08 March 2021 | Story Andre Damons | Photo Pixabay

Student success and how universities can help to ensure their students obtain their degrees were at the centre of Thursday’s webinar discussion on ‘Reimagining universities for student successes hosted by the University of the Free State (UFS). This was the first webinar in the university’s Thought-Leader Series for 2021. The discussions revealed that although universities are considered generators of greater equality, social justice, as well as economic prosperity, a concerted effort of collective action is required to enable universities to improve students’ chances of success.  

The panel included Prof Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer: Universities South Africa (USAf); Prof Nthabiseng Ogude, Dean: Mamelodi Campus of the University of Pretoria (UP); and Prof Francois Strydom, Senior Director: Centre for Teaching and Learning at the UFS. Dr Tim Renick, Executive Director, National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University, in the US, and Mr Bill Moses, Managing Director: Education at the Kresge Foundation, were the other two panellists. 

The webinar forms part of the establishment of the Student Success Collaborative Forum (SSCF) under the auspices of USAf. The SSCF aims for collaboration between government, business, civil-society, bursary-provider, student-success initiatives and universities to develop innovative ways to enable student success. Prof Heather Nel, Senior Director: Institutional Planning, Nelson Mandela University, facilitated the webinar, while Prof Francis Petersen, UFS Rector and Vice-Chancellor, did the introduction and welcome. 

Student success is a social-justice issue

Prof Bawa said student success should be thought of as a social-justice issue. It is clearly an issue that needs to be elevated above issues of efficiency and effectiveness, he said.

“Improving success rates leads to strengthening the economy. Student success also contributes to building a more equal society. It enhances human agency, and ensures that young people can play a much more engaged role in the society and communities where they are based. The most important thing for the future of our democracy is the need to contribute to creating new cohorts of intellectuals. And student success links directly to this issue,” said Prof Bawa.

According to him, we should think of students as individuals, as being complex and multilayered individuals. Prof Bawa said: “The idea has to be how we can think about student development in terms of their social, emotional and intellectual growth. How do we place students at the centre of our academic enterprises?”

The power of data

Dr Renick used examples from Georgia State University to show how universities use data analytics to improve their students’ success. He said in the US one of the ways universities have historically tried to deal with equity gaps is by creating special programmes by demographic groups. 

“When you have 28 000 low-income students, you don’t create a special programme for those students, you change the way the institution interacts with all students. Georgia State was asking a very different question a decade ago: Are we the problem? If students come to Georgia State, but not resulting in the degree they sought, whose fault was it? Yes, it would be better if the secondary system prepares better students or if the state gives us more money, but surely there must be some things we are doing that contribute to the failure of our students to progress and obtain their degrees.”

According to Dr Renick, some of the lessons they have learned over the years are that universities of higher education are often the reasons why students are struggling. They are their own worst enemies. 

“It is our bureaucracy that creates barriers, barriers that disproportionately and negatively impact students from low-income and underserved backgrounds. We can use data to understand the barriers we create. There are ways you can use data to identify problems you are creating and as a result are in your control. As we move with better data and technology, there are scalable, affordable solutions that can make a transformable difference,” said Dr Renick.
Fulfilling role of good neighbour for student success

Mr Moses spoke about making universities anchors of student success. A few institutions in the US have explored how to engage universities and fulfil the role of a good neighbour as part of student success. The idea is based on what individuals in communities can do to assist students in achieving their degrees – taking students from the lowest quadrant to the highest quadrant of socioeconomic institutions to enable student success. The good neighbour concept focuses on the effectiveness of entities and local partners within communities to assist students in achieving success. 

“COVID-19 has presented challenges and opportunities related to student success. While a lack of trust was evident, as well as declining enrolments with high drop-out rates – particularly students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – experimenting with new technologies and pedagogies emerged,” said Mr Moses. 

He emphasised that for student success to be realised, student-centric designs and interventions are important.

Partnering with communities and schools

For Prof Ogude, the success of students is dependent on the pipeline projects that support students. The UP anchor-strategy pipeline projects comprise early childhood, primary schools, and high schools, in conjunction with networks and collaboration formed between UP and communities, comprising collaboration with organisations and municipalities, among other institutions. 

“As we grapple with student success at universities, part of the problem shows that students were taught in a procedural manner in high school, resulting in the negative impact at university levels,” said Prof Ogude. 

As an anchor institution, the UP is available and accessible to learners for many programmes to help with learning. Prof Ogude said there is a dire need for all institutions to share information and work in a coordinated manner.
Being committed to the long walk

Prof Strydom highlighted the UFS’s long walk to equity, quality and success. For institutions to promote success means that universities have to be as committed to the goal of student success as Nelson Mandela was to freedom during his long walk.

The UFS has embraced the goal of equity, quality and success for its diverse student body because a quality university degree allows a university the opportunity to alleviate poverty and promote economic prosperity. 

Over the past decade, the UFS has increased the success rates of all students. This was done by conducting globally benchmarked research using the South African Surveys of Student Engagement (SASSE), which provided evidence that the Centre for Teaching and Learning developed innovative support programmes for staff and all its students. 

Funding from the Kresge Foundation enabled the UFS to participate in the Siyaphumelela Network where it could learn from national and international institutions like Georgia State University. Prof Strydom emphasised that the UFS’s achievements were only possible because of the commitment of staff and students to student success. 

“By sharing ideas and collaborating with other universities, staff and students, and stakeholders, we can find innovative ways to help more students attain a quality degree,” said Strydom.

Prof Petersen indicated that more work needs to be done on the student success front. “We already have good platforms and foundations to work from, including the collaborative efforts of institutions and – most importantly – placing students at the centre of the Academic Project,” said Prof Petersen. 

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