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First year experience as terrain of failure or platform for development? Critical choices for Higher Education

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From: Focus on First-Year Success, ed Leibowitz et al. Stellenbosch: Sun Press. 2009
First-year experience as terrain of failure or platform for development?
Critical choices for higher education
Ian Scott
Version 2 (post-refereeing) May 2009
Note to the editor: I have used ‘black’ to refer to ‘black African’ in this chapter. Could you
plse apply whatever terminology is to be used in the book as a whole?
Introduction
The traditional image of first year at university is one of exciting intellectual and
personal discoveries, independence in thought and behaviour, widening horizons, and
growth in confidence. This is close to reality for some students, but for many others -
in fact, perhaps the majority in South Africa - the experience is marred by failure, loss
of confidence, and perhaps disillusionment. This has far-reaching consequences for
the individual, for the development of South Africa’s talent, and thus for social,
economic and political well-being. If this situation is avoidable, surely all reasonable
efforts should be made to avoid it.
Conditions in higher education in South Africa since the political transition are in
some respects reminiscent of the post-World War 2 period of what was then
unparalleled expansion of universities, taking place in the context of extensive social
change. Many new universities were built in developed countries, particularly in the
1960s, in response to increasing demand for participation. (This was also a period of
new universities in South Africa, but for a rather different reason: the grand-
apartheid-driven need to establish separate facilities for each of the main ethnic or
language groups.)
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The sixties’ inclusionary optimism was tempered relatively soon, however, when it
became evident that university failure and drop-out rates were rising along with rising
enrolments. It was in the 1970s, then, that specialised units dedicated to researching
and addressing this problem were established in many higher education institutions, in
the form of, for example, ‘bureaux for university teaching’ and ‘teaching methods’
units. There was a special concern about particularly high attrition rates in the first
year. This led in time to the establishment and international growth of the ‘First Year
Experience’ movement, as well as a research industry on student learning and factors
affecting performance and persistence.
In many countries, the last two decades have seen another surge in demand for
participation in higher education around the world, often government-driven and
associated with rapid economic and social change. The demand has been
accommodated not only by some building of new institutions (particularly in
developing countries and through growth in private higher education) but also by the
restructuring of higher education systems and the conversion of many non-university
institutions - such as polytechnics and colleges - into universities or universities of
technology. In South Africa, after some false starts, higher education enrolment has
almost doubled since the early 1990s (CHE 2004:65), and the institutional ‘landscape’
has been substantially reconfigured through mergers and the establishment of
universities of technology and ‘comprehensive’ universities.
While there has been concern about student attrition in South Africa for decades, this
has sharpened in recent years with the identification of high-level skills shortages as a
key obstacle to development, and with the production of the first system-wide
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longitudinal (cohort) studies of the undergraduate1 intake by the Department of
Education (DoE). As is discussed below, there is unfortunately ample justification for
the concern, not least in relation to the longstanding issue of first-year performance.
In view of the importance of success in higher education, for development as well as
the individual, this must raise the question of what has been achieved since the 1970s.
How much have we learnt and what have we done about improving student learning
and reducing attrition? A key underlying question is, given the exponential growth in
teaching-and-learning research and knowledge over the last thirty years, why does it
seem so hard to bring about positive change?
Prima facie, there are some clear reasons for the difficulty of advancing the
educational agenda in higher education. In the contemporary world, there is strong
and increasing competition for academics’ time, energy and creativity. While it is
commonly asserted that teaching and research are integrally linked, many academics
experience a direct tension between these core scholarly functions in their day-to-day
lives. The forms of research that most readily bring reputational and material reward -
that is, work leading to countable outputs such as short articles in specialised journals
- often have little bearing on effective undergraduate teaching. Moreover, in the last
century or two, valorising research over teaching has become embedded in academic
culture and identity. At the same time, ‘teaching’ in all its facets has become more
difficult, with major changes in student intakes and contestation over the purposes of
higher education. Teaching itself therefore requires more knowledge and effort.
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The regrettable dichotomising of teaching and research has the effect of forcing
academics to make choices about what they give their time and scholarly effort to. In
these circumstances, in view of the prevailing academic culture and reward system, it
should not be surprising that it is hard to substantially improve the effectiveness of the
educational process. In fact, it must be asked whether it is not unrealistic or naïve to
expect any greater educational focus unless there is a compelling vision or need for
change.
In South Africa and other developing countries, this question does not necessarily
suggest defeatism, since there is a compelling need for change. In this sense, the
severity of the problems in higher education may serve to focus attention on the
challenges. If an alternative vision is to be developed, however, there is clearly a need
for the big issues confronting the sector to be delineated as sharply as possible - for
the state and the public as well as the academic community - and for tensions to be
faced. This chapter is based on the contention that choices are continually being made
within the sector that have critical implications for the nature and outcomes of the
learning experience of the great majority of South African students. However, the
choices are often implicit or unconscious, or based on a narrow view of what is at
stake. To contribute to the debate, the chapter outlines an argument for the importance
of improving the educational process in higher education, with particular reference to
the first-year experience, as a basis for identifying and understanding the significance
of some high-level choices that affect the role and contribution of the sector.
