Chasing the graduation dream

Nearly half of the students entering South Africa’s universities leave without completing a qualification, even though less than 18% of 20- to 24-year-olds enrol for higher education in the first place. Although there are undeniable problems with the quality of basic education, the students who make it to university are the best we have. We have to find creative and effective ways to help them to succeed.

In February this year, the Council on Higher Education launched the Quality Enhancement Project to help to do just that.

This is a national project to promote student success at all higher education institutions, where student success is defined as “enhanced student learning with a view to increasing the number of graduates with attributes that are personally, professionally and socially valuable”.

Across the world, universities are increasingly accountable for their outputs, one of which is the quality of their graduates. To produce high-quality graduates South Africa needs to provide learning experiences, learning environments and appropriate support that will enable students to develop the knowledge, cognitive skills, self-regulation, learning dispositions and values to enable them to thrive as contributing members of society in a complex, rapidly changing 21st century.

The project is a bold initiative to harness the collective wisdom, knowledge and experience of the whole higher education sector to produce more quality graduates.

Drew on existing models
In designing the project, we drew on models from Scotland and the United States, extracting key features and adapting them for South Africa. In 2003 the Scottish Quality Assurance Agency changed its focus from quality assurance to quality enhancement. Over the past 11 years it has inculcated a culture of quality enhancement in that country’s universities.

Key to its success has been its Scottish higher education enhancement committee, comprising deputy vice-chancellors for learning and teaching from each of their universities. It meets three times a year to provide leadership at national level for its enhancement activities.

Over the past few years the Kresge Foundation, a large American philanthropic organisation, has sent a number of South Africans, myself included, to the annual conference of Achieving the Dream. This network of more than 200 community colleges with 3.8-million students is committed to the “dream” of enabling more students to succeed in higher education, especially students who are poor, from historically marginalised communities and the first in their families to go to college.

The success of institutions affiliated to the network is largely owed to top management driving support for student success throughout the institution. Evidence is constantly collected and used to guide decision-making about what does and does not promote student success. In both the Scottish and American initiatives, continuous improvement and learning from one another boosts their success.

South African universities do not have a history of collaboration. On the contrary, they tend to compete against one another. Funding models and a small pool of well-prepared students exacerbate the competitive ethos. But our system is too small, our resources too limited and our needs too great for us to compete in the area of student success. We cannot afford it. We have to put our heads together to identify and share good practices and solve common problems.

A unique process
To help us to do this we devised a process for the project that is inductive and iterative. It is inductive in that findings from one step will guide what happens in the next step of the process. It is iterative in that there will be two phases comprising the same set of steps. Some steps take place at institutional level and some are nationally co-ordinated, providing for a constant flow of information to and from institutions and the sector as a whole. This innovative process will enable information to be gathered, shared and disseminated fairly rapidly – one phase is only two years long. As far as we know, the process is unique to South Africa.

The steps in each two-year phase will be the selection of focus areas, institutional submissions of the baseline information related to the focus areas, analysis and synthesis of submissions, collaborative workshops for groups of institutions, analysis and synthesis of workshop reports, and institutional reports on improvements made in the focus areas. At the end of a phase, institutions will receive individual feedback on what they have done well and where they can improve.

For the first phase, which runs from February 2014 to November 2015, four focus areas have been selected with which all institutions have been asked to engage. These are enhancing academics as teachers, enhancing student support and development, enhancing the learning environment, and enhancing course and programme enrolment management.

Academics are usually hired on the strength of their research, and often have no knowledge of effective pedagogical practices, appropriate assessment methods or sound curriculum development principles. Given the massification of higher education and concomitant diversification of the student body in the past two decades internationally, there is growing recognition that the quality of university teachers is vital for student success.

Equally important is the provision of support to students and structured opportunities for those who have not had access to good schooling to develop a range of academic competencies and life skills. The learning environment can make a significant contribution to students’ learning experiences through the provision of suitable teaching and learning spaces and a variety of resources, including technological.

Accurate selection and placement mechanisms are essential for ensuring that students admitted by an institution have a reasonable chance of succeeding. Once an institution has admitted a student, it has a moral obligation to do what it reasonably can to provide enabling conditions for the student to succeed. The institution must therefore carefully match the characteristics of the students it admits with the courses, programmes and support it is willing to offer.

A useful starting point
Universities will be submitting baseline information on September 1 on what they currently do in relation to the four focus areas, what they have tried that is successful and what evidence they use to measure success, what they tried that did not work and why it did not work, and what challenges they face. A content analysis of these submissions will provide a useful starting point for bringing about improvements that will lead to greater student success.

This should lead to a number of spin-off activities, some of which will be initiated by the Council on Higher Education, but others will likely be initiated by institutions, statutory professional bodies, professional associations and researchers. We are also in the process of establishing a committee of deputy vice-chancellors (academic, and teaching and learning) with whom issues of national importance arising from the project can be discussed.

We envisage that the project will lead to benchmarks and codes for good practice, research on what helps on hinders student success, shared resources, institutional capacity development and policy recommendations.

More broadly, the Quality Enhancement Project provides an opportunity to catalyse a process of social change in which institutions as a whole and the individuals within them engage in the continual enhancement of students’ experience, leading to increased student success.

In addition, we hope to see a collective impact on improving the higher education system as members of the system continually collaborate to share good practices and solve common problems.

Professor Diane Grayson is director of institutional audits at the Council on Higher Education. For more information on the council’s Quality Enhancement Project, go to

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