By Prof. June Pym
South Africa’s higher education has increased admission of marginalised students rapidly, but sadly the throughput rate of students is alarmingly disparate and divided. This bodes the question about what it means to accept students with varying and disparate schooling and life experiences to higher education and sincerely know they will have a reasonable chance of success.
There is substantial evidence over the past 20 years that in certain programmes and contexts where there has been wholistic student support and development, there has been a positive impact on student throughput rate, students’ confidence and their broad graduate competencies and skills.
However, there is an increasing need to specify what we mean by ‘student support’. Apart from the vital and necessary material support for higher education students, we need to deeply understand something of the changing student experience in higher education to build some level of wholistic, scaffolded student support and development over the whole degree period.
ISFAP is focused on moving away from a deficit view of assimilating students to a singular cultural literacy model with a strong focus on students’ lack of preparation to cope with tertiary studies that has predominated in many support or bursary programmes. Such programmes often have the unintended consequence of producing what has become known as ‘stereotype threat’, that is, an overarching anxiety that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. These stereotypes have been compounded by the politics of race and class in South Africa. ISFAP has highlighted the need to engage with notions of ‘under preparedness’ and ‘disadvantage’ in a more nuanced, responsive manner with a focus on a working with students’ existing ‘capital’, a value-added focus as well as engaging with the higher education structures.
ISFAP acknowledges the complexity of working in a coherent, multidimension way that focuses on student achievement, broad student development and graduate competencies. This involves engaging reactively with immediate individual student needs and concerns, but also work proactively in terms of both academic and psychosocial support that works with differential access and builds empowerment, broad competencies and development. ISFAP focuses on both pre-empting crises and building capacity with the rich diversity and resources in the cohort, as well as attempting to develop a supportive learning community and a culture of learning, that offers a suite of opportunities that particularly promote social connectedness.
Student support is not about the addition of a series of ad hoc workshops on stress management, time management, financial planning and so on. It involves assessing the critical needs of students as they enter Higher Education and how these change in the various stages of their degree. Experiences of alienation are common for all students, but particularly so for many first-generation students as they enter the middle-class environment of higher education. It is clear the academic and psychological issues are intertwined.
We believe that the development of social connectedness, identity, agency and working with students’ capital, are essential pillars of ISFAP initiatives and strongly assists academic success. It also contributes to the broader development of critical citizenship and social responsiveness. Cohort analysis with quantitative and qualitative data over several years will be an imperative in foregrounding the impact of this model adopted by ISFAP.
The focus of ISFAP strives to also include a focus on the context in which the students learn. While ISFAP cannot itself engage with the multiple layers of the learning environment in which the student is studying, it is critical that relevant partnerships, relationships, fora and conversations are created that continually give feedback regarding the micro student experiences. Transformation and shifting the tertiary learning environment will be a far greater possibility if there is a formalised context between micro realities and macro policies and practices. While the specific details of a range of initiatives, interventions and partnerships that ISFAP aims to provide are not outlined here (this will be the substance of a further input), they are designed to enhance and develop students’ identity, voice, confidence, ability to engage in their learning, to ask questions, learn from ‘failure’ and ultimately engage more successfully in their academic studies, as well as their own personal and professional development.