor degree level.

But in terms of the way forward, Volmink said the trends were not clear across faculties, as they were analysing data at programme level, and there may be a need to relax some of the delimitations, to increase the institutional sample size.

“While gains have been made, too much young potential remains wasted. The university student graduation rate has increased by 15% since 2000,” he said.

Paradigm change

So how does one begin changing the paradigm of measurement of student success in the future?

Volmink said lessons learnt over 30 years about foundation programmes at higher education institutions offer a distinct guide.

For example, he said early notions of “under-preparedness” were mistakenly located in students themselves who suffered a “deep sense of alienation and exclusion”.

As a result, the current view puts more emphasis on the need for institutions and curricula to change. There also need to be structural changes to qualifications to remove barriers to learning – in other words, a new ecosystem.

“A new ecosystem is required, in which there is a need to create access to the theory of knowledge, considering exogenous factors – such as institutional environment, socio-economic background, and realities of a mass education model. This new ecosystem must hail from a community of interdependent, dynamic and complex elements adapting to internal and external influences,” Volmink said.

Volmink said internal elements around this suggestion would focus on what counts as success, relational issues and best practices for student engagement, such as collaborative learning models.

Student mindset of the future

A student mindset of the future, he said, should drive the transition and preparation into further education and would require a change in paradigms for student support and teaching to student strengths.

Of course, these are not possible, Volmink said, without addressing institutional challenges, such as legacies of separation and inequity at all levels, tension between access, massification and quality, and the education realities around poverty.

“Poverty is the inability to participate in society with dignity. We’ve got to deal with the poverty of opportunity versus poverty of aspiration,” he said.

In addressing the question, 'What students need to grow?', Volmink said they need caring relationships, to be treated with respect and given equal opportunities.

Arguing that student vulnerability spans academic, financial and socio-cultural areas, Volmink is clear that quality of basic education is the academic foundation for transition into higher education; career guidance is critical to match interests, aptitudes and studies; and students must exist beyond survival mode, with textbooks, academic resources, accommodation and the cost of living being areas of concern.

Added to these challenges, he said language of instruction at universities is a major challenge to many students, while the culture shock of campus life, or migration, can leave students feeling isolated. “We need a new ecosystem for student success,” he said.