It should be noted here that arguing for the importance of improving teaching and
learning is not intended to imply that the universities’ knowledge-production
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responsibilities are somehow less significant - which is patently not the case,
particularly in emerging economies - but rather that it is in the country’s vital interests
that a productive balance should be found.
Undergraduate performance patterns in South Africa
The significance of the first year experience
The first year of higher education is an educational stage with powerful influence on
future success, for the individual student and the sector as a whole. The first year
experience, in terms of cognitive, personal and social development, largely
determines students’ first year performance, which in turn is a key foundation for
advanced study (including postgraduate study which is vital to intellectual
development in all spheres, including the future staffing of the universities). The
quantity and the quality of the country’s graduate outcomes have major implications
for social, political and economic development, particularly in a context of scarcity of
skills.
It follows that it is critical to the health of the sector that there is regular analysis of
what is happening in first year across the universities. Some key characteristics of first
year are discussed later but this section focuses on using quantitative data to shed light
on student performance in first year and what follows in undergraduate programmes.
A note on sources
The quantitative data and some related analysis used in this chapter are drawn from a
study of sector-wide undergraduate performance patterns that formed part of a
research project commissioned by the Council on Higher Education (CHE), the report
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on which was published by the CHE as Higher Education Monitor 6 (Scott, Yeld and
Hendry 2007). Aspects of the implications of the data, along with summaries of key
points, are elaborated on in Scott 2009a and b and Yeld 2009.
The quantitative analysis undertaken in the CHE project was based on cohort studies
of the 2000 and 2001 first-time-entering undergraduate intakes conducted by the DoE,
the first sector-wide work of this kind in South Africa. In these studies, the
performance of students is tracked for up to five years, until they graduate or leave
their original institution. Cohort data of this kind are regarded as the most reliable
longitudinal measure of student performance.
A brief summary of key data from the 2000 cohort study is presented below as
necessary background to and evidence for the analysis in the body of the chapter. The
2001 study is not fully comparable because data are missing from some institutions,
but the performance patterns it reflects are essentially the same.
Participation in higher education
One of the key characteristics that distinguish between different kinds of higher
education systems internationally is participation rates. The measure used here is the
Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) favoured by UNESCO, which is the total number of
students in higher education (of any age-group) in a given year, expressed as a
percentage of the 20-24 year-old age-group in the population.
South Africa’s overall GER is 16%, which is lower than that of economically
comparable countries and very low in comparison with the rates in developed
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countries, where the minimum is about 60%. This situation indicates the need for
overall growth in higher education. The racial inequalities in participation indicate
where that growth must predominantly come from: the white and Indian rates are 60%
and 51% respectively while the black African and coloured rates are both 12%. Since
black and coloured enrolment has doubled over the last two decades to now comprise
some 70% of the total (DoE 2009), the continuing disparities in participation rates
come as a surprise to many in the sector, but are nevertheless the most telling measure
of access.
A key implication of the participation rates is that the black and coloured students
who enter higher education are a highly selected group, representing by and large the
top decile of their groups in terms of achieved performance. If intelligence or
educability is randomly distributed across populations, the black and coloured intake
must collectively have high potential to succeed. This contradicts the common view in
the academic community that many (particularly black) students in the intake ‘do not
belong’ in higher education. This anomaly is a critical aspect of the character of the
South African higher education sector, and is discussed later.
Given the significance of improving graduate output, it is essential to know what
becomes of the current intake, not only because this information is important in itself
but also because it must be taken into account in assessing prospects for future
growth. The following sections offer a brief outline of current performance across the
sector.
Performance in first year
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The cohort studies and other data sources (e.g. Letseka and Maile 2008) show that
about 30% of the undergraduate intake drop out or are excluded at the end of their
first year. This means about 45,000 students from the present annual intake of about
150,000. If only ‘contact’ students are considered (that is, excluding distance
education students), the attrition rate is over 20%.
It is true that there are high first-year attrition rates in many tertiary education
systems, but particularly in developed countries this usually occurs in a context of
high levels of participation in higher education. This is not the case in South Africa.
Here a combination of low participation and high attrition, in an environment of
scarce skills and major social and economic challenges, is a threat to development and
a contributor to the widening of the North-South divide.
Moreover, the experience of failure in first year goes well beyond those students who
drop out at this time. Many others fail one or more courses, or pass only very
marginally. This indicates less than adequate grasp of their areas of study, which in
many cases has a cumulative effect and leads to demoralisation and terminal failure in
the senior undergraduate years, as reflected in the data below.
