22 SES 07 D, Accessibility and Participation
Student retention in higher education continues to be problematic in many parts of the world. The reasons for students discontinuing their studies are mediated by context but, overall, retention rates among students from widening participation backgrounds are lower than those from more traditional backgrounds. In the UK, 10.3% of Black and minority ethnic (BME) students do not complete their courses (Social Market Foundation, 2018); in South Africa, 32.1% of Black students leave university in their first year. In some other European countries, levels of BME students completing their courses are also low, for example the Netherlands (Richardson, 2015; Severiens & Wolff, 2009). Despite policies to address equity, access, and retention to higher education in South Africa, rural students - the majority of whom are Black - continue to be highly marginalised, yet they have attracted little attention in widening participation research (Mgqwashu, 2016). Our collaborative project, Southern African Rurality in Higher Education (SARiHE) (ESRC/NRF funded), involving South African and UK partners, is investigating how rural students negotiate the transition to university and how prior cultural and educational experiences influence their higher education trajectories. Analysis of data from Phase 1 of the project contain important elements that we believe are applicable to the UK and to other European countries, in particular the emphasis on the feelings of marginalisation and the challenges faced by accessing and engaging with the curriculum.
Research questions focus on how students negotiate transitions to university and the influence on their higher education trajectories. We examine the practices that shape approaches to learning of university students from rural areas including in relation to language and digital technologies. Finally we explore the challenges for students from rural contexts facing curricula, which remain imbued with colonialism, aiming to propose inclusive alternatives that build on all (including rural) student experiences using Connell’s (2017) notion of ‘curricular justice’. We use the term to help frame the data analysis because, rather than reflecting the ‘culture of the least advantaged’ (Connell, 2017:11, original emphasis), it proposes a critique of culture, creating space for dialogue and for reframing learning as conversation. Connell (2017) argues that the 21st century university system is ‘highly unequal’ (p.6), embedding a ‘narrow knowledge system that reflects and reproduces social inequalities on a global scale ‘(p.10), ‘a Eurocentric curriculum prevails everywhere’ (p.6). In order to develop just curricula, the voices of those who are most usually exemplified in access and equity agendas, must be heard and attended to. We argue for the centrality of the curriculum in any discussion of access and equity, including retention, whether it be in South Africa or Europe.
The research is framed, theoretically, within a sociocultural perspective on learning that recognises that human actions are mediated by physical, social, cultural, historical and material means (Daniels, 2015). Schatzki (2001:11) highlights that practices are ‘embodied, materially mediated arrays of human activity centrally organised around shared practical understanding’. We take this further, examining how students’ historic and current practices have contributed to the negotiation of transitions from rural contexts into and through higher education as they encounter different ‘figured worlds’ (Holland et al, 1998). This perspective, based on the work of Vygotsky, Bakhtin and Bourdieu, enables us to explore the influences of rural figured worlds upon the new worlds of higher education and the adaptations students make in relation to participation and studying. In addition, it supports us to consider the many skills and strengths that rural students may bring to university, and to focus on their possible contribution to retention rates.
Co-researchers at three sites are conducting the fieldwork: the University of Johannesburg (an urban ‘comprehensive’ university with a balanced focus on research, teaching and technology), Rhodes University (a rural, research-led and ‘previously advantaged’ university) and Fort Hare University (a rural, teaching-led, ’previously disadvantaged’ university). Rurality is a very complex and contested category and the study employs a participatory methodology, which can be argued to be a ‘decolonising’ mode (Bozalek and Biersteker, 2011), as it avoids a deficit positioning of under–represented students. In Phase 1, second year undergraduates from rural backgrounds in each partner university (20 - 24 per institution, with a balance between STEM and Humanities programmes) were recruited as co-researchers. They were involved in a number of ways, through collecting accounts of everyday practices in the form of digital documentaries including Evernote diary entries, drawings, photographs and other artefacts using an iPad and contributing to discussions and focus groups. Multimodal methods are important as they can reduce students’ reliance on writing and language, particularly when the dominant language is a second language (Rohleder and Thesen, 2012) as for many of the rural students. Student co-researchers are also contributing to data analysis, presentations and writing and publishing both on the website and in print. This methodology draws on previous work by author 3 (Author3 et al, 2016) conducted in the UK where co-researchers consistently reported on the positive benefits they found in being a co-researcher for supporting their own learning and academic experiences. In Phase 2 (April – July 2018), Deputy Vice Chancellors for learning and teaching and the Deans of Students (or equivalents), academics and academic developers from the 3 sites are participating in interviews and focus groups. Interviews will explore with institutional representatives how institutions manage access, support under-represented students and the issues around rurality. Focus groups will investigate support for students from rural areas, inclusivity and diversity within the curriculum and pedagogic practices and contradictions and tensions. Focus groups and interviews will investigate how inclusive and curricula (that address diversity at multiple levels) might be developed. Data from student co-researchers will be used in the formation of suitable questions for these activities.
