/ 26 January 2024

Bridging the gap between high school and university

P12 Marissa Rollnick
Marissa Rollnick, Professor Emeritus at Wits, says Extended Curriculum Programmes provide additional support and resources and a more gradual transition, so that disadvantaged students can meet the rigorous academic demands of university education.

Extended Curriculum Programmes create an equitable education landscape

In the diverse and dynamic landscape of South African higher education, universities have long recognised the need to address the varying academic preparedness of incoming students, and to address the mismatch between the curriculum taught in schools and the expectations at university level. “A gap exists between high school and university,” says Marissa Rollnick, Professor Emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand. “Most people agree with this statement, but don’t quite know or understand what it means.” 

According to Rollnick, this disparity between secondary and tertiary education has been identified as a major contributor to the high failure and dropout rates experienced by first-year university students. 

She says that as far back as 1970, only 48% of first-year science students at one university successfully passed two or more subjects and gained credit for the year, leaving a significant 52% with a wasted year. This situation was compounded in the 1980s when disadvantaged  students began to access historically white universities. 

To bridge the gap and ensure inclusivity, many institutions have implemented Extended Curriculum Programmes (ECPs). These programmes offer additional support and resources — and a more gradual transition — to students who may require more time and assistance to meet the academic demands of university education. 

This is particularly important to ensure that promising students who faced disadvantages in under-resourced high schools, a lasting legacy of South Africa’s apartheid-era education system, are not left behind. “By 2001, almost every tertiary institution had some kind of foundation programme in place,” she says. 

Understanding the gaps to bridge them 

Rollnick says poor schooling remains one of the most prevalent barriers to students succeeding in tertiary education, stemming from prevailing issues such as poor teaching, unqualified teachers, large classes, lack of facilities and school infrastructure and language barriers. 

First-generation university students from disadvantaged backgrounds also often lack the cultural capital needed to thrive. “The knowledge and information that comes from parents in a middle-class home — both consciously and unconsciously — does not necessarily exist in poorer households,” she explains. “If you grow up in a middle-class home that is literate and well-read, the way you operate, argue and reason is quite different from a house where that isn’t the norm.” 

Similarly, when other family members have completed school and tertiary studies, a certain understanding exists within the household of what it means to go to university and what the expectations might be. “You wouldn’t be the first person in your circle to brave this new world,” she says. 

This is also one of the concepts at play when differentiating between formal access and epistemological access. “Formal access is being accepted to a programme and registering as a student,” she explains. In short, access to the institution. “Epistemological access is understanding the practices of the institution, and while promising students often catch on in the second semester, it usually takes at least six months to find out how the system works and learn to navigate it.” 

This is where ECPS can help. These specialised academic pathways are designed to provide extra support for students who show promise but may require assistance in certain subjects, or who do not necessarily meet the stringent standards to gain entry to the traditional degree pathway.

Why ECPs matter

While ECPs are not limited to a specific field of study — they cover a wide range of disciplines, ensuring inclusivity across various academic domains — Rollnick says they are particularly important in the science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM) fields. 

Acknowledging that some students are operating at a disadvantage allows for an opportunity to level the playing field. “Without access programmes, children from certain schools would never access STEM programmes at university,” Rollnick explains. “The related subjects are also where school performance is traditionally the lowest; South Africa faces a crisis in maths and science.” 

The primary goal is to create a supportive learning environment that helps students build a solid foundation and fill gaps in foundational knowledge, and in doing so prepare students for the academic challenges they will face in their chosen fields.

How it works

These programmes typically extend the duration of a standard degree by one year, allowing students to gradually adapt to the rigours of university education. While a standard undergraduate degree may take three years to complete, ECPs can last four or more years. This extra time allows students to progress at a more manageable pace, focusing on mastering foundational concepts before advancing to more complex topics.

Students undertaking these programmes also have access to additional academic support to help them overcome challenges in specific subjects. This support may come in the form of extra tutorials, workshops, mentorship programmes and dedicated advisors to guide students on their academic journey.

By incorporating non-academic components into the curriculum, there is also an emphasis on holistic development, which may include workshops on study skills, time management, and personal development. These aim to equip students with the tools they need to thrive academically and personally, and to excel rather than just avoid failing. 

Benefits and pitfalls 

ECPs were designed to promote inclusivity by accommodating students from diverse academic backgrounds. They create opportunities for those who may have faced challenges in the past to pursue higher education and achieve their academic and career goals.

By offering additional support and resources, ECPs contribute to higher retention rates among participating students. The extended duration and targeted assistance help students build confidence and competence, reducing the likelihood of dropping out.

However, Rollnick raises a cautionary flag, highlighting that the success of ECPs hinges on their integration into the broader institutional climate: “When treated as an appendage rather than an integral part of the university system, ECPs run the risk of marginalising the very students they are designed to assist, no matter how sophisticated the programme is in terms of teaching and learning or curriculum design.” 

There is also a need to engage with the mainstream and develop the field of education to the point where these access programs will no longer be necessary. To do this, Rollnick says, requires a solution rooted in addressing wider systemic inequities and transforming university culture to be more inclusive of students from diverse backgrounds. “ECPs alone are insufficient for achieving true equity and epistemological access,” she explains. 

The way forward 

South Africa’s ECPs play a vital role in fostering inclusivity and providing tailored support for students with diverse academic backgrounds. Against the backdrop of South Africa’s ongoing efforts to redress the legacy of apartheid in higher education, the careful and thoughtful bridging of the high school-university divide emerges as a crucial component to ensure that neither academic standards nor student success are compromised. 

For those entering into ECP programmes this year, Rollnick has the following advice: “Take advantage of advisors and the support structures available to you. It is hard work and a big struggle at the beginning — but it will pay off if you put in the hours.”