It is of course also true that students drop out for a range of reasons, including
financial and personal ones, which feature commonly in surveys of factors affecting
retention. However, there is at present little if any systematic knowledge of the
relationship between students’ academic performance and the decision to drop out
‘voluntarily’. A shortcoming of retention research that depends on anonymous
responses and self-reported reasons is that it cannot verify any associations between
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drop-out and performance. It may be postulated that, as the cost of higher education
rises, it is possible that students’ perceptions of their likelihood of succeeding
influence decisions on whether or not to continue investing in their studies. Research
on this topic could make a significant contribution to understanding attrition patterns.
Overall undergraduate performance
The 2000 cohort study provides telling data on sector-wide student performance.
After 5 years, only 30% had graduated, and 14% were still in the system. Even with
fairly optimistic estimates of eventual success among the latter students and inter-
institutional transferees, the cohort completion rate will not exceed 45%. In the
contact university programmes - the best-performing sub-sector - only 50% of the
cohort graduated within five years. Performance in the contact ‘technikon’2
programmes was notably lower: after five years only 32% had graduated.
Disaggregating the data by qualification type and broad subject category shows that
this kind of pattern is found in all the major qualification types - general and
professional first degrees and national diplomas - and most of the broad subject
categories. Even when distance education students are omitted, the five-year
graduation rates in first degrees in key subject areas (for example, Business &
Management, Life and Physical Sciences, Engineering, Law, Languages and Social
Sciences) are around or below 50%. In national diplomas in similar key subject areas
the rates are below 35%.
The net effect is a ‘loss’ of about 65,000 of the then-intake of 120,000. This
compounds the attrition in first year, and is an indicator that many first-year survivors
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did not gain firm enough academic foundations to support them through their
programmes. Failure to realise student potential on this scale is clearly highly
damaging to the economy and the wider development agenda.
It is also damaging to the future of the academy itself in that the pipeline to
postgraduate study, and thus inter alia to new generations of academic teachers and
researchers, is seriously obstructed. South Africa’s increasing investment in
postgraduate students - aiming to radically boost the output of PhDs because South
Africa is far behind the developed world in this respect - is unlikely to gain an optimal
return until the undergraduate base of the system is greatly strengthened.
Equity of outcomes
Arguably the most disturbing figure to emerge from the cohort analysis is that under
5% of the black 20-24 age-group are succeeding in public higher education, in that
they graduate with a recognised qualification.
The 5% black success figure arises from a combination of the low participation rate
and high attrition. The latter is illustrated by the fact that while no student group is
doing well - white first-degree graduation rates being commonly in the 60%-70%
range in first degrees and well under 50% in national diplomas in the main subject
areas - black graduation rates are in almost all cases below 35% even in contact
institutions. The net effect is that the progress made in equity of access is effectively
nullified by lack of progress in equity of outcomes.
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The current situation means that equity in higher education remains a key goal, both
in itself - in the interests of social justice and stability - and as a necessary condition
for development. South Africa’s participation and performance patterns show clearly
that equity will always have two components. The racially-skewed participation rates
show that, despite growth in black enrolment, equity of access is still far from being
achieved. Without equity of outcomes, however, equity of access is largely
meaningless. It is the outcomes that count, for the individual and the society.
A status quo in which under 5% of 20-24 year-olds in the majority population group
are succeeding in the public higher education system is not sustainable. The
participation and performance patterns have major implications for policy, priorities
and choices in higher education in South Africa, as discussed in the body of this
chapter.
Significance of the performance patterns
The following are some summary observations on what the participation rates and
performance patterns mean for the education system and the country.
The graduate output of the higher education sector is not meeting the country’s
needs in relation to economic growth or equity and redress, with consequences
for all forms of development. Improving graduate output, in terms of numbers,
mix and quality, is essential for South Africa’s future.
The central shortcoming is that the system has not managed to transcend the
apartheid legacy and is still not successfully accommodating the previously
disadvantaged majority.
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The performance patterns are persistent, so increasing enrolment without
improving the effectiveness of the educational process will perpetuate or
exacerbate the wastage of talent, and/or will result in compromising quality and
standards.
It is clear from the participation and performance data that graduate growth must
come mainly from the black and coloured student groups. Since, as the figures
show, the majority of the students from these groups are failing to progress
through the current higher education system, equity of outcomes is the key
challenge.
It follows that systemic educational approaches that are designed to address
equity and educational diversity are critical for substantially improving graduate
output to meet national needs. Thus the ‘equity’ and ‘development’ agendas
(Wolpe, Badat and Barends 1990) have converged, one not being achievable
without the other.
The high stakes involved in addressing this situation justify concerted action.
However, as there is contestation - explicit and tacit - about where and by whom such
action should be taken, it is necessary to address this question before considering what
is to be done, and the choices involved.
Where does responsibility for improving student performance lie?
A key question that underlies attitudes to higher education performance is where
responsibility lies for improving it. It is outside the scope of this chapter to discuss the
merits of the various views on this issue in any detail, but the following is a brief
outline of salient points.
