Differential pathways of South African students through higher education: settling for less, but learning to like it

Cosser, Michael Charles
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This study seeks to ascertain the extent to which low-socio-economic status (SES) South African students have been able to progress through higher education (HE) with the same facility and have succeeded in completing qualifications at the same rate as high-SES students. The backdrop to the study is the high level of inequality in South Africa. A Gini coefficient of 0.65 translates, in the education sector, into high enrolment rates in comparison with other developing countries but very low achievement, with South Africa frequently appearing at the bottom of tables comparing international performance on mathematics, science, and literacy tests. The theoretical framework underpinning the study is derived from the theories of philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Wally Morrow. MacIntyre’s distinction between the external and internal goods of a practice is deployed to distinguish students who learn to appropriate for themselves the intrinsic value of participating in a practice from students who are driven by external reward. This notion is used to distinguish students who, in Morrow’s conception, achieve formal access to a HE institution from those who achieve epistemological access to a programme of study. The data for the study come from a baseline survey and two tracer surveys of student pathways from school into and through HE conducted by the author at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) between 2005 and 2008. While the HSRC study focussed on student aspirations for HE and on student destinations one year later, this study extends the scope to include progression through HE between 2006 and 2010, cross-referencing the HSRC data with Higher Education Management Information System student records. These data are supplemented by case studies of the trajectories of ten students interviewed in late 2008. The key findings of the study are that high-socio-economic status (SES) students tend to enrol in degree programmes in the natural, mathematical, engineering and health sciences, low-SES students in diploma programmes in business / commerce and the human and social sciences. Low-SES students are more likely to drop out of HE after the first and after the second year of study, more likely to pursue a pathway that does not issue in completion, and are also more likely to delay entry into HE. But while high-SES students are more influenced in choosing a programme of study by intrinsic interest in a programme rather than by the prospect of employment, they are also more influenced by the money and status their chosen profession will confer – suggesting that SES differences are more nuanced. The key distinction between low- and high-SES students, the study concludes, is that high-SES students achieve epistemological access with greater facility, completing programmes at higher rates and in a shorter timeframe. SES therefore remains a strong determinant of academic success. And while the HE sector and the National Qualifications Framework might aspire to reduce inequalities in access, mobility and throughput, indications are that these inequalities are still being reproduced. As the case studies reveal, however, though the programme low-SES students complete is often not the programme in which they first enrolled, it is a programme they have learned to like.
A thesis submitted to the Wits School of Education, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Johannesburg, 2015