Access to Higher Education Probed

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From left: Professor Deo Jaganyi, Professor Renuka
Vithal, Professor Ian Scott and Dr Rubby Dhunpath.

A new book, Alternative Access to Higher Education: Underprepared Students or Underprepared Institutions? was launched at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on Friday 24 May.

The launch was preceded by a seminar titled “Access and Success in Higher Education: Underprepared students or underprepared institutions?” Dr Rubby Dhunpath, the Director of Teaching and Learning at UKZN who co-edited the book and co-authored two chapters with Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Teaching and Learning at UKZN, Professor Renuka Vithal, opened the Seminar and book launch by tracing the genesis of alternative access to Higher Education  as far back as the Freedom Charter.

Dhunpath said, ‘The book tackles the very weighty matter of access and success. Despite increasing investment in support programmes to ensure equity of outcomes, we have failed to significantly enhance the dismally low success rates in Higher Education. The reasons for this intractable phenomenon continue to elude us.’ He added, ‘While the doors of higher learning have been thrown open, the question we must ask is, ‘have we opened revolving doors?’

The thought-provoking book includes chapters penned by academics from around the country.

Some of the questions addressed in the book include:

• Is the policy framework underpinning the post-secondary sector sufficiently coherent to offer viable alternative access?

• Have universities transformed their curricula and institutional cultures to meet the demands of a rapidly changing student body?

• Has the increase in enrolments at universities resulted in a corresponding increase in graduations?

• Could the investment in Foundation programme support be better served by rethinking the funding model, the programmes themselves and the students they are meant to serve in relation to the mainstream, since the “mainstream” itself is changing?

Professor Renuka Vithal argued that we needed to broaden our theoretical and philosophical  framing of access by taking an international perspective and noted issues of access are framed in different ways in other parts of the world such as gender, religion, ethnicity and disability as impediments to success in Higher Education.

She added that access, retention, dropout, graduation need to be understood as connected phenomena and that the current Higher Education system has institutionalised dropout and failure. She questioned how the Higher Education system would sustain continuous large increases in enrolments if it also simultaneously substantially improved retention rates without significant provision of resources and growth of the sector.

Professor Deo Jaganyi, Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science who co-authored two chapters asked whether institutional culture may be contributing to the student dropout rate. ‘Most of our students are part of the generation.” He suggested students are more receptive to being communicated with via social media platforms like Facebook, as opposed to more traditional forms of communication.

Jaganyi added: It is clear that the challenge at hand can not only be tackled by having access programmes as the challenges are much broader than just providing access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.’ He also extolled the advantages of counseling for students.

Professor Ian Scott from the University of Cape Town who authored a chapter titled “Access, success and curriculum: aspects of their organic relationship” said the university system has not yet come to terms with the reality of our country. ‘We continue to advance systems, structures and approaches inherited from the past which have little relevance to our own contexts.’ He suggested that the solution requires political and individual willingness to change the status quo.

UKZN’s Professor Michael Samuel developed a conceptual map to understand the book. He raised a number of pertinent questions relating to transition, and suggested that FET Colleges should be factored in when post-secondary education was being reconfigured.

Copies of the book are available from Adams Bookstores.