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Why universities need to invest in strong advice systems for students

Proper guidance, support and advice can help university students enormously. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

It is relatively rare for a young person to leave school knowing on their own exactly what they want to do next. And, even if they do, it’s unusual to seamlessly and independently go to university, complete the degree of their choosing, graduate, and move into the working world.

For most young people the world beyond school is complicated. They need a great deal of support – particularly from their families and universities – to navigate their higher education choices. This is borne out by a recent study which tracked the experiences of 73 students who, some six years before, had started bachelor’s studies at one of three research-intensive South African universities.

The study focused on how young people navigate the opportunities and constraints of university study. One of the key findings was that the country’s universities seem mostly to have limited capacity for giving students advice about academic choices. In some other parts of the world, most notably the US, this is a whole field of expertise within a university, with dedicated staff focused solely on giving students advice.

There is substantial literature showing the positive effects of academic advising on student retention and progress, especially for those from underrepresented groups in higher education.

As we point out elsewhere in the book on which this research is based, many of the students we interviewed didn’t have the support structures at home that could offer informed advice about issues such as the choice of institution, degree, funding routes. Proper advisory systems in universities can be especially helpful in this context.

It’s not easy. South Africa’s universities are dealing with a huge resource crunch and it takes money to set up many of the systems that would be needed.

But it’s a worthwhile investment. Universities that can formalise academic advising and make it more accessible are likely to see better results in students progressing from enrolment to graduation.

Some interventions

While few universities appear to have formal, full-time advising structures, there are one-off or informal interventions at some South African institutions.

At one institution for example, there were sample introductory lectures at the start of the year. Students found this very helpful though they pointed out that attending just one lecture wasn’t necessarily enough to make a fully informed decision about whether to pursue that course or degree path.

Some universities also allowed students to change courses within the first few weeks of the academic year. But this can be tricky because students then need to make up what they’ve missed.

Some students spoke of establishing a rapport with individual lecturers and even their deans. This meant they could discuss their plans and choices with someone who was well informed. But this was relatively rare at the larger universities and was left largely to chance – requiring both students with confidence and initiative, and supportive, engaged academics

It also wasn’t always a successful approach: in our study we did hear of situations where the advice students received from academics was incorrect or even insulting. One student who was struggling in a science degree, for example, was told that she was a “pretty girl” and maybe she should change to a degree in education.


Some work is being done in South Africa to improve the situation. The National Student Financial Aid System is looking at models for more broader support for the students it funds. This is good news, since these students are often those whose families may not have the social capital and information to support their decisions.

Another thing that universities should consider is a more flexible curriculum structure. Our research also found that where the curriculum is fairly fixed and university rules preclude much movement between programmes, there is little opportunity for navigating a successful pathway. This is a problem for students who only become aware of their skills and passions along the way and wish to change their degree course. A flexible curriculum coupled with strong advice structures could make a real difference to such students.

_This is an edited abstract from “Going to University: The influence of Higher Education on the lives of young South Africans” (2018) Case, J., Marshall, D., McKenna, S. & Mogashana, D. African Minds. Available for download here.

The other authors of the book from which this piece is extracted are Professor Sioux McKenna (Head of Postgraduate Studies, Rhodes University), Professor Delia Marshall (Faculty of Natural Science at the University of the Western Cape) and Dr Disaapele Mogashana (student success coach and consultant at True Success Institute).

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