For success, readiness is as vital as access

In September 2010 and February 2014, first-year students at the University of the Free State drew pictures of their experience of coming to university. These drawings visually highlighted the injustices faced by many.

Universities that increase access without improving chances of success create new forms of injustice.

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 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 and 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?

South African higher education has made notable progress in terms of widening access. The Council on Higher Education (CHE) recently highlighted this during its presentation of the 20-Year Review of Higher Education to the parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education and training.

The CHE shows overall enrolment grew from 495 348 in 1994 to 983 698 in 2013. African students accounted for 42.5% of enrolment in 2004 and this proportion grew to 70.1% in 2013. But cohort studies have shown that about 30% of students drop out of university in the first year, and about 55% of all students never graduate.

These figures are even more concerning when we consider how the numbers are skewed by race (and class, although this is harder to measure), with the CHE estimates being that fewer than 5% of African and coloured youth succeed in higher education.

This is clearly an injustice, and turning this tide must be central to any efforts to transform higher education.

As powerful as these numbers can be, what they don’t tell us is anything about the students’ lives and the many social justice issues that play out daily. We need to ask questions about what students are able to be and do in their lives as students, and we need to understand their achievements and the opportunities available (or not) to them.

Being eligible for university –meeting the admission criteria – does not necessarily mean that one is ready for it, and this is evident from the student data, even for those entering university with top school-leaving results.

Although 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. Rather, university readiness is multidimensional.

A comprehensive analysis of the access, readiness and transition literature globally and in South Africa, capabilities approach theory and applications in higher education was done to propose a theoretical list of capabilities for readiness (see “University training should begin at school”). The voices of the high school pupils and the students could then “speak back” to the theory and, through this process, a list of seven clusters of capabilities for university readiness emerged.

This list highlights the multidimensional nature and the complexity of the transition to university, and shows what students ought to be able to be and do when they enter this institution. When readiness is approached in a multidimensional 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 misunderstandings about some groups of students being ready and others not.

Ideally, opportunities to develop these capabilities should be created at high school and during the first year of tertiary education. The data highlighted how decisions made, or sometimes forced, at high school continue to have implications for students at university. It is thus insufficient to begin tackling readiness and transition challenges only once schooling has been completed.

Within the capabilities approach, human diversity is seen as fundamental, rather than incidental, to our understanding of any situation. This is equally true of access issues. Individual and social diversity matters greatly for the development of capabilities for university readiness.

In capabilities language, this diversity can be expressed using the concept of conversion factors. These are personal, social and environmental factors that influence the extent to which a student can convert the resources at their disposable – such as having a place at university or National Student Financial Aid Scheme funding – into meaningful opportunities and achievements.

Although 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 conversion factors included having developed a will, a curiosity and desire to learn, 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 a much deeper, contextualised understanding of who their students are and the complex web of conditions that influence what they can and cannot be and do as students.

The current access dilemmas we face, and the complexity of factors that affect access and success, should thus not limit our thinking about what the transition into and through university ought to be like for our students.

Merridy Wilson-Strydom is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Research on Higher Education and Development at the University of the Free State. This is an edited version of a paper she presented at the second national Higher Education Transformation Summit in Durban last month

University training should begin at school

What universities could do to improve people’s access to and success at universities includes the following:

•Forge meaningful, long-term partnerships with schools to create more easily visible access pathways from high school to university, and to assist with making decisions about courses of study much earlier than at the time of application or registration.

•Adopt an educational approach to marketing at schools, focusing less on selling the university and more on raising awareness about the capabilities underpinning readiness and providing meaningful information about what it means to study at university. In this way the gap between eligibility and readiness is confronted.

•Embrace a more comprehensive and multidimensional understanding of access and readiness. This should infuse the ways in which universities work at all levels – administrative, academic and outside 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, scared or lack confidence in their ability as a student.

•Integrate opportunities to learn the required academic behaviours and learning approaches, including language competence and, importantly, their confidence.

•To accommodate the diverse personal, social and environmental factors that affect students’ lives, and hence their success, create more flexible learning pathways through higher education and opportunities to develop university readiness capabilities. – Merridy Wilson-Strydom

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