First year: Ambushed in academia

When universities try to establish an applicant’s readiness for higher education, they focus almost exclusively on previous academic achievement. In South Africa, this means looking at an applicant’s matric marks and national benchmark test results, which measure their ability to cope with the typical reading, writing and reasoning demands they’ll face in tertiary study.

But what does it really mean to be university ready? Over the past five years, I’ve worked with just over 3?000 high school pupils and first-year university students in a bid to answer this complex question.

The participants were drawn from a variety of circumstances in the Free State. This was in keeping with the country’s diverse socioeconomic landscape. The data was gathered using a range of methods: a quantitative survey, interviews, focus groups, student drawings and written reflections.

Regardless of their home or schooling background, people who were just entering university said they felt confused, lost and scared. This is hardly surprising: it’s a new environment and a new stage of life. They expressed these feelings in terms of navigating the physical landscape of the university – getting lost – and trying to grapple with how the university’s systems work.

Those who lived in university accommodation had access to better support networks than those who lived off campus and commuted.

On the flipside, those in residence reported they were exhausted and distracted from their academic work during the crucial first few weeks at university. The cause? Compulsory residence activities such as house meetings, sport and cultural activities.

Language was another area where students struggled. For many, university was the first time that no teaching happened in their home language.

At school, their teachers often explained difficult concepts in Sesotho even though the formal language of learning was English. Pupils were also able to ask questions in Sesotho.

In the early days of their degrees, these students said they felt silenced as they were taught and expected to ask questions only in English.

Students also felt insecure about their computer skills. Most young South Africans have accessed the internet using their cellphones but many have not used a computer before they reach university. Working computer labs are not common at poorly resourced schools.

Finances were a common cause of stress. Students said they were worried when fees were due. The challenges of student financing are urgent, particularly for first-year students who don’t yet know how to negotiate their university’s financial requirements. They often don’t know how to look for financial help.

Pupils who attended Afrikaans-language high schools and township schools had relatively few opportunities to engage meaningfully with peers of different races, economic backgrounds and religious beliefs.

This meant university was the first time they really encountered diversity. Added to that, many pupils told us that their schools didn’t engage with diverse ideas and complex problems. There was little room for debate, nor space created to respect different opinions. These skills are essential at university level, so students from such backgrounds are immediately at a disadvantage when they reach higher education.

Other factors contributed to pupils’ university readiness: teacher quality, career advice, subject choices and, crucially, their home and community contexts. Young people from poor backgrounds spend more time travelling to and from school, doing household chores and caring for relatives than their wealthier peers.

This eats into the time that is available for learning, doing sport, taking part in extramural activities and getting involved in volunteer work. All of these extra activities can equip a young person better for university life.

All data was used to create seven capabilities pupils need to be considered ready for university:

• Being able to make well-reasoned, informed, critical, independent and reflective choices;

• Having the academic grounding for chosen university subjects, being able to develop and apply methods of critical thinking and imagination to identify and comprehend multiple perspectives and complex problems;

• Having curiosity and a desire to learn, having learning skills for university study and being an inquirer with a questioning disposition;

• Having the ability to participate in groups for learning, to solve problems or complete tasks;

• Being able to form networks of friendships for learning support and leisure. Having a capacity for mutual respect and dignity. Valuing diversity and being able to show empathy;

• Having confidence in one’s ability to learn; and

• Being able to understand, read, write and speak confidently in the language of instruction.

So how can schools and universities develop these capabilities?

Universities must embrace a comprehensive understanding of access and readiness that infuses their interactions with students – whether it’s administratively, academically or outside of the curriculum.

Many pupils complained that they didn’t get much of useful information from university marketing drives at their schools. The focus was on promoting the given university rather than helping them to understand what they might personally do to prepare for this new experience. A switch in focus is recommended.

New students also need detailed academic advice to help them select courses and make sense of their university’s formal and informal systems and rules.

There should be opportunities across the curriculum to learn the required academic behaviours and dispositions, including language competence and confidence.

Given the current shortages of student accommodation at campuses across South Africa, finding ways to provide support networks to students living off campus is critical.

It’s no longer sufficient for universities to assume that students who meet the admissions criteria are university ready. They must work with feeder schools in their areas to develop high school pupils who have the capabilities to thrive in higher education. –

Merridy Wilson-Strydom is a senior research fellow at University of the Free State’s Centre for Research on Higher Education and Development



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