Wrap-around support key to level education playing field

Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardour and attended to with diligence.

I am reminded of these renowned words of 18th-century author Abigail Adams each year when we encounter the scramble for enrolment at universities and other institutions of higher learning in South Africa.

It is a truism meant as advice for those eager to embark on an educational journey that will shape their futures. However, given the context and realities of our country, the ardour and diligence invariably also apply to our institutions of higher learning.

The key question is: given our fractured schooling system and the diverse socio-political contexts of our students on entering post-matriculation education, how do institutions level the playing field? It is one thing to propagate our united goal to broaden access to as many deserving students [as possible] from the previously disadvantaged communities. It is quite another matter to ensure consistent access with success.

In South Africa, the gap between privileged and disadvantaged, a consequence of the gross inequality and the legacy of apartheid, is aggravated by the current economic crisis – increased unemployment, poverty, crime and corruption.

Needless to say, financial circumstances have a significant effect on the ability of students to study successfully. And the ever-increasing demand for bursaries, scholarships, study loans and educational sponsorships is common knowledge.

Passport to success, or not

Yet, admittance to an institution of higher learning with a bursary or scholarship to one’s credit is no guarantee or passport to academic success.

For many first-year students, orientating to campus life and tertiary studies can be hugely challenging. In South Africa, according to research conducted by Statistics SA, 70% of first-year students are the first in their family to attend university or college.

Being a first-year student is difficult for most people (even those who come from families where previous generations have attended university). It takes grit to adapt to the new environment and it requires new and different ways of learning and thinking.

Ultimately, there are a host of factors, apart from the ability to master the subject content and a bursary to your name, that contribute to the successful outcome of a student’s learning experience and their overall academic performance.

Providing support

In our quest to level the playing field and to optimise the chances of academic success for, particularly, our students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Stellenbosch University has partnered with The Dell Foundation, whose Young Leaders Programme has designed a formidable wrap-round support initiative that serves as scaffolding for successful performance throughout the student’s academic career. It focuses on, among others:

• Strengthening academics via tutors and learning communities who have regular check-ins and support students throughout their graduate programme. (This is in addition to our longstanding successful tracking system that monitors the academic performance of newcomers, with early alert systems on poor performance and remedial action plans to keep scholastic achievement on track.)

• Financial support with a ‘gap cover’-orientation: to alleviate the additional stresses encountered by students during their day-to-day student life, covering any shortfalls from their tuition and accommodation [National Student Financial Aid Scheme] funding or keeping student debt low, providing funding for essentials such as membership fees for student societies, textbooks, photocopying, travelling, toiletries, and so on;

• Situational support: focusing on the mental and social well-being of students by offering support in the form of counselling, mentorship and developmental workshops;

• Work-readiness: via a digital platform with tools and resources to support students to effectively manage their academic careers and to overcome barriers to employment such as creating a winning resumé, effective marketing of themselves for career-related opportunities and preparing for professional interviews;

• Job placement: which offers personal coaching and guidance consultations for final years to effectively create and implement action plans against their post-graduation goals for work or further study.

• Membership to an Alumni Community that enhances professional support and knowledge-networking opportunities for career development and expansion.

This range of support mechanisms enables students to excel academically and gain valuable skills from their campus experience. It is geared to significantly reduce the dropout rate which is currently notably higher among students from disadvantaged groups, students of colour or those who form part of the ‘missing middle’.

Having wrap-around support equips students with more than just a degree – it provides them with skills necessary to flourish academically and to enter the world of work with the graduate attributes that will serve them well as engaged and responsible citizens who are focused on making a positive contribution to society.

As leading institutions of higher learning, it is, thus, incumbent on us to assist and promote the process of human restitution by moving beyond the traditional paradigm of distancing ourselves from the deficiencies of basic education and to step up our efforts to level the playing field with ardour and diligence. It is nothing less than a moral obligation to tertiary education and the future of our country.

Professor Deresh Ramjugernath is the deputy vice-chancellor: learning and teaching at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.