The paper shares the findings from the first and second phases of the research including, the importance of extended family, ritual and folklore and interactions with the natural environment in rural life. The role of school and church in supporting students in orienting towards higher education are also highlighted. We show how institutional cultures embodied in issues around language, technologies, pedagogies and relationships between staff and students influence students’ sense of belonging and their academic progress and trajectories. Crucially, data illustrate the importance that student co-researchers attribute to being able to relate to curricula that reflect their own experiences and indigenous knowledge systems and that they do not experience in higher education. This can result in a lack of engagement and feelings of being lost which we argue could be contributing to low student retention rates. This research identifies a need for institutional change that we believe is applicable to the UK and to other European countries, in particular the need to reconsider the curriculum to take into account experiences of being marginalised articulated by many student co-researchers in our study. We extrapolate from the findings, relating them to research conducted by two of the co-investigators in the UK and in Europe Access4All (EC funded) (http://www.access4allproject.eu) which is exploring new ways of developing institutional strategies and change to foster inclusive cultures and improve retention and well being for under-represented students. Engaging in such comparisons is also particularly apposite in light of the ‘Why is my curriculum white movement’ in the UK (https://www.nus.org.uk/en/news/why-is-my-curriculum-white/) that is gaining momentum. Finally, we conclude with the importance of negotiations of curricular justice in South Africa and Europe in order to address the challenge within the words of one of the student co-researchers ‘You have to change, the curriculum stays the same’.
Author3 et al. (2016) Digital Diversity and Belonging in Higher Education: A Social Justice Proposition. In E.L. Brown, A.Krasteva, M. Ranieri, (Eds) International Advances in Education: Global Initiatives for Equity and Social Justice, Volume 10. E-learning & Social Media: Education and Citizenship for the Digital 21st Century. Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, N.C. Author5 et al. (2015) Institutional Context Matters: the professional development of academics as teachers in South African Higher Education. Higher Education, 69 (2) 315 – 330. Bozalek, V. and Biersteker, L. (2010) Exploring Power and Privilege Using Participatory Learning and Action Techniques. Social Work Education. 29(5) 551-572. Connell, R.W. (2017) Southern theory and world universities. Higher Education Research and Development, 36 (1) 4-15 Daniels, H. (2015) Mediation An expansion of the socio-cultural gaze. History of the Human Sciences, 28 (2), 34-50. Holland, D., Lachicotte, W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998) Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Mgqwashu, E. (2016) Education can’t be for the ‘Public Good’ if Universities ignore rural life. The Conversation, 16 March 2016. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/education-cant-be-for-the-public-good-if-universities-ignore-rural-life-56214. Richardson, J.T.E (2015) The under-attainment of ethnic minority students in UK higher education: what we know and what we don’t know. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 39:2, 278-291, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2013.858680 Rohleder, P., & Thesen, L. (2012) Interpreting drawings: reading the racialised politics of space. In B. Leibowitz, L. Swartz, L. Nicholls, P. Rohleder, V. Bozalek & R. Carolissen (Eds.), Community, self and identity: educating South African university students for citizenship. Cape Town: HSRC Press. 87–96 Schatzki, T. (2001) ‘Introduction’, in T. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina and E. von Savigny (eds) The Practice Turn to Contemporary Theory. London. Routledge.1-14. Severiens, S., and R. Wolff. (2008). “A Comparison of Ethnic Minority and Majority Students: Social and Academic Integration, and Quality of Learning.” Studies in Higher Education 33 (3): 253–266. doi:10.1080/03075070802049194 Social market Foundation (2017) On course for success? Student retention at university. Accessed at: http://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/UPP-final-report.pdf
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