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It is widely agreed in South Africa that the performance of the school system, with its
continuing inequalities associated with embedded socio-economic conditions, is the
primary cause of students’ being underprepared for conventional forms of higher
education (e.g. Slonimsky and Shalem 2005; Yeld 2009). Universities commonly
attribute the performance problems in higher education virtually exclusively to these
factors, which are beyond their control, and do not see it as the responsibility of
higher education to compensate for poor schooling.
However, if the academic community is relying on improvement in external
conditions to raise performance in higher education, it needs to realistically assess the
prospects for such improvement. The analyses can be complex but the following
points are relevant:
Poverty is not going to be eradicated in the foreseeable future, and socio-
economic conditions that give rise to educational inequalities and disadvantage
will remain.
A range of analyses strongly indicate that there is little or no prospect of
substantial improvement in the outcomes of schooling, at least in the medium
term and at least of the order that would deliver a sufficient number of well-
prepared school-leavers to meet higher education’s recruitment needs (Bloch
2008; Scott, Yeld and Hendry 2007:31-37).
It is argued that, in these circumstances, it is necessary on pragmatic grounds for the
higher education sector to identify factors affecting student performance that are
within its control, and to act on these to the best of its ability. There is also an
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argument that, on the grounds of principle, higher education should take a share of the
responsibility for transformation by doing whatever is reasonably within its control to
successfully accommodate talented but disadvantaged students.
Whatever the argument, the higher education sector has a fundamental decision to
make on whether it is willing to review its own mainstream practices with the purpose
of addressing the realities of students’ prior learning experiences, or whether it
accepts the status quo. The following sections offer an outline of what might be done
in higher education, and some key choices involved.
What is to be done? The significance of the first year experience
If we look at the performance patterns with the aim of determining what can be done
to improve them, the first undergraduate year clearly emerges as a key area for
intervention. Not only is it the stage of greatest attrition itself, but shortcomings in
first-year students’ development of fundamental conceptual knowledge, academic
literacies and learning approaches are likely to have a cumulative effect that leads to
poor performance or failure in later years.
Because it must allow for important changes in learning mode, the curriculum in first
year, more consciously than in any other phase, has to be Janus-faced, looking back
and forward. It is therefore important that first year should be treated as a special but
not discrete stage of the educational process. Particularly in the realities of the South
African context, first year has to be a platform for developing students’ academic
potential in new modes of learning, and consequently carries unique opportunities and
attendant responsibility to the individuals involved and to the country. However, the
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design of the first year experience must be based as much on understanding of the
student learning experiences that come before it as on the need to prepare for what is
to follow. It is a key section of the educational pipeline.
As the performance patterns show, however, the challenges for undergraduate
education do not stop at first year. In fact, concentrating exclusively on the
introductory undergraduate phase - including foundational provision - can have the
unintended and highly undesirable consequence of just deferring failure, if
articulation with the senior years is not smooth and if the educational process in these
years is not effective.
Given the high stakes involved, then, it is important that the design and delivery of the
undergraduate curriculum (with special reference to first year) - and the key choices
underlying its nature - should be judged against the significance and wider purposes
of undergraduate education in the South African context. The following sections
identify and discuss three broad choices that have a fundamental bearing on the
character and outcomes of the higher education system.
Choice One: Who belongs in higher education in South Africa?
In South Africa, the interface between secondary and higher education is the first
point in the system where completing the preceding educational phase does not entitle
the learner to enter the next one. Admissibility to higher education is controlled by
minimum requirements stipulated in national legislation, but equally importantly by
the right of higher education institutions - enshrined in the Higher Education Act
(DoE 1997a) - to individually set their own entrance criteria. This means that there is
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choice, on the part of the state and the universities, about who is accommodated in
higher education. The choice is of course constrained by considerations of
affordability in terms of student numbers; but how the enrolment is made up is
influenced by a range of factors that - apart from external ones like supply-and-
demand and the constitutional mandate for affirmative action - arise from choices
made within the academic community, such as in institutional missions and admission
policies.
Perhaps the most fundamental factor, however, is psychological ownership of the
student intake - that is, the extent to which the academic community intrinsically
accepts responsibility for accommodating the student body that is admitted to the
sector. As outlined earlier, South Africa’s participation rates indicate that the black
and coloured intake represents a selected group that should have a high probability of
succeeding in higher education, yet there is a widely-held academic view that many of
these students are ‘not university material’ and should not have been admitted. This
view either conflates preparedness and potential, or reflects a belief that the university
should not be expected to take responsibility for developing the potential of
underprepared students. Underpreparedness can be addressed, but this is unlikely to
be undertaken successfully if responsibility for it is not accepted or ‘owned’ by the
academic community.
Beliefs about ‘who belongs’ in higher education have far-reaching consequences for
institutional culture and how things are done in the design and teaching of the
curriculum. There are of course critical differences within and between academic
units and institutions, but the net effect of the choices determines much of the
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character and contribution of the institutions and the sector as a whole, thus
powerfully influencing who benefits from higher education.
