Transitioning from secondary school to tertiary education: what social investors should know

  • 18 February 2016 | Thandeka Rantsi| Opinion

According to Alan Cliff, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town, the sad reality of higher education in South Africa is that only about one third of the students who qualify to gain entry into higher education are actually prepared for the academic literacy demands of a university.

South Africa experiences major challenges in the secondary school to tertiary education transition. Image: Angus Willson

This can be largely attributed to the weak schooling system in South Africa. The articulation gap from secondary to tertiary education is a major challenge for the country. The Council on Higher Education has described the articulation gap as a discontinuity in the transition from one educational phase to the next educational phase.

While there is generally difficulty in moving from one phase to the next in tertiary institutions, South Africa experiences major challenges in the secondary school to tertiary education transition. In response, the Council on Higher Education has made a strong call for universities to begin extending three-year degrees and also changing curricula to fit the academic capabilities, or lack thereof, of South African students.

It is most unfortunate that the articulation gap is, and will continue to be, a problem as long as children attend public schools which are ill-equipped to prepare pupils for the higher education space. Even the brightest students, who earn high flying marks in public schools, often experience strikingly low marks for the first time when they enter higher education institutions.

What does this mean for the social investors in the higher education sector? It means a concerted effort is required to minimise the articulation gap as far as possible. For those investing in creating access and success for tertiary education, a number of things should be kept in mind:

  • While many who are in the business of providing student support have recognised the importance of selecting students before they get to matric level, it would be ideal to have interventions at Grade 9. This is the point where students choose subjects and much guidance is required. Thinking of my own experience at this phase, my choices were not based on a long-term outlook that took my passion and talents into account. Instead, all I knew was I had to do mathematics and physical science and would decide on an appropriate qualification once I applied for university. I recall a “visit” from three universities in grade 12, but received little support before that. The unfortunate truth is that students choose subjects based on certain stereotypes and pressure from families and friends and this only sets them up for failure. Without adequate guidance in subject and career choices, this trend will unfortunately continue. Social investors also need to be thinking about this kind of support outside of the “hard skills” of maths and science.
  • Academic assistance will definitely be required and this might have to be over and above what the tertiary institution is offering. While working as a lecturer, I came across a donor providing additional academic support outside of what the university was already offering, which focused on teaching the students the basics of writing and communicating in the business world. This was an entire year course that was built around what the students needed to know to survive in a world that required more than just understanding accounting. In some instances, tertiary institutions provide remedies through a blanket approach because really that is as far as they can go. However, social investors have the opportunity to customise their support to students.
  • A bursary application process for one of Tshikululu’s clients highlighted just how grave the issue of English is. We received applications from numerous bright students who had managed to achieve 100% for mathematics in secondary school (one noted that maths simply “comes naturally” to him), but were struggling to express themselves in English. How would they cope with the conceptualisation and interpretation of ideas and high-level concepts presented in their coursework? It is important for those in student support to think about this issue.
  • It is also important for social investors to build on the confidence of students, especially if they are coming from rural areas where there has been minimal to no exposure to diverse groups of people. Raising a hand in a lecture hall can be intimidating enough without the pressure of limited ability to express oneself and being in a totally new environment. Building confidence is more than just giving someone the tools that can be used to be confident; it’s also about reassuring students and making them feel that their contribution forms part of an active democracy and cohesive society and their own development. Students who are already struggling with coping with their coursework should be raising their hands in the lecture halls, seeking that additional support that they require (which has also been stigmatised) and engaging with peers and lecturers who, in most cases, will be diversified groups of people. This requires the confidence and affirmation that tells students that they are an integral part of their own environment.

The articulation gap is only one among many challenges students face throughout their journey to success. It is a product of countless factors leading up to entrance into the tertiary system, over which higher education stakeholders have limited control. While the considerations discussed above will not solve the problem, they can assist social investors to think about how early intervention methods can help students more effectively along the journey.

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