Students’ experiences show it’s time to rethink ideas of university “readiness”

First-year university students often feel intimidated and scared. There are several ways to improve their experiences. From

When universities are trying to establish whether an applicant is “ready” for the demands of higher education, they focus almost exclusively on previous academic achievement.

In South Africa, this typically means looking at an applicant’s matric marks and the results of the National Benchmark Tests, which measure someone’s ability to cope with the typical reading, writing and reasoning demands they’ll face in tertiary study programmes.

But what does it really mean to be “ready” for university? Over the past five years, I’ve worked with just over 3000 high school learners and first year university students in a bid to answer this extremely complex question.

“Confused, lost and scared”

The participants were drawn from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances in South Africa’s Free State province. This was in keeping with the country’s extremely diverse socioeconomic landscape.

The data was gathered using a range of methods: a quantitative survey, individual interviews, focus groups, student drawings and written reflections.

Regardless of their home or schooling background, students who were just entering university said they felt confused, lost and scared. This is hardly surprising: it’s a new environment and a new stage of life. They expressed these feelings in terms of navigating the physical landscape of the university - getting lost - and trying to grapple with how the university’s systems work.

Those who lived in university accommodation, such as campus residences, had access to better support networks than those who lived off campus and commuted. On the flip side, those in residence reported that they were exhausted and distracted from their academic work during the crucial first few weeks at university. The cause? Compulsory residence activities like house meetings, sport and cultural activities.

Language was another area where students struggled. For many, university was the first time that no teaching happened in their home language. At school, their teachers often explained difficult concepts in Sesotho even though the formal language of learning was English. Learners were also able to ask questions in Sesotho.

In the early days of their degrees, these students said they felt silenced because they were taught and expected to ask questions only in English.

Students also felt insecure about their computer skills. Most young South Africans have accessed the internet using their cell phones but many have not used a computer by the time they reach university. Working computer labs are not common at poorly resourced schools.

Finances were a common cause of stress. Students said they were very worried when fees were due. The challenges of student financing are urgent, particularly for first-year students who don’t yet know how to negotiate their university’s financial requirements. They often don’t know how to look for financial help.

The work starts in schools

Learners who attended Afrikaans-language high schools and township schools had relatively few opportunities to engage meaningfully with peers of different races, economic backgrounds and religious beliefs.

This meant that university was the first time they really encountered diversity. Added to that, many learners told us that their schools didn’t engage with diverse ideas and complex problems. There was little room for debate, nor space created to respect different opinions.

These skills are all essential at university level, so students from such school backgrounds are immediately at a disadvantage when they reach higher education.

There were other factors that contributed to learners’ university readiness: teacher quality, career advice, subject choices, and, crucially, their home and community contexts. Young people from poor backgrounds spend more time travelling to and from school, doing household chores and caring for relatives than their wealthier peers.

This eats into the time that is available for learning, doing sport, taking part in extramural activities and getting involved in volunteer work. All of these “extras” can equip a young person better for university life.

What does it mean to be “ready”?

All of this data was used to create a set of seven capabilities that learners need to be considered “ready” for university. These are:

  1. Being able to make well-reasoned, informed, critical, independent and reflective choices about post-school study;

  2. Having the academic grounding for chosen university subjects, being able to develop and apply methods of critical thinking and imagination to identify and comprehend multiple perspectives and complex problems;

  3. Having curiosity and a desire for learning, having the learning skills required for university study and being an active inquirer with a questioning disposition;

  4. Being able to participate in groups for learning, working with diverse others to solve problems or complete tasks;

  5. Being able to form networks of friendships for learning support and leisure. A capacity for mutual respect and dignity. Valuing diversity and being able to show empathy;

  6. Having confidence in one’s ability to learn; and,

  7. Being able to understand, read, write and speak confidently in the language of instruction.

So how can schools and universities develop these capabilities?

Schools and universities must work together

Universities need to embrace a comprehensive understanding of access and readiness that infuses their interactions with students - whether it’s administratively, academically or outside of the curriculum.

Many learners complained that they didn’t get a lot of useful information from university marketing drives at their schools. The focus was on promoting the given university rather than helping learners to understand what they might personally do to prepare for this new experience. A switch in focus is recommended.

New students also need detailed academic advice to help them select courses and make sense of their university’s formal and informal systems and rules. There should be opportunities across the curriculum to learn the required academic behaviours and dispositions, including language competence and confidence.

Given the current shortages of student accommodation at campuses across South Africa, finding ways to provide meaningful support networks to students living off campus is critical.

It’s no longer sufficient for universities to assume that students who meet the admissions criteria are “university ready”. They must work with feeder schools in their areas to develop high school learners who have the capabilities to thrive in higher education.