As the performance patterns and participation rates indicate, there are justified
concerns not only about provision for the current intake but also about the capacity of
the sector to accommodate future growth of the order needed to address pressing
social and economic needs. This means that surfacing and publicly debating the
choices being made is critical to the future direction of the higher education sector.
It is evident that the beliefs in the academic community about who belongs in higher
education stem from deeply-held and possibly unarticulated ideology, values and
world-views. However, notwithstanding insightful analyses of academic ideology
(e.g. Becher and Trowler 2001), there is a lack of research on relationships between
values- or ideology-based academic attitudes and actual higher education practices in
South Africa. Given the importance of the effects, such research is needed. In the
absence of it, the following are observations arising from Academic Development
(AD) experience in South Africa.
Broad clusters of beliefs in the academic community about who should be
accommodated in higher education include the following:
University education should be highly exclusive but there is inadequate or
misguided control over admissions, so first year in particular should function as a
filter, rooting out students who are not university material. Associated with these
views may be a pride in high failure rates as an indicator of high standards.
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In contrast, there are views, most frequently in institutional executive
management, that espouse strong enrolment growth as a key means of increasing
institutional income and prosperity. Such approaches are not necessarily
accompanied by willingness to invest resources in facilitating the success of a
wider student intake.
A third cluster favours inclusiveness, for reasons of social justice and/or
economic, social and cultural development. Where well-intentioned approaches
are not followed through in institutional practices, however, there are usually
unintended consequences that can negate the desired effects.
It is clear even at the surface level that these views and the interests behind them are
inherently conflicting. For example, the academic staff and management positions
referred to in the first two clusters are in direct opposition when the staff see
themselves as carrying the burden of growing enrolment without any worthwhile
academic, professional or material quid pro quo.
Analysing the contrasting views depends on deeper exploration of the understandings
and interests underlying them. For example:
What ideas of intelligence or educability underlie strongly exclusivist views,
generally or in relation to specific areas of study? Is there acceptance that
intelligence or intellectual capacity is randomly distributed across populations, or
do views of differential capacities or aptitudes between ethnic groups remain, and
if so, on what basis? Do these views distinguish between ‘ability’ (commonly
regarded as a fixed attribute) and ‘potential’? If so, what should be the response
to the skewed participation and success rates in South African higher education?
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Similarly, do exclusivist beliefs involve the view that the parameters of higher
education study, including entry levels and assumptions, are universally
standard? Are there specific forms and levels of mediation that are acceptable or
unacceptable in higher education? What may be the implications of this for
dealing with different levels of preparedness for undergraduate study?
What understandings of ideas such as ‘academic potential’ and
underpreparedness inform inclusivist views? Perhaps more importantly, what is
the understanding of student diversity and how it may be catered for in the
educational process? Under what conditions, if any, should students from
different educational backgrounds be treated differently in the educational
process?
How do the various viewpoints respond to the idea of higher education’s having
obligations to address national needs? To what extent do South African
institutions and academics endorse the recently-expressed ‘Oxbridge’ view that
universities cannot be used as ‘engines for promoting social justice’ (Daily Mail
2008)? Similarly, to what extent is it higher education’s responsibility to serve
the needs of the economy?
The performance patterns suggest that the contending views on the identity and role
of higher education in South Africa are not proving productive. Rather than leading to
vibrant, generative debate and creativity, the conflicting positions seem to be
embattled or resistant to informed argument. Given that these positions influence
matters of great importance to many individuals and the country at large, their net
effect should surely not be left in its current stasis. Clear leadership, informed by
research and theorised argument, is needed to ensure that conflicting positions are
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identified and openly debated and their likely consequences confronted - not in the
expectation that ideological differences will be resolved but rather so that creative
responses may be identified as a basis for transparent and justifiable policy-making
and implementation.
The question of who belongs in higher education in South Africa is central in this.
Likewise, what should drive the choice? Is it a traditional conception of who is
prepared for standard forms of higher education, or a conception of what the country
needs? There are tensions and risks in both.
Whatever decisions are reached on who belongs, it is essential that they be followed
through responsibly. As argued earlier, in circumstances of diversity linked to
inequalities, focusing on access alone has strongly negative consequences for
outcomes. Genuinely accommodating the diverse intake that is needed for
development means ensuring that the educational process, in terms of design and
teaching practices, is aligned with the students’ legitimate learning needs, so that they
have a reasonable chance of succeeding. Access without success is a hollow
achievement, does little or nothing to meet South Africa’s social and economic needs,
and may erode public support for the higher education sector.
This chapter has argued, on the basis of the performance patterns, that it is essential
for the higher education sector to accept responsibility for genuinely accommodating
at least the current student intake. The choice made about ‘who belongs’ has profound
consequences for the identity of the sector and its contribution, and for the teaching-
and-learning approaches needed to fulfil the sector’s obligations. The following
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sections outline some key choices about the educational process that need to be made
in order to follow this through.
