The issues of access and success are vast, complex, contested and fundamental to meaningful transformation within the higher education sector.
But we need now to rethink what university readiness means, and the implications of this for student retention, throughput and, ultimately, success.
Drawing on research that focuses on students’ lives and everyday educational experiences in school and at university must influence such rethinking.
Doing so can provide a platform for a deeper conversation about access and success, a conversation rooted in the realities of students’ lives. South African higher education has made notable progress in terms of widening access. African students accounted for 42.5% of enrolment in 2004 and this proportion grew to 70.1% in 2013.
Yet approximately 30% of students drop out of university in their first year, and about 55% of all students never graduate. This is clearly an issue of injustice, and so turning this tide must be central to any higher education transformation efforts. As powerful as these numbers can be, what they don’t tell us is anything about the students’ lives and the numerous social justice issues that play out on a daily basis. The so-called “capabilities approach” calls on us to consider individual wellbeing and quality of life as central metrics.
That is, we need to ask questions about what students are able to be and to do in their lives as students, and we need to understand students’ achievements as well as the opportunities that are (or are not) available to them. In September 2010 and February 2014 first-year students at the University of the Free State (UFS) drew pictures of their experience of coming to university.
These drawings visually highlighted the injustices faced by many students, despite being granted a place at university (and so being positively counted in our access statistics). Where universities increase access without improving chances of success they create new forms of injustice, while seeking to overcome old forms. One student in the 2010 group drew herself on a swing, swinging above the world and stated “Can c the whole world before me – a new one to experience.”
Another student drew himself pushing against a high brick wall that he could not see over. On his side of the wall it was dark and on the other side of the wall was sunshine and success.
Similarly, a student in the 2014 group depicted his degree as a monster. These examples highlight the differences in quality of life or well-being of these students.
How can we begin to knock down the brick walls and defeat the monsters that many students are up against when they start at university? Being eligible for university (meeting admission criteria) does not necessarily mean that one is ready for university — even for students entering university with top school-leaving results.
While the gap between school and university in terms of content knowledge (and to some extent learning skills) is often noted and is the subject of much media attention when the grade 12 results are released each year, the gap is about much more than subject or content knowledge.
When readiness is approached in a multi-dimensional manner it becomes clear that all students are ready in some ways and not ready in others. This approach helps us to move beyond the all too common understandings that certain groupings of students are ready and others are not.
Ideally, capabilities for university success should be created at high school and during the first year. Because decisions made (or sometimes forced) at high school continue to have implications for students at university, it is insufficient to begin tackling readiness and transition challenges only once schooling has been completed.
A “capabilities approach” sees human diversity as fundamental, rather than incidental, to our understanding of any situation. This is equally true of access. Individual and social diversity matters greatly for the development of capabilities for university readiness. Personal, social and environmental factors influence the extent to which students can convert the resources at their disposal (such has having a place at university or funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme) into meaningful opportunities and achievements.
While resources are critical for success, we should not assume that equality of resources necessarily implies equality of access or success. We need to understand the social conditions that either enable or constrain the development of capabilities for university readiness. At the personal level, particularly important factors include a will to learn (curiosity and desire for learning), having confidence to learn, and one’s home language in relation to the language of instruction.
At the social level, class, gender, school context and culture, quality of teachers, quality of subject choice, freedom to choose school subjects, and home environment created both enabling and constraining conditions for the diverse students in this study – and sometimes in unexpected and intersecting ways. Universities need to develop much deeper, contextualised understandings of who their students are and the complex web of conditions that influence what they can and cannot be and do as students.
Amartya Sen reminds us that, although an ideal world (or higher education access context) may be out of reach given current conditions, there are numerous “remediable injustices” around us that we ought to work to change.
The current access dilemmas we face, and complexity of factors that affect access and success, should therefore not limit our thinking about what the transition into and through university ought to be like for our students. To move beyond the status quo, we need to ask different questions and apply new theoretical approaches to understanding access and success.
The research I have drawn on here produces the following recommendations for what universities could do to improve access and success:
Forge meaningful, long-term partnerships with schools to create more easily visible access pathways from high school into university; and assist with decision-making about courses of study much earlier than at the point of application or registration.
Marketing at schools should focus less on selling the given university and more on raising awareness about the range of capabilities underpinning readiness and providing substantive information about what it means to study at university – so confronting the gap between eligibility and readiness.
Embrace a more comprehensive and multidimensional understanding of access and readiness that infuses the ways in which universities work – at all levels (administratively, academically and outside of the formal curriculum)
Assist first-year students to understand the complexity of university readiness (as opposed to eligibility), and to see that they are not alone when they are confused and scared or lack confidence in their ability as a university student.
Integrate across the curriculum opportunities to learn the required academic behaviours and learning approaches, including language competence and, importantly, confidence.
Create more flexible learning pathways through higher education and multiple opportunities to develop university readiness capabilities to accommodate the diverse personal, social and environmental factors that impact on students’ lives, and hence, their success.
Merridy Wilson-Strydom is a senior research fellow in the Centre for Research on Higher Education and Development at the University of the Free State.