Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

How to help students succeed at university

By Rakhee Naik and Safiyyah Pahad

After 21 years of democracy, people still question whether apartheid is a prominent reason impacting on the current state of education. Whether acknowledged or not, we must consider its impact on predominantly black students in accessing resources and educational opportunities. This is exacerbated by their limited social and cultural capital needed to become a holistic student, which increases the likelihood of success at university.

The #FeesMustFall campaign that encouraged transformation and social justice in higher education was also about building these forms of capital. Policy makers and educational stakeholders must foreground transformational changes to lessen the lingering effect of apartheid on student success.

Why the high drop-out rate?
South Africa, in comparison to global statistics, has been found to have a low graduation rate and a disproportionately high national higher education dropout rate, reflective of one of the lowest rates in the world (department of education, 2001). According to the department of higher education and training, between the years 2009 to 2013, the number of students enrolled at public higher education institutions ranged from 837 776 to 983 698 with the throughput for 2013 indicating an average of 15% and 21% for undergraduate and postgraduate master’s degrees respectively. It is therefore becoming vital to understand why students find it so challenging to succeed at university.

Student success, a multi-dimensional concept, relies upon a student’s ability to adapt to an academically and psycho-socially changing environment. The higher education experience comprises of a plethora of opportunities that encourages individualism, greater responsibility and accountability over one’s life, and the need to develop relations within a foreign environment. Consequently, the ability to cope with these major life transitions in addition to adjusting to an unfamiliar university environment develops into a critical component for academic success, which ultimately defines a students’ progression to graduation.

While there are many possible factors that influence university dropout, South African literature largely attributes this to challenges that affect the student’s academic performance and psycho-social functioning, such as the transition and adaptation to the university setting, challenges with English proficiency (owing to the fact that English is not the mother-tongue language of many South African students while the language of instruction in most higher education institutions is English), overcrowded classes, the relationship between the lecturer and student, inadequate teaching and learning resources and infrastructure. In addition, financial constraints experienced by students affect students academically and psycho-socially, further exacerbating university dropout rates. These factors often promote the likelihood of a student failing or being able to adequately gain the necessary academic skills, in turn resulting in negatively impacting a student’s psycho-social and mental well-being.

This often creates feelings of incompetence, discouragement and demoralisation, high anxiety levels, low self-confidence and low self-esteem further resulting in an increased likelihood of students skipping classes or dropping out of university impacting on their ability to acquire the necessary academic skills. This cyclical process is further exacerbated by the broader inequalities and disparities that are still present in the South African higher education environment, where many of the top students emerging from the South African schooling system are not properly equipped for the demands of higher education. These students thus find themselves underprepared for university and struggle to adapt to the university environment. The combination of multiple academic and psycho-social factors, which work hand in hand in developing the successful student, has developed a need for institutions to shift their focus to the holistic student, thus further safeguarding their success at university.

A case study: The Bale scholarship
The Student Equity and Talent Management Unit, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, coordinated and implemented the Bale scholarship, a term coined from southern Sotho meaning a group of initiates. This scholarship, coordinated between 2007 and 2013, aimed to provide undergraduate and postgraduate black female students with holistic (ie financial, academic, and psycho-social) support that focused on addressing the student as a whole by providing them with academic and psycho-social skills needed throughout their studies to navigate tertiary education. When taking into account the success of the holistic student, 15 of the 20 students (75%), achieved their undergraduate degrees for which they were funded, 14 having later achieved their honours degree and one achieving her master’s degree.

Further, an additional 10 students (100%), funded for their honours degree had successfully completed this degree, with one having completed her master’s degree. Overall, 11 students are currently completing their postgraduate degrees (at varying levels) with 17 Bale recipients (56.6%) having successfully been integrated into the employment sector in various industries of the South African workforce. The findings of the scholarship programme indicate that the majority of students benefitted from the support provided.

The Bale scholarship programme, based on the model of the holistic student, portrays the importance of supporting students holistically to ensure greater success at a tertiary level and allows the opportunity to document best practices of the holistic student. Moreover, the availability of infrastructure and institutional support plays a vital complementary role. Higher education institutions have a fundamental and dynamic role to play in ensuring students receive the necessary assistance to develop into highly skilled graduates intended for the prospective workforce.

Rakhee Naik is a project researcher at the Student Equity and Talent Management Unit (Setmu). Safiyyah Pahad is a research psychology intern at Setmu. Setmu, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, facilitates various pre-university enrichment and scholarship programmes. A version of this paper was presented at the 21st Annual South African Psychology Congress, held in Johannesburg, September 15-18, 2015.

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