Choice Two: The shape of the undergraduate curriculum
The curriculum - its nature, content and organisation - is fundamental to the
educational process, enacting the faculty’s educational philosophy and purposes. The
broad structure and parameters of the formal curriculum constitute a framework that
strongly influences what can be done in the teaching-and-learning process, which in
turn strongly influences who succeeds and fails in it. The design of the curriculum
framework is therefore enabling or limiting for different student groupings, depending
on the extent of alignment between the assumptions of the curriculum and the
preparedness, capabilities and orientation of the students.
Given the wide variation in curricula internationally, it is clear that the way they are
constructed is subject to choice. In South Africa, the macro-structure - for example,
the minimum duration, minimum entry level and basic credit system - is determined
by the state through the qualifications framework, reinforced by the public higher
education funding system. History, custom and social factors, such as what the labour
market, professional bodies and the public are used to, have the effect of maintaining
stability (or inertia) in the macro-structure. Changing the qualifications framework is
thus a significant undertaking, but it is feasible if the will to change is sufficiently
strong, as shown by the Bologna Process curriculum reform initiative in the European
Union (see for example EUA 2008).
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The performance patterns outlined earlier point to a mismatch between the existing
system and the profile and learning needs of the majority of the student intake. This
mismatch is most evident at the interface between secondary/further and higher
education. The ‘articulation gap’, which is seen as a major cause of under-
performance and failure at first year level and beyond (DoE 1997b; Scott, Yeld and
Hendry 2007:42-43), is a systemic fault that is manifested in a range of ways,
including a shortage of qualified candidates for key programmes, particularly high
first year attrition, and the fact that only a minority of contact students (well under one
third) graduate in the regulation time formally allocated to degree and diploma
programmes.
The latter phenomenon is widespread across qualification types and subject areas.
Leaving aside distance education, in the main subject areas the rate of graduation in
regulation time is largely in the 20%-30% range in general three-year degrees, mainly
under 35% in the ‘elite’ four-year professional degrees, and well under 20% in
national diplomas. As in the other performance patterns, there are major disparities by
race. Table 1 illustrates the generally low rates and the particular severity of the
position in relation to black students.
[Table 1 about here]
It is clear from the figures that the great majority of students, particularly black
students, are not able to follow the standard degree and diploma curricula as they
were planned and designed. In other words, the structure of South Africa’s core
undergraduate qualifications is not effective for the majority of the current intake. It
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will become increasingly less effective in future if there is growth in enrolment, which
will mean a higher proportion of underprepared students being admitted.
Detailed discussion of curricular shortcomings is beyond the scope of this chapter but
some summary points can be noted:
Given South Africa’s demographics and persistent inequalities, the student intake
into many individual universities, as well as the sector as a whole, is necessarily
highly diverse, to the extent that it is probably not possible for any inflexible,
one-size-fits-all curriculum structure to meet the learning needs arising from such
different educational and linguistic backgrounds.
A key shortcoming is that the ‘looking back’ aspect of first year’s Janus-like
character has been neglected for a long time. The assumptions on which
traditional first-year courses are based originated in a period when the intake was
predominantly heterogeneous and privileged, and have not changed to match the
major diversification of the student body over the last three decades. The
continuing emphasis on what prior learning experience entrants ‘ought’ to have
gained disadvantages even the most talented students from different realities.
Some encouraging success has been achieved with foundational provision and
extended curriculum programmes, which directly address the systemic
articulation gap through taking account of the realities of students’ prior learning
rather than the ‘oughts’. Valuable lessons have been learned from this work over
the last two decades, confirming the need to ‘look back’ but also underlining the
importance of following through on well-designed introductory courses by
reviewing the structure of the rest of the curriculum. Issues arising from student
diversity do not disappear in the senior years.
23
Extended curriculum programmes have been used by most institutions as a means
of extending access to students who do not meet regular admission criteria, rather
than for improving the success rates of at-risk ‘mainstream’ students. The
performance data show that there are large numbers in the latter category who fail
or drop out, and it is this category in particular that would be most likely to
benefit from a different curriculum structure.
In short, AD experience, supported by the performance patterns, indicates that
because of failure to effectively address the diversity of the intake and systemic
problems such as the articulation gap, the traditional curricula are an obstacle to
success for large numbers of students, arguably the majority. This points clearly to the
need for mainstream curriculum reform, including extending the formal time allocated
to core degree and national diploma programmes.
Curriculum reform of this kind - in shorthand, moving to the ‘four-year degree’ as the
norm - must focus primarily on the central issue of successfully accommodating the
majority. However, it would also be a unique opportunity to create curriculum space
for meeting key contemporary needs, such as:
allowing for diversity of educational background through a flexible structure;
balancing breadth and depth through enabling students to experience a wider
range of subjects - or fresh perspectives on apparently familiar ones - before
having to commit themselves to a specific disciplinary direction;
balancing the local and the international; and
allowing for the development of capabilities in academic, quantitative and
information literacies and in a local or foreign language.
