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2 March 2021
Siyaphumelela: Data And Collaboration For Student Success At UWC

Universities around the world, and especially in South Africa, face some serious challenges to student success: historical inequalities, transformation and digital disruption - and the COVID pandemic, to boot. That’s why the University of the Western Cape (UWC) has joined the Siyaphumelela Network, a partnership that advocates for evidence-based approaches to enhancing student success.

The Siyaphumelela (“We Succeed”) initiative seeks to broaden evidence-based postsecondary student success strategies across South Africa by improving institutional capacity to enact data-driven strategies to improve student outcomes, and growing the cadre of data analytics professionals equipped to support student success.

“The Siyaphumelela project at UWC - known as Phumelela@UWC - is about using evidence-based data and working collaboratively across all sectors of the university to build on the institutional framework for student retention and success,” explained Dr Sue Pather, head of UWC’s First Year Experience (FYE) programme. “The collection of critical data from students can inform our understanding of institutional and other barriers to their success and help us develop appropriate interventions to improve their course completion rates.”

The Siyaphumelela Network 2.0 is the second phase of the Siyaphumelela initiative that  advocates for the use of evidence-based approaches to enhance student success. The initiative  aims to further build and bolster institutional capacity to promote student success by bolstering learning analytics capacity - the ability of universities to collect and analyse data about students and their environments.

Siyaphumelea will see us strengthening the university’s business intelligence capacity, using learning analytics to enhance our student support, both from an academic perspective as well as a psychosocial perspective, and developing curriculum and other supporting materials,” noted UWC Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, Prof Vivienne Lawack. “Ultimately, it’s about using data analytics to further our student experience.”

The official launch of the Siyaphumelela project, known as Phumelela@UWC, took place virtually on Thursday 25 February.  But the project has been running since June 2020, and has already met with some success. Phumelela@UWC will not be a stand-alone project, but will fit into one of the key priorities in the University’s IOP: student retention and success. The UWC Student Retention and Success framework is the product of over two years of quantitative and qualitative research into student success and the barriers to success at UWC

“We’ve done our research, out of recognition that in South Africa, the higher education system is one of low participation and high attrition, and of low and extensively delayed completion,” said Dr Vanessa Brown, who is the driver of UWC’s Student Retention and Success Framework, and who has coordinated much of the research for this project. 

“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.”

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

“Student success is everybody’s business, and we won’t be able to succeed without a collaborative approach” said Dr Vanessa Brown. “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.”

What really stands out about Phumelela@UWC is that it’s all about networking across the university, even within the core UWC team - bringing together two Deputy Vice-Chancellors (Academic and Student Development & Support), as well as the Institutional Planning Office. And the Student Success Committee also includes students representing each faculty - particularly important when it comes to the ethics of using student data.

“Learning analytics raises important issues, and it’s important to engage with ethical questions when we look at our data,” Dr Pather noted. “Questions of whose data is collected, how the data is collected, and who has access to this data. In this respect, we are pleased that students are represented, and have been involved in our workshops.”

UWC was the only historically disadvantaged institution (HDI) to be selected as part of the network with yep other institutions - UCT & UKZN. So now in total Siyaphumelela has seven partner universities in the network.

“I think UWC has had a history that is different from most institutions in this country, and elsewhere - and that history, and the ways in which the University has tackled and solved problems, can be of great importance to us all,” said Prof Alan Amory, Senior Programme Specialist: Learning Technologies at SAIDE.

“You’ve played an enormous role in South African higher education - and I have to congratulate you on how you’re complementing and contributing to the whole network. Partnerships and cooperation are the core of what Siyaphumelela is about - and we look forward to many more interesting conversations.”

Those conversations and collaborations are particularly important now - when higher education is experiencing disruption at an unprecedented rate (as are the rest of our lives).

“The role of projects like Siyaphumelela is particularly important in these uncertain times, and as we enter another academic year that is likely to be filled with disruption because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Professor Tyrone Pretorius, UWC’s Rector and Vice-Chancellor. 

“As with last year, we must understand the needs of our students as we try to connect with them remotely. And like last year, we need strong mechanisms and strategies to ensure that our students are not left behind. And with all the tireless work and support being put into it, It is then appropriate that the project is named Siyaphumelela: ‘We succeed’.”