A study of efforts to assist disadvantaged students points to the need for changes.
The implementation of extended curricula by the department of education in 2006 has shifted the debate from "alternative access to higher education" to "access for success". More focus is being placed on ensuring that students who are admitted to access programmes with holistic academic support do indeed achieve success.
To add academic support initiatives to the mainstream curriculum requires additional time. Thus students are granted an extra year that is added to the specified minimum duration of the programme to complete their studies. However, the current trend is that most students take beyond the envisaged three-plus-one years to obtain their extended curriculum qualification, despite access programmes and the holistic academic support offered by higher education institutions.
For meaningful access for success, students entering access programmes should not stay long beyond the required minimum period in the higher education system. This will only be achieved if students can demonstrate mastery of the knowledge and skills provided by access programmes that enable them to obtain the qualification within the required minimum period.
A descriptive, exploratory study was undertaken using quantitative data derived from five cohorts of first-year students enrolled for the national diploma in engineering at a higher education institution. The data was extracted from the university's information technology and student record systems. The cohorts for this study were students enrolled for access programmes during the period 2001 to 2008.
At the end of 2004, a shift in focus from academic support to academic development occurred in South Africa. Universities phased out bridging (aimed at filling the gaps left by inadequate schooling in order to enable students to cope with the demands of tertiary study) and foundation programmes (consisting of a set of courses that ensured accreditation for certain modules that were added to the first year of study).
As a case in point, the university under study implemented an extended curriculum programme (being used by the department  not to refer to a modified first year but to a formal degree or diploma that includes foundation provisional courses) in engineering.
When students were admitted to bridging and foundation programmes, one of the criteria for the continuation of engineering studies after completion of the bridging and foundation programmes was that students were neither allowed to repeat the programme nor fail any of the subjects offered in the access programme. The senate ruling stipulated that students had to pass all of their subjects to be allowed to register for first-year studies for the national diploma in engineering.
This principle implied that students who failed had to leave and were not allowed to register in any other academic programme offered by the university. The rationale for this was that, although it is difficult to determine the potential of students to study engineering based on their matric results, admission to a bridging and foundation programme and its successful completion could be an indicator of a student's potential for academic success.
As required by the department, a senate ruling that required all subjects to be passed in subsequent tertiary levels, just as in the bridging and foundation programmes, had to fall away. Students admitted to the extended curriculum national diploma in engineering were now allowed to repeat if they failed their first-year subjects, and could carry failed first-year subjects into their second and even third year of studies.
A summary of the cohorts 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2007 indicates the difference in completion rates within the minimum required time. The completion rates in minimum time for the six-month 2001 bridging, year-long 2002 bridging and 2005 foundation programmes were all above 65% (95%, 68% and 85% respectively). In contrast to this, the completion rate in minimum required time for the 2007 extended curriculum cohort was only 26%.
Failure to pass these subjects before continuing to the second year shows that students have not mastered important key competencies and skills required to complete their studies successfully. When a student carries over a first-year subject into the second year, it signifies that the student has not achieved mastery of the subject and thus does not have the necessary knowledge and skills base as a foundation for successful study. Consequently, students develop more misconceptions and increase the gaps that already exist owing to insufficient schooling. They are unable to address these problems because, as they approach their second year, they do not have the necessary time to engage with their failed first-year subjects and their current second-year subject load simultaneously, and therefore become more dependent on surface-level approaches used during their high school years.
Furthermore, students who have to complete one or more subjects from previous years often experience timetable clashes between first- and second- or sometimes even between first-, second- and third-year subjects. Students are forced to choose which classes they attend. If they give preference to their second- or third-year subjects, they might neglect the first-year subjects, which results in repeated failure of these subjects and perpetuates the burden of an extra subject being carried. This leads to lengthening the time of completion for the extended curriculum studies, or dropping out without completion.
Although the system of multiple opportunities gives students several chances to complete a subject, it increases the student's risk of failure and in many cases extends the time to completion. Multiple unsuccessful attempts could contribute to students' demotivation and negatively affect their academic self-image, which could lead them to drop out without obtaining the qualification.
Based on the research offered by the study, it is therefore recommended that the definition of access for success includes the requirement that students in some way demonstrate that they have mastered the foundation skills offered during the first year of access programmes. Students need to demonstrate mastery of skills and knowledge by passing all subjects in the first year, because it contributes to the completion of the programme within the minimum time period.
Dr Pauline Machika is the executive director of academic development and support at Vaal University of Technology