Student success and how universities can help to ensure that their students obtain their degrees were at the centre of Thursday’s webinar discussion on ‘reimagining universities for student success’, 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, USA, 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 to bring together different government, business, civil-society, bursary-provider, and student-success initiatives, as well as universities, to look at ways to enable student success. Prof Heather Nel, Senior Director: Institutional Planning at Nelson Mandela University, facilitated the webinar, while Prof Francis Petersen, UFS Rector and Vice-Chancellor, did the introduction and welcoming.
Student success is a social-justice issue
Prof Bawa said that student success should be thought of as a social-justice issue. It is clearly a thing that needs to be elevated above issues of efficiency and effectiveness.
“Improving success rates leads to strengthening the economy. Students’ success also contributes to building a more equal society, it enhances human agency, and it ensures that young people can play a much more engaged role in the society and communities they are based in. 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 multi-layered individuals. Said Prof Bawa: “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 in 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 that 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 him, 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. 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 USA 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 socio-economic 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 socio-economic backgrounds, experimenting with new technologies and pedagogies emerged,” said Mr Moses.
Mr Moses 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 and organisations.
“As we grapple with student success at universities, part of the problem is that students were taught in a procedural manner in high school, resulting in the negative impact at university level,” said Prof Ogude.
As an anchor institution, the UP is available and accessible to learners in many programmes to help with learning. Prof Ogude said there is a dire need for all institutions to share information and to work in a coordinated manner.
Prof Strydom highlighted that changing the narrative of student success is not easy, but that it is worth it. Part of what made the long walk of the UFS worthwhile, is the collaborative efforts of staff – academic and support – and students. Student agency and student perspectives played a significant role at the UFS. Surveys such as the SASSE, SAULM and many others have helped to enhance the student voice and model initiatives that are responsive, in order to offer equity, quality, and success. “Talking, sharing, and identifying the problems are what universities are able to do in a collaborative effort with students and institutions,” said Prof 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.