/ 20 October 2017

Core issues besides finance and access hinder students’ success

(Graphic: John McCanmn/M&G)
(Graphic: John McCanmn/M&G)


The key points in my previous two articles on these pages are:

• The persistently high and racially skewed failure rates in higher education are a major but largely unacknowledged contributor to the anger and alienation underlying the recent student protests (as well as being an obstacle to economic growth);

• Meaningful transformation in university education lies in the effective and equitable distribution of the benefits of higher education across the population. This cannot be achieved by access alone; access must be integrally linked to a successful completion of qualifications;

• Pressure arising from the #FeesMustFall campaign creates a high risk that a disproportionate share of new education funding will be allocated to student financial aid at the expense of resourcing the operation and development of the universities and other education-related sectors, which is equally important for student success. This would go against meaningful transformation;

• The poor performance of students at universities can be attributed to key factors that there are internal and external to higher education;

• The external factors, particularly poverty and deficient schooling, are powerful and largely intractable, so, for the foreseeable future, any improvement in them cannot be relied on to produce the substantial changes in higher education outcomes that are urgently needed; and

• This means it is essential to examine what it will take to improve performance and inclusiveness in higher education itself, and to act decisively in those areas that are in its control.

This final part of the article focuses on identifying the internal factors affecting student success and considering what can be done in practice — and without in any way compromising the integrity and necessary standards of the academic project — to make higher education effective for all students who are and should be admitted.

Internal factors

These fall into two broad categories: material (including student funding and accommodation) and educational.

The student protests have again highlighted a dispute about whether poor university performance arises primarily from inadequate student funding or academic factors. The dispute is important because the view of what causes poor performance will determine where resources are directed to try to improve it. The two broad internal factors focused on here are thus:

• Money; and

• The effectiveness of the current undergraduate teaching and learning process for all students admitted.


It is clear that higher education funding — for running the universities and for student financial aid — is a critical factor affecting student success. The centrality of student funding for almost all the protest groups is not surprising because financial access is clearly the first condition for attaining a higher education.

I would agree with the many commentators who have argued that the key to sustainable student funding is that education should be affordable (with the understanding that indigent individuals or families will not be expected to contribute anything) rather than free to all.

Since the onset of the protests, remarkable progress has been made towards this goal, and the government has committed itself to ensuring there will be sufficient financial aid for all poor and “missing middle” students within a short time. The new Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme, which involves public-private partnerships and is being piloted this year, is the state’s proposed strategy for achieving this goal. Ensuring the affordability of higher education would remove a critical barrier to both access and persistence. But there are two key pitfalls.

The first danger is that a disproportionate share of resources will be shifted to student financial aid, at the expense of institutional funding — which will negatively affect teaching quality and academic and psychosocial student support — or of other key areas of social spending, including early childhood development.

The 2017 national budget indicates that this counterproductive situation is already coming about. On top of the R32-billion recently “reprioritised” to higher education for the current budget period, another R5-billion has been earmarked for 2019-2020. It appears from the budget details that the bulk of these large sums is going to financial aid, which means that the critical backlogs in per capita university subsidy are not being adequately addressed. Moreover, the budget provides for considerable enrolment growth at the universities but none in technical and vocational education and training (TVET), which is the education sector that most needs strengthening.

The effects of this reprioritisation goes beyond the education system. Business Day on February 23 this year reported that: “The treasury notes that policy changes without adequate consideration of the budgetary consequences — such as those related to higher education — have required billions of rand to be shifted within tight resource limits, causing other critical programmes to face budget cuts.”

The second danger is that the shortage of financial aid is seen as the predominant cause of students’ underperformance at university, deflecting attention from other crucial issues that enable student success. This concern is widespread and has emerged from some studies based on self-reported student data.

Professor Thandi Mgwebi, the director of the South African Systems Analysis Centre, commenting in the Mail & Guardian on December 9 last year, said: “In terms of undergraduate education, previous studies report that students with a lack of financial means are also disadvantaged academically, as they mostly come from under-resourced schools. However, there are also reports of academic exclusion in institutions that charge high fees and have a high proportion of self-funded students.

“Such attrition among students capable of providing for higher education costs points to systemic academic obstacles to academic progression and learning. The issue of student dropout therefore cannot be attributed to financial issues alone.”

In other words, suggesting that poor performance can be attributed predominantly to either financial or academic factors creates a false dichotomy. For the purposes of determining effective corrective action, attempting to quantify the relative contributions of these factors to underperformance may be neither feasible nor a priority, because they are so interwoven.

The existence of “systemic academic obstacles” in the current higher education teaching-and-learning process, as referred to by Mgwebi, is also indicated by the large-scale and wide distribution of underperformance in the universities. Obstacles of this kind can only be dealt with effectively, and on the scale required, by systemic interventions.

Epistemic access

A central theme of this article is that the protesters’ emphasis on financial support carries the danger that the meaning of access will be restricted to gaining a university place, that is “formal” or physical access, rather than access to the benefits of higher education.

