With­out suc­cess, ac­cess will fail

We need to ad­dress student fail­ure as a fac­tor in their anger to­wards uni­ver­si­ties

Mail & Guardian - - Education - Ian Scott

Many ob­servers of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests have been struck, or shocked, by the level of anger that welled up among the pro­test­ers and, at times, spilt over into ver­bal abuse and acts of vi­o­lence, de­struc­tion and in­tim­i­da­tion.

In­so­far as this anger may be the most re­li­able in­di­ca­tion of what mo­ti­vates ac­tivism, it is im­por­tant to fathom what un­der­lies it — oth­er­wise the most well-in­ten­tioned ef­forts to find so­lu­tions may be fruit­less.

A num­ber of rea­sons for the pro- tests have been given. More­over, it is clear that the pro­test­ers are not ho­mo­ge­neous, and dif­fer­ent groups will have dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tions.

The rea­sons given in­clude:

fo­cus on higher ed­u­ca­tion — par­tic­u­larly re­mov­ing fi­nan­cial and other ma­te­rial bar­ri­ers and “de­colonis­ing” cur­ricu­lums; and

an­a­lysts and gov­ern­ment or po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives — which point to wider so­cial, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal fac­tors. Ex­am­ples of the lat­ter in­clude frus­tra­tion with “en­dur­ing in­equal­i­ties” and “the lack of change in post-apartheid South Africa”, as well as more spe­cific po­lit­i­cal mo­tives.

“The anger of student protests across South Africa [is] a symp­tom of the loss of con­fi­dence in Ja­cob Zuma’s gov­ern­ment,” wrote Nathan Gef­fen on the GroundUp web­site last year.

Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Blade Nz­i­mande said: “The ul­te­rior mo­tives are ac­tu­ally to desta­bilise the gov­ern­ment and to mis­lead stu­dents for [the ac­tivist lead­ers’] own nar­row po­lit­i­cal agen­das.”

There is no way of know­ing how such mo­ti­va­tions are spread across pro­test­ers, but the im­pli­ca­tion is that the “nar­row po­lit­i­cal agen­das” ex­ist pri­mar­ily in the rad­i­cal core groups.

In any event, my con­cern is with the anger of the ma­jor­ity of the protest­ing stu­dents who — though no doubt af­fected by so­cial in­equal­ity — ap­pear to be mo­bilised pre­dom­i­nantly by the broad ap­peal to fight un­fair ob­sta­cles to higher ed­u­ca­tion, which di­rectly af­fect them and their com­mu­ni­ties.

Their anger is rooted not only in the griev­ances al­ready iden­ti­fied, but also in their ex­pe­ri­ence of fail­ure aris­ing from ob­sta­cles that ex­tend well be­yond colo­nial cur­ricu­lums.

Protests have been racialised, with the Fal­list move­ments em­pha­sis­ing con­di­tions and in­equal­i­ties that are seen to af­fect black peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar. It is thus jus­ti­fi­able and nec­es­sary for anal­y­sis of the is­sues to fo­cus on black stu­dents, though al­ways in the con­text of the sys­tem as a whole.

So far the is­sue that the protests have most strongly fo­cused on — and that has at­tracted most pub­lic at­ten­tion and pre­cip­i­tated un­prece­dented gov­ern­ment re­sponse, with many bil­lions of rands be­ing “re-pri­ori­tised” to student fi­nan­cial aid in re­mark­ably lit­tle time — is the de­mand for free higher ed­u­ca­tion. [Hi Richard, could you check this with the writer - he had writ­ten “the de­mand for fi­nan­cial ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion”]

There is no doubt­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of this con­cern for many stu­dents, but it is only gov­ern­ment, not the in­sti­tu­tions, that can ad­dress it.

So is the fees is­sue suf­fi­cient to ex­plain the anger di­rected at uni­ver­si­ties?

Other ma­jor de­mands, par­tic­u­larly those con­cern­ing cur­ricu­lum and in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture, re­late to the stu­dents’ ex­pe­ri­ences at univer­sity.

It is ac­cepted that in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture has a pow­er­ful ef­fect on how pos­i­tively stu­dents ex­pe­ri­ence the learn­ing process, and hence on their suc­cess. #RhodesMustFall was a man­i­fes­ta­tion of how emo­tion­ally charged this mat­ter can be.

The de­mand for de­colonis­ing the cur­ricu­lum can be seen in a sim­i­lar light. But this de­mand is cur­rently di­rected pri­mar­ily at con­tent — only one el­e­ment of cur­ricu­lum.

More­over, the fact that there has been notably lit­tle speci­ficity sug­gests that the pro­test­ers do not have a de­vel­oped view of what de­coloni­sa­tion would en­tail across dis­ci­plines with di­verse forms of knowl­edge. This may in­di­cate that the de­mand is, in it­self, sym­bolic of other, les­sac­knowl­edged, sources of alien­ation.

The ques­tion is: If a fully in­clu­sive cul­ture and cur­ricu­lum could be achieved — as­sum­ing it would make a mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence in fields such as math­e­mat­ics, en­gi­neer­ing, in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and ac­count­ing — would this be enough to meet the stu­dents’ needs?

