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Academic Week 2018: Student Success Is Everyone’s Business

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

In a country where fewer than half of school learners make it to university, and fewer than half of university students make it to graduation, how can we ensure student success? Dr Sue Pather and Dr Vanessa Brown tackled this topic at Academic Week 2018.

(Published - 12 September 2018)

In South Africa, approximately 30% of students drop out of university in the first year, and about 55% of all students never graduate in the required time. One of the greatest challenges in higher education is simply ensuring that students make it through their university careers and graduate on time - and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) is no exception.

That’s according to the results of UWC’s first ever cohort study, conducted as part of Operation Student Success (OSS), reported during UWC Academic Week 2018 on 11 September 2018.

“Student success is everybody’s business,” said Dr Vanessa Brown, who is the driver of OSS and has coordinated much of the research for this project. “We need to begin by fully imagining and understanding the student experience - identifying where and when they would need help, and where the spaces are that they can get that help.”

Student success is shaped by a very layered, complex interaction of three factors, Dr Brown explained: personal qualities of individual students; institutional factors of the university they attend; and broader contextual factors of the society they find themselves in.

“There are success factors beyond our control, but we need to focus on those factors we can influence most,” said Dr Brown. “Helping students develop personally, considering the role of their environments when interacting with them - and above all concentrating on how we can adapt the University to address student needs.”

Operation Student Success is a UWC Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic apex project consisting of four main initiatives:

  1. The Student Retention Strategy
  2. Enhancement of the Tutor Programme
  3. First Year Experience (FYE) Programme
  4. The Whole/Holistic Student Experience

The cohort study tracked students from entry all the way through, examining where and when they dropped out or faced their biggest challenges.

“Student attrition is most notably a lose-lose situation for poor students,” Dr Brown noted, “who find themselves ‘revolved back into poverty’ when they drop out, unable to find jobs to pay back their student loans.”

And by far the biggest problem comes at first-year level - not only those who drop out in first-year, but those who do badly and hold over modules into their senior years, or who simply never adjust, and are in greatest danger of ultimately failing.

“What comes to mind when you think of first-year student experience?” asked Dr Subethra Pather, who heads UWC’s First-Year Experience (FYE) programme, in an interactive session. “A lot of confusion, dealing with stress, trying to find a sense of belonging and to attain success - and this is especially difficult for first-generation students.”

FYE provides student-centred initiatives to enhance student transition and provide quality student experiences to build a sense of community and connectedness with the institution, and to promote active integration between staff and students.

“FYE aims to place the first-year experience in context, and to develop first-year students for the 21st century,” Dr Pather noted. “Through being connected to the university community and the use of a multimodal approach to academic and social support and resources, first-year students will be able to successfully navigate their UWC experience to and beyond graduation.”

The UWC FYE programme integrates curricular and co-curricular activities in order to facilitate a shared sense of belonging, providing them with essential information about first-year initiatives and student support, from e-learning support to career management to academic writing guidance (and more).

“We want to develop students who understand themselves, want to help others, and are ‘COSMIC’: Connected, Organised, Socially responsible, Motivated, Intentional and Constructive.”

Academics For Action: Engaging and Empowerment

OSS is still a work in progress - a draft framework on student success and retention will be shared with Faculties and with a reference group this term, and the official launch is planned for 2019.

“Student success is indeed everyone’s business,” said Professor Vivienne Lawack, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic of UWC - and host of Academic Week 2018.

Academic Week is a celebration of some of the University’s contributions to the public debate on some of the biggest questions around, from the role of Africanisation in higher education to the place of universities in fuelling the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“This is the kind of discussion Academic Week is designed to initiate. These are tough topics, so we are not just going to find answers in one seminar - but the engagement can help us begin to find a way forward.”

Academic Week runs from 11h00 to 14h00 every day from 10 to 14 September 2018 in the new CAMS building on UWC Main Campus. All are welcome - and encouraged - to attend. Find out more (and view the daily programme) here.
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