The disturbingly high failure and attrition rates in the current higher education system underline the fact that these are not the same thing. The benefits of higher education cannot be attained without the successful completion of qualifications; access without success is a hollow achievement.

What has been missing from the debate, at least overtly, is the essential counterpart to physical access: epistemic access. This is a now widely used variant of Wally Morrow’s concept of “epistemological access”. It refers to a student’s capacity to access the new knowledge and so alludes to the prior learning, or preparedness, that the student needs to be able to engage productively with the concepts, discourse, practices and ways of thinking of the discipline concerned. Adequate preparedness — the key to epistemic access — is critical in constructing knowledge and hence essential for success. Without it, the student lacks a sound foundation and often fails in the programme.

How does lack of epistemic access arise? Every learning programme (or individual course) is constructed on the basis of assumptions about students’ prior learning. These assumptions have a variety of forms, for example, that incoming students have mastered basic calculus, 3D drawing or how to write a discursive essay, and this prior learning is taken for granted in the design and delivery of the programme.

This is a necessary basis for the design of all curriculums, but trouble arises when the student intake is diverse in terms of prior learning, in which case the assumptions cannot match the different levels of preparedness. An equally problematic situation is when the intake is largely homogeneous but the assumptions are unrealistic for the class as a whole; this often applies in historically disadvantaged institutions.

Higher education should always be intellectually demanding for students. However, any substantial mismatch between the assumptions and a student’s actual preparedness creates an equally substantial hindrance to effective teaching and learning, and blocks epistemic access.

This stumbling block affects large numbers of students. The situation has arisen because the basic structure of the majority of our qualifications was inherited (from Scotland) during the colonial era, and the assumptions underlying them arose from the prior learning expected of the then traditional student intake, which was largely homogeneous. They were educated in well-resourced schools and were from financially stable homes.

Despite the present student intake being very different, the assumptions have remained much the same. The inevitable result is widespread underpreparedness, mainly affecting students who do not fit the former “traditional” profile, particularly the many students who are from under-resourced schools and do not have English as their mother tongue. These students have made up the greater part of the growth in university enrolment since 1994. This goes a long way towards accounting for the poor and racially skewed performance patterns in higher education.

Most of the affected students are in the top decile of the youth in terms of prior educational attainment, so have a legitimate claim to admission to higher education. The fact that their physical access has not been accompanied by epistemic access is a consequence of fault lines in the education system, rather than an absence of their potential to succeed.

Systemic obstacles

Epistemic access is complex and is facilitated, or impeded, by a range of factors. Skilled and creative pedagogy is clearly a key factor in enabling students to gain an explicit understanding of what is required of them, inducting them into ways of thinking that are required in their discipline and mitigating inequalities in educational background. Psychosocial support is vital for helping individual students to cope with the range of affective challenges they experience in facing new and demanding forms of learning in what can be a daunting environment.

But the extent to which pedagogy and psychological support can in themselves offset substantial mismatches between assumed and actual prior learning is limited. Long experience, backed by educational research, shows that, in the many cases of such mismatches in our current programmes, opportunities for students to gain epistemic access have to be purposefully provided for in the design of the programme itself.

It follows that a key and achievable way to provide for epistemic access, and hence improve student success, is to modify the design of our core academic programmes to ensure that they minimise the obstacles to epistemic access that are tripping up so many of our talented students, and that they provide an enabling, flexible framework for the full range of our diverse student body to have fair and realistic opportunities to succeed.

It must be emphasised that, as three decades of academic development experience in South Africa has indicated, such curriculum design can be implemented with no negative effects on quality and standards — in fact, quite the reverse.

Articulation gap

The underpreparedness of the majority of the student intake is the product of both unsatisfactory schooling and unrealistic assumptions underlying university curriculums, which is appropriately termed an “articulation gap”.

This is particularly evident at entry level. The problem is essentially a systemic fault that must be addressed by systemic changes.

A simple but common example is in mathematics, where a basic grasp of calculus is assumed in many first-year university courses, although it is not covered conceptually in the many schools lacking adequately qualified mathematics teachers. Thus a gifted mathematics student from a rural school can be at sea from day one in a mathematics 1 course that takes elementary calculus for granted, and may never catch up.

The articulation gap in South Africa is complex, comprising matters such as content, skills, approaches to learning, socialisation and “cultural capital”. But, as academic development experience has shown, it can be much diminished by providing entry-level courses that build on the realities of the students’ prior learning rather than on invalid assumptions. Having alternative entry-level courses in no way affects the programme’s exit standards but allows for different pathways to the same qualification, with the same learning outcomes.

Unless higher education is willing to do whatever it can to narrow the articulation gap, the inequalities and consequent mismatches will persist.

Major transitions

The articulation gap is clearest and most damaging in the first year of higher education but its effects are not limited to this level. Curriculum research has shown that there are key transitions in programmes for which students from different backgrounds are differently prepared. These can take the form of shifts in knowledge domain or even step changes in complexity involving tacit background knowledge.

