12 November 2020 | Story Prof Francois Strydom | Photo Anja Aucamp
Prof J Francois Strydom is the Senior Director: Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of the Free State.

A university qualification is still viewed as one of the most powerful tools to change the economic prospects of students, their families and communities. In this sense universities can be generators of greater equality, social justice as well as economic prosperity. Improving all students’ chances of success is a notoriously difficult goal especially in one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Commitment to more equitable outcomes in student success is one of the less well-known achievements of the University of the Free State (UFS). Equitable outcomes refer to a university’s ability to offer students a chance to achieve success regardless of their background.

Change in student profile

The university’s commitment to success was started more than a decade ago but received significant strategic impetus in the UFS Strategic Plan: 2018-2022 in which improving students’ success and well-being is identified as the number one strategic priority. During the decade 2009-2019 the UFS has gone through a significant change in its student profile. The student profile has changed in different ways of which two are illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Increase in diversity

Figure 1 illustrates how the student body has diversified, in line with national and international trends, which has resulted in a richer learning environment and greater diversity in educational background and opportunities. An additional change over the past decade is the overall increase in first-generation students across racial groups. Seventy-five percent of first-year students are the first in their family to attend university. Although these students come with inspiring motivation to succeed, higher-education research shows that these students are at risk due to a lack of a role model in their immediate family. Other changes in the students’ profile have been increase reliance on NSFAS funding with 55% of UFS students making use of this funding for their studies.

In light of the financial background of our students the university has kept its degree costs as affordable as possible. A DHET comparison shows that the UFS has one of the lowest tuition fees in the sector.

Despite these challenges the UFS has stayed committed to the goal of creating more equitable outcomes for all students regardless of their educational and economic backgrounds.


Figure 2: Achievement gap according to success rates 2009-2019

Figure 2 shows that in the past 10 years the achievement gap between African and white students has narrowed by 5% (15% in 2009 vs. 10% in 2019). The figure also indicates that the UFS success rate has increased steadily by 9% between 2009 and 2019.

To achieve these gains three intentional approaches have been utilised:

  1. Re-designing the learning environment based on globally benchmarked research and practice

    The UFS success story regarding the improvements of students academic performance started with the South African Surveys of Student Engagement (SASSE), a national research project led by the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL). The survey is part of a global community of researchers who work on developing universities where students understand what they need to do to succeed and the institution knows which programmes or interventions need to be in place to provide all students with a chance to succeed. SASSE puts a data-driven student voice, based on strong empirical and theoretical foundations at the centre of institutional redesign. In addition to a strong research base, the UFS had the opportunity to learn from world leading institutions such as Georgia State University (GSU) through the Siyaphumelela Network which is focused on improving student success though data analytics and is funded by the Kresge Foundation.  

  2. Scaling high impact practices using data analytics

    Student engagement research identifies certain high-impact practices (HIPs). These are practices that enable students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to succeed and develop graduate attributes that make them more employable. In the past these high-impact practices were reserved for a small group of students in specific programmes. In line with international best practice and to enable greater success for more students, these practices have been scaled and linked to rigorous monitoring and evaluation using data analytics. Scaling of these HIPs has only been possible due to close collaboration between faculties and CTL. The four HIPs that have been scaled at the UFS are:

    • First-year transition support which employs 60 senior students to support first years to learn success skills in the compulsory UFS module for which 7888 students were enrolled in 2019.
    • Tutorials which employ 350 senior students as tutors and reached 18 300 students in 2019.
    • Academic advising which helps students hone success skills and to align their educational and career goals. Some 17 455 students participated in academic advising initiatives in 2019.
    • Academic Language and Literacy Development which helps students to develop the language skills they need to thrive through enrolment in literacy modules (10 500 in 2019) and/or make use of the writing centre (15 568 students in 2019) to support them with assignments.


  3. Leadership focused on evidence-based decision-making and innovation

The leadership of the UFS has actively emphasised greater evidence-based decision-making. An evidence-based focus has been enhanced by the UFS strategic plan 2018-2022 and the Integrated Transformation Plan (ITP). These plans have created an atmosphere which intentionally facilitates change and innovation based on the use of evidence to inform planning, monitoring and decision-making.

Using a crisis to imagine a different future

More than a decade’s worth of commitment to implement the above-mentioned approaches enabled the UFS to take an evidence-based approach to managing the impact on the pandemic. Within the first week of lockdown the Rector and Vice-Chancellor put appropriate governance structures in place. A survey of 13 505 UFS students assessed access to devices and data and informed the development of 16 nuanced strategies to support vulnerable students. The Academic Advising team created #UFSLearnOn campaign materials that have been viewed 77 000 times by students and shared with 177 000 people via Facebook. The #UFSTechOn campaign provided support for staff in adapting their learning and teaching has been attended by 3800 academics to date.

The CTL created a monitoring system using data analytics through weekly reports. These analytic reports have monitored the number of staff and students on the Learning Management System; how much time they are spending learning; and whether they are completing assessments. These efforts have resulted in 99.95% of students learning through the electronic Learning and Management System (Blackboard) in the first semester. For the 0.05% of students who were not able to participate in learning the UFS has developed plans to support their learning journey at the institution.

The UFS response to the COVID crisis has created opportunities to accelerate the development of e-tutorials, e-advising and innovative blended learning design for future teaching and learning and the scaling of new high-impact practices. 

As the last decade has shown, the UFS is committed to creating equitable outcomes through intentional student-centered design of interventions and the measurement of their impact using data analytics.

This means that a student’s destiny (or success) is less dependent on their demographics (race, generation status, disadvantage, etc.) and more on how they choose to behave and make use of success support at the UFS.

Opinion article by Prof Francois Strydom, Senior Director: Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of the Free State

We use cookies to make interactions with our websites and services easy and meaningful. To better understand how they are used, read more about the UFS cookie policy. By continuing to use this site you are giving us your consent to do this.