Universities can’t just wash their hands of student failure

Universities need to take a long, hard look at themselves - and listen to their students - to tackle issues of failure and attrition. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

It should come as no surprise that many students do not feel valued in institutional spaces. There has been a great deal of research in the past two decades about discrimination and institutional culture at South African universities. It is becoming increasingly clear that attempts by institutions to understand and address these issues have been superficial and frequently too defensive.

Our research explored how South Africa’s universities use language to construct their staff as teachers, students as learners and curricula as a means of guiding the teaching and learning process.

We analysed reports prepared by almost all of the country’s universities for institutional audits conducted by the Higher Education Quality Committee. These lengthy documents provide a rich account of each institution’s perceptions of itself.

In the audit reports universities had to account for poor student pass and retention rates. These rates distinguish between students along racial lines. A number of studies have shown that white students consistently outperform their black peers, regardless of what degree they are pursuing, their year of study or which institution they attend. This is partly because South Africa’s school system remains very imbalanced along racial lines and also because universities privilege particular sets of knowledge and practices.

We were interested in how universities explained this discrepancy and identified a dominant phenomenon that we labelled “the model of the student as the decontextualised learner.”

The power of words

This model locates a person’s ability to succeed in higher education in factors that are inherent to the individual. These include talent, motivation, aptitude and even IQ. By applying this model to their students, universities largely absolve themselves of any responsibility for failure. Students who fail are construed as lacking some attribute that is vital to successful academic learning.

The model also allows academic learning itself to be constructed as socially, culturally and politically neutral. This means that the university is understood as being equally open to all who have the attributes necessary to succeed. Finally, it strips students of their own histories and devalues the array of social and cultural experiences they bring to their learning. It does this by constructing their pasts simply in terms of disadvantage or under-preparedness for the kinds of learning expected of them.

A path to change

There is an alternative to this model. It views individual students as social beings and sees the phenomena of disadvantage and under-preparedness as emanating partly from universities themselves. Universities largely fail to acknowledge the way their modes of teaching and learning are culturally, socially and politically embedded. They do not recognise that teaching and learning practices mostly favour white middle-class learners from educated homes - who, because they are comfortable in this system, perform far better than mostly black, poorer learners.

But the decontextualised model is dominant in South Africa. There needs to be a profound shift in how the country’s universities understand both learning and teaching. These shifts would draw on critical social theories of learning rather than on individualistic theories such as the ubiquitous ‘approaches to learning’ research which has been influential across the world.

Can this happen? Large sums of money are being poured into improving teaching in higher education. It is for those who use this money for “professionalising” higher education teaching to question how our assumptions have been normalised.