I be­lieve not. My per­spec­tive, from three decades of work­ing in ed­u­ca­tional devel­op­ment, is that for many black stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar, anger with the sta­tus quo is strongly fed by frus­tra­tion — and at times hu­mil­i­a­tion — aris­ing from ob­sta­cles to their suc­cess in main­stream uni­ver­si­ties.

These ob­sta­cles af­fect stu­dents from all groups, but have a dis­pro­por­tion­ate ef­fect on African stu­dents, as il­lus­trated in the graphic.

Equal ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion — in the sense of gain­ing a place in a univer­sity — may ap­pear to be close to re­al­i­sa­tion, but this is il­lu­sory.

Black student en­rol­ment reached 70% of the to­tal in 2013, yet par­tic­i­pa­tion rates (in­di­cat­ing the pro­por­tions of the dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tion groups get­ting into higher ed­u­ca­tion) show a dif­fer­ent pic­ture — ma­jor racial skew­ing against a back­drop of low over­all par­tic­i­pa­tion rel­a­tive to other coun­tries.

The gross en­rol­ment ra­tio in­di­cates to­tal en­rol­ment as a per­cent­age of the 20- to 24-year-old pop­u­la­tion, so, in fact, only about 12% of African and coloured youth are en­ter­ing pub­lic higher ed­u­ca­tion. Pro­test­ers are right that ac­cess re­mains a ma­jor prob­lem.

Be­cause those en­ter­ing univer­sity are gen­er­ally among the best achiev­ers at school, the African and coloured youth in higher ed­u­ca­tion rep­re­sent a small “elite” with high po­ten­tial to suc­ceed. But there is some­thing se­ri­ously wrong in the sys­tem in this re­gard. Ac­cess with­out suc­cess is a hol­low achieve­ment. The fig­ures in the graphic high­light key as­pects of what is be­ing achieved.

No group is do­ing well. The graphic shows only African and white per­for­mance rates, but coloured and In­dian per­for­mance in­vari­ably falls be­tween these. It is only in the “elite” four-year de­grees that the com­ple­tion rate af­ter two ad­di­tional years ex­ceeds 60%. Depart­ment of higher ed­u­ca­tion data tells us that nearly half of all stu­dents en­ter­ing uni­ver­si­ties are not grad­u­at­ing even within 10 years.

The con­tin­ued racial skew­ing in per­for­mance com­pounds the in­equal­i­ties in par­tic­i­pa­tion rates. The con­se­quence is that only about 7% of African and coloured youth are suc­ceed­ing in higher ed­u­ca­tion, and the gains made in black en­rol­ment are largely neu­tralised by lim­ited suc­cess.

The per­for­mance pat­terns re­veal a near-tragic irony for #FeesMustFall — the ac­cess that is be­ing fought for is ac­cess to only a 50% prob­a­bil­ity of suc­ceed­ing. For Na­tional Student Fi­nan­cial Aid Scheme-sup­ported stu­dents, the prob­a­bil­ity is closer to 40%.

Although suc­cess has not been an overt el­e­ment in the protests, re­search shows that stu­dents’ aca­demic per­for­mance can have a ma­jor ef­fect on their pro­duc­tive en­gage­ment with their univer­sity. It is most likely that the low and skewed com­ple­tion rates sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­lie student dis­af­fec­tion.

The pre­dom­i­nant rea­son peo­ple go to univer­sity — and why fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties of­ten make sac­ri­fices to en­able this — is to suc­ceed, to gain a qual­i­fi­ca­tion that will im­prove their lives. So fail­ure at univer­sity is deeply de­mor­al­is­ing, and is of­ten be­wil­der­ing be­cause the rea­sons for fail­ing are not clear.

These stu­dents com­monly ex­pe­ri­ence self-doubt, anx­i­ety and frus­tra­tion, which can be­come anger and sus­pi­cion, or a height­ened con­scious­ness, of in­sti­tu­tional dis­crim­i­na­tion. What is more likely to cause alien­ation from an in­sti­tu­tion than frus­tra­tion of one’s core pur­pose for be­ing there?

The cur­rent per­for­mance pat­terns may well be­come a ma­jor overt source of student dis­sat­is­fac­tion. If equal ac­cess is re­alised, will a fo­cus on equal out­comes be far be­hind?

The po­lit­i­cal de­mands of the move­ments cre­ate a ma­jor risk that all avail­able fund­ing will go to­wards student fi­nan­cial aid. Even if ac­com­pa­nied by at­ten­tion to in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture and cur­ricu­lum, this would by no means ac­com­plish sub­stan­tial im­prove­ment in the out­comes of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

The need for such im­prove­ment lies not only in sat­is­fy­ing student de­mands, but also in giv­ing due re­spect to the in­tel­lec­tual po­ten­tial and the ed­u­ca­tional as­pi­ra­tions that ex­ist in all our com­mu­ni­ties.

More de­tailed anal­y­sis of the ob­sta­cles to student learn­ing, and how they may be ad­dressed, will be pub­lished next week.

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