They are particularly evident in professional programmes (such as engineering, accounting and health sciences), and go some way towards explaining why significant numbers of students who have demonstrated real potential fail or drop out in the latter stages of some programmes.

These transitions are in essence different manifestations of the articulation gap. The only obvious solution is to ensure that knowledge that has been mistakenly taken for granted is formally included in the curriculum for those who need it.

Academic literacies

The third major obstacle to epistemic access in current programmes is the lack of sustained development of academic literacies that are essential for successful higher learning, especially the academic use of the language of instruction, now predominantly English.

The language issue is one of the biggest hurdles for tertiary students who have English as an additional language (EAL). Extensive research has shown that the academic use of English — with its formality, heavy reliance on text, lack of nonverbal reinforcement, and requirement for precision — demands for more advanced linguistic skills than day-to-day communicative competence. But EAL students, especially those from rural or other under-resourced backgrounds, are expected to become proficient in academic English discourses in an unrealistically short period, at the same time as they are contending with a step change in the complexity of the subject matter they are learning.

There are similar challenges in the development of other key literacies, such as quantitative and information literacy.

Despite the importance of these literacies, current mainstream programmes make little or no provision for their development as an integral part of the curriculum. This appears to be a remarkable omission in a country (and continent) where the great majority of students do not have the language of instruction as their mother tongue.

Facilitating access

These three key structural aspects of our current undergraduate programmes are critical for facilitating the development of epistemic access, which is in turn necessary for successful learning for all students.

In each case, the obstacles to learning have their roots in assumptions that don’t apply to a large and growing proportion of the student intake. Modifying these assumptions — and their consequences for curriculum design and delivery — to reflect the diverse realities of our students’ backgrounds is therefore an essential (though not sufficient) condition for substantial improvement in higher education outcomes.

Bringing about these changes in different institutional contexts will require different emphases. For example, in universities where the great majority of students come from under-resourced backgrounds, changes in assumptions and programme design are needed for almost the entire student body. But at universities characterised by a wide range of student backgrounds, the central challenge is to recognise the diversity and accommodate them by designing and delivering a flexible programme that caters to different forms and levels of preparedness.

It is clear that, to cater fairly for diversity, one size does not fit all, whether it be in relation to underlying assumptions, curriculum pathways or pedagogical approaches. Just as our institutional cultures should be inclusive, our teaching and learning structures should provide a flexible framework that enables students from diverse backgrounds to realise their potential.

The need for structural alternatives has been recognised and acted on by the department of higher education and its predecessor since 2004. This has taken the form of extended curriculum programmes to ameliorate the articulation gap by providing an additional foundation year. This has been sufficiently successful for the department to commit itself to doubling the enrolment in these programmes in the short term. But the effectiveness of this intervention has been limited because it is designed for a relatively small minority of the intake, whereas the actual need is much larger. The key challenge is to take this kind of structural reform to scale.

With this aim, the Council on Higher Education in 2013 made a comprehensive proposal to the minister of higher education and training to introduce a flexible curriculum structure, designed to accommodate diversity, with a lengthened curriculum as the norm.

The minister did not accept the proposal, so other ways of addressing the underlying problem will have to be found. Whatever approaches find favour with the minister and the universities must deal effectively with the obstacles and challenges outlined here, the importance of which is supported by extensive research and analysis. If this is not done, the status quo of university outcomes — with its manifold negative consequences for fairness, transformation, social cohesion and economic development — will prevail.


• The main obstacles to epistemic access place an unfair and counterproductive burden on students who are from under-resourced backgrounds and for whom the language of instruction is not their mother tongue. Around the world, students with this kind of profile have a relatively low probability of succeeding at university, so they merit supportive teaching and learning conditions, not additional burdens;

• An ongoing lack of epistemic access for a large part of the student body will increasingly expose the inadequacy of focusing only on physical and financial access, and is likely to become a focus of student disillusionment.

The demand for decolonising curriculums may well be a precursor of this, signalling a desire felt by many students that what they are learning should be more familiar and thus accessible, and possibly a belief that this would remove the main obstacle to their success.

In this sense, the decolonisation demand may be seen as a call for epistemic access. But the analysis above indicates that epistemic access involves much more than the provenance of a programme’s content. It could be that the most problematic effects of South Africa’s colonial legacy in higher education turn out to be the inherited assumptions and curriculum structures that no longer meet our needs; and

• There is little to be gained from disputing the relative importance of financial and epistemic access in facilitating improvement and social justice in higher education, but neither by itself would produce equity of outcomes or the overall increase in the number of competent graduates.

Judicious investment in the institutions and in student financial aid, matched with educational innovation directed to realising the potential of students from diverse educational and social backgrounds, is likely to be the only reliable way of developing the academic talent across the population.

Emeritus professor Ian Scott is the former director of the University of Cape Town’s academic development programme. This article was first published in abridged form in the March 2017 newsletter of the South African Association of Graduate Employers