24
Additional curriculum space is particularly important in the introductory phase of
higher education because there are certain critical aspects of learning that are most
effectively addressed at this level, including the development of concepts, skills and
epistemological understandings that are foundational to successful tertiary study.
Choice Two comes down to a preliminary and a substantive question:
In whose interests is it to maintain the status quo in the curriculum?
Do we - the state and the academic community - have the vision and the will to
make the effort necessary to change our inherited curriculum structures to meet
contemporary South African needs?
Choice Three: Giving value and ‘attention’ to the educational process
As said earlier, the undergraduate years, especially first year, are potentially a time of
great intellectual stimulation and personal growth. However, it would be hard to claim
that the higher education system is doing justice to the opportunities and
responsibilities involved when so many students are diminished by the experience.
Perhaps the core challenge in this regard is for the academic community to accept that
the way it chooses to do things in the design and delivery of the curriculum makes a
material difference to outcomes. There is evidence locally and internationally that
institutional ethos and approaches to the education process are a key variable in who
succeeds and fails in higher education. An apposite example of a recent exploration of
this topic is a study on the performance of minority students in American higher
25
education institutions, undertaken by the Washington-based Education Sector (Carey
2008). A central finding is expressed as follows:
If there is a single factor that seems to distinguish colleges and universities that have
truly made a difference on behalf of minority students, it is attention. (Carey 2008:8)
What constitutes this ‘attention’? It has much to do with effort arising from attaching
due importance to undergraduate education. It goes beyond this, however, into
valuing and undertaking sustained educational inquiry - the scholarship of teaching
and learning. As the Carey report goes on to say of the successful institutions,
‘Essentially, they apply the academic values of empiricism and deep inquiry’ to their
own practices (Carey op. cit.)
In the South African higher education context, a major focus of attention needs to be
on developing and implementing mainstream course design and teaching approaches
that cater effectively for the realities and diversity of the student body. Along with
establishing enabling curriculum structures, this is an essential condition for
substantial improvement in the number, quality and mix of the country’s graduates.
Achieving it depends considerably on systematic knowledge of teaching and learning.
The craft knowledge on which so much higher education teaching has depended has
major limitations in meeting the challenges of contemporary South African teaching-
and-learning conditions, which are more complex than the traditional settings that
shaped the experience of many of our current academic staff. Finding fresh
approaches calls for educational expertise as well as effort.
How then might this kind of attention be achieved in the South African context? The
change strategy needed to influence the prevailing academic culture is clearly
26
complex and multifaceted, calling for a co-ordinated approach. If educational effort
and expertise are to grow, they must be accepted as being important in the sector. This
in turn depends on conditions of the following kind:
the establishment of reasonable and productive professional accountability for the
outcomes of the educational process;
increased status for educational expertise as a key expression of scholarship
(Boyer 1990), manifested in recognition and reward systems;
recognition of the importance of different academic roles in enabling universities
to meet their obligations to the country, respecting specialisation in teaching and
social engagement as well as research;
acknowledgement of education-related research as a valid and intellectually
challenging field; and
the establishment of funding streams and nationally-supported structures for
advancing professional development and educational expertise and innovation.
Embedded tensions in academic identity - such as the tension between teaching and
research, and between a focus on local needs and participation in the international
world of scholarship - frame Choice Three: Is the academic community willing to
take its share of responsibility for producing the graduates that the country needs for
its social, cultural and economic well-being, and to recognise and respect educational
expertise as a key means to that end?
In summary
27
Three broad conditions that are within the power of the higher education sector (the
state, the institutions and the academic community) to put in place are:
understanding who belongs in higher education in South Africa on the grounds of
potential, social justice and national development needs;
aligning the design of the system with the learning needs of the full range of the
intake that the sector should accommodate, with particular reference to the still-
marginalised majority;
dealing creatively with the diversity of the student body through teaching
approaches that are effective in the South African context.
The three choices underlying the establishment of these conditions are clearly
interdependent: curriculum renewal, for instance, will have diminished value if the
academic community does not collectively take psychological ownership of
responding to the country’s needs, or is not prepared to ‘apply the academic values of
empiricism and deep inquiry’ (Carey, op. cit.) to the educational process in higher
education.
The argument in this chapter advocates which way the choices should go. Whether
they are made consciously or unconsciously, the choices have far-reaching
implications for the nature of the higher education sector and who benefits from it.
They affect national policy, and it is important to assess what direction current
policies are taking us in. To what extent are they focused on the priority of improving
graduate output? To what extent are recent policies or initiatives (such as the
conversion of technikons to universities of technology, the push for PhDs, moves
towards institutional differentiation or ‘de-differentiation’, the funding of teaching
28
and research, the DST chairs, Jipsa) consistent and ‘joined up’? What is likely to be
their net impact on the effectiveness of the sector ten years hence?
