Better data for varsity success

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PhD thesis shows state’s university profiles are not detailed enough to help poorer students.

If we want to direct more resources to university students disadvantaged by their schooling, we need to know more precisely who they are than official data currently allows.

This was one key finding in my recently completed PhD research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Using data from the 2002 Household Income and Expenditure Survey about the relative incomes, employment and literacy levels of the area surrounding public schools, the basic education department assigns each student to one of five “quintiles” — quintile one being the most disadvantaged, up to quintile five (generally the former Model C schools).

For my PhD, I tracked data across two decades on University of KwaZulu-Natal students from low- quintile schools to compare their performances with those from the higher quintiles.

The results showed the low-quintile students had lower average matric passes, attained lower average scores per course credit, had a higher dropout rate and took longer to achieve a degree.

So it is clear that schooling disadvantages continue to drag down students throughout their university careers. To calculate dropout rates and the lengths of time to graduation requires data in “cohorts” — that is, you need to track the class of 2004, the class of 2005, and so on.

To my surprise, however, cohort data is not required by the state’s Higher Education Management Information System, better known as “Hemis”. Instead, graduation rates are measured “by proxy”: a ratio formula is used of the students currently registered against numbers graduating in the same year.

The time students take to graduate, or to drop out, is an extremely important statistic because each year at university is costly, especially for students who are on loans.

Families that are borrowing money as well as the National Student Financial Aid Scheme surely need to do their calculations based on realistic averages of years of study for each degree programme. My research suggests that elongated study periods are the norm in many disciplines.

I interviewed a sample of students from low-quintile schools about their disadvantages before and during university. Such students come from rural areas of low literacy and high unemployment. Their caregivers, mostly grandparents, usually have no knowledge of tertiary education to guide them towards their choices.

Yet almost none of the students had the benefit of a career counsellor at school, and several of them had done some academic “roaming”, changing their degree choices.

The minister of higher education and training appears troubled about the lack of enthusiasm for further education and training colleges among this year’s matriculants, but maybe more government money for posts in career guidance at low-quintile schools could make a difference.

When students from low-quintile schools reach higher education, they are often the only ones from their school to do so, whereas students from the better schools arrive in large cohort numbers, with friendship groups already formed.

So the first year for students from low-quintile schools is likely to be tough. In talking to me, mostly in isiZulu, about their academic work, they specified both language and a lack of background knowledge as major problems.

They also said they could not communicate well with their lecturers, who they felt in some cases favoured the higher-quintile students — the ones who could communicate easily in English.

Some complained about being lodged in off-campus accommodation the university rented in a slum area: they felt insecure, and had to travel to campus daily by bus. Surprisingly, I found that inadequate residences did not affect academic performance.

One explanation could be that those who live off campus have to be much better organised compared with those who can spend more time socialising on campus. But this is not an argument against providing enough on-campus residences: there is much international evidence of the benefits of well-run and enriching campus life.

Food was a problem and many students reported going hungry, especially near exam time. Many of these students have to learn to budget with the competing expenses of cellphones, clothing and even sending some of their student grant money home to help sick or poor relatives.

It is clear that some guidance in financial management would be beneficial to many first-year students, especially those who are from low-quintile schools on state loans. As someone trained in social science , I am particularly interested in the benefits of social networks.

The low-quintile students showed a strong preference for social ways of learning — small tutorial groups and seminars rather than lectures.

Some spoke of networking. One student said: “I think it was important that I socialise with people so that they can help me academically and then socialise so that I can live with other people and solicit advice from people who are already more advanced or ahead of me and have had some experience about life at university, especially those who are in second and third year.

From their experiences I can learn how they successfully navigated their successive [academic] levels.”

In my sample, there were four times as many students from quintile five schools as from quintile one. Noting current arguments about the global rankings of universities, I would suggest a new way of ranking: one based on social justice. Count how many students from low-quintile schools graduate from a university within four to five years.

If that data were then used in the state’s awarding of subsidies, universities would quickly become better at collecting both school and cohort data. It would also have the merit of redirecting some money towards the most poorly resourced universities, enabling them to have smaller classes and provide better campus socialisation in the first year.

This is not just a matter of redress for previous disadvantage. There are strong arguments for the role of universities in producing the graduates needed to uplift poor communities. For this reason my survey asked the disadvantaged students about their home visits and vacations.

One said: “Since I come from a poor background, for my family I have this desire to bring about some change to lift it. Among my siblings I am the first to study at a university, and when they reach grade 12 I want to help them to come and study at a university and also be able to take care of myself.”

In other words, the multiplier factor of one good role model in a poor community can be considerable. This is why Hemis data, which still uses apartheid racial categories (black, coloured, Indian and white), must be expanded to include school quintiles, cohort performance, dropouts and time to graduation.

Bheki Mpofu’s recently completed PhD is titled “The Contours of Disadvantage and Academic Progress: Analysis of Perceptions of Students from Disadvantaged Schools at the University of KwaZulu-Natal”

Caption: Step up: The official Higher Education Management Information System must be expanded to serve the aims of social justice far better than it currently does. 

Photo: Rogan Ward

Story by Bheki Mpofu

Source: Mail & Guardian

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