Just as importantly, the choices apply to institutions, departments and individual
academics. The aggregated results of these choices make up the contribution of the
sector as a whole, so are critical to social justice, stability and development.
In conclusion: Why is it so hard?
The choices delineated here are clearly not regular strategic ones but involve deep-
seated matters of values and identity. They are affected by enduring tensions, not only
the high-level ones mentioned earlier but also those between inclusive and exclusive
private ideologies and between personal advancement and public service. Given the
nature of the academy, they cannot be successfully engineered or replaced by diktats.
The choices which are being made in the higher education sector at present, and
which are resulting in the disturbing shortcomings in educational opportunities and
achievement discussed in this chapter, suggest that prevailing academic values and
identity are tilting away from inclusiveness and serving local needs. Can the
compelling need shown up in the performance analysis produce attitudinal change
that will lift the value of education in higher education, and facilitate a constructive
Boyerian balance between the main academic roles?
The difficulty of meeting this challenge is increased by the wedge between research
and undergraduate teaching that is being driven in by aspects of international
academic culture and institutional and individual self-interest that undervalue public
29
service. However, there are some countervailing possibilities as well. For example,
well-articulated national policy and funding can make a significant difference to what
is accepted as important. Also, the critical issue of how research and undergraduate
teaching can be mutually enriching rather than dichotomised is gaining attention - and
increasingly sophisticated analysis - in a range of settings, albeit mainly in developed
countries (see for example Marwell 2007). Perhaps most significantly, contemporary
pressures on developing countries, arising particularly from democratisation and
economic globalisation, may add new dimensions to thinking about the purposes of
higher education, and impel a fresh understanding of the importance, feasibility and
intellectual challenge of realising academic potential in marginalised groups. This
kind of consciousness is present in a range of countries, including South Africa, but
needs to be formulated into a comprehensive and theorised position, going beyond
dependence on rhetorical argument, if it is to offer a credible alternative to the
Oxbridge stance that sets access to university education apart from developmental
needs (Daily Mail, op. cit.).
The extent to which academic conservatism is entrenched in the South African
academic community is not known. Its apparent prevalence may be due to the fact
that the key choices reflecting the higher education sector’s identity and values have
not been made explicit, and their likely consequences remain largely unanalysed. The
true test will come only when the choices are clear.
Given the high stakes involved, it is critical that the options for policy and practice,
including possible compromises as well as hard choices, should be delineated,
analysed and openly debated. Initiating this is in the first instance the responsibility of
30
the state and national higher education bodies. However, the institutions and the
academic community owe it to the country to give attention to the issues and the
consequences of their choices.
Referring predominantly to the developed North, Stephen Rowland (2006; 2007)
argues that contemporary pressures on higher education, exerted through phenomena
such as market forces, managerialism and wider social developments, have
fragmented the core academic project, and that it is vital for conditions to be created
that make it possible for academics to choose, for reasons intrinsic to their identity, to
return to a holistic understanding and practice of their disciplines, which would
remove dividing lines between teaching and research. Integrity, in its two senses of
‘bringing together’ and ‘soundness of moral principle’ (Rowland 2007:2), is central to
academic identity and resolving tensions between the core academic roles of teaching,
research and social responsiveness. Given the shortcomings in higher education
discussed in this chapter, Rowland’s central question, ‘How can academic work be
conducted with integrity?’, is pertinent to South Africa as well.
31
Acronyms
Note to the editor: Is there going to be a general list of acronyms? If not, I’d like to include
this list at the beginning or end of my chapter.
AD Academic Development
CESM Classification of Educational Subject Matter
CHE Council on Higher Education
DoE Department of Education
DST Department of Science and Technology
GER Gross Enrolment Rate
JIPSA Joint Initiative for Priority Skills Acquisition
HESA Higher Education South Africa
HSRC Human Sciences Research Council
NPHE National Plan for Higher Education
Acknowledgements
In relation to the data used in this chapter, thanks are due to the Council on Higher Education,
which commissioned and published the study from which the data are drawn; the Department
of Education, which produced the cohort studies that provided the basis for the analysis; and
Nan Yeld and Jane Hendry from the University of Cape Town, the co-authors of the CHE
study.
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Endnotes
33
1 For the sake of brevity, certain terms are used generically in this chapter. Thus ‘undergraduate’ refers to diploma as
well as degree study.
2 Technikons were still in existence when the cohorts studied entered the system. Although the institutional form has
changed, the programmes they offered have continued, so the term ‘technikon’ is used here to denote these.
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A case for improving teaching and learning in South African higher education
  • I Scott
  • N Yeld
  • J Hendry
• Scott, I., Yeld, N. and Hendry, J. 2007. A case for improving teaching and learning in South African higher education. Higher Education Monitor No. 6. Pretoria: Council on Higher Education. http://www.che.ac.za/documents/d000155/index.php