A social realist perspective of academic advising in a South African higher education context: a study of practices and practitioners

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University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
The South African higher education sector has numerous challenges to contend with. Students' prospects of success are often vulnerable to uneven secondary schooling, structural and material constraints, massification of the sector, and a range of other factors. In this thesis, I argue that academic advising has the potential to help find responsive and sustainable solutions to address these challenges. Academic advising is well established in the global north. In contrast, it remains an emerging field of practice in South Africa, with a dearth of literature about how advising is developed and practiced within the country’s unique higher education context. This thesis aims to contribute to the limited knowledge base about advising as a practice and the work of academic advisors as practitioners in South Africa. The study provides a social realist perspective of the emergence of advising within a South African higher education context. It draws on Margaret Archer’s work on structure, culture, and agency, the morphogenetic approach, and the notion of stratified layers of social reality to analyse data, make inferences, and draw conclusions. This is a qualitative study that adopts a mixed methods approach. The research paradigm is phenomenological, while phenomenographic principles are used selectively to advance the objectives of the study. The data that informs the study consists of a quantitative baseline dataset and qualitative data collected through semi structured interviews with 15 academic advisors working at the University of the Witwatersrand. As this is a PhD by publication, the thesis consists of four interconnected papers (i.e., chapters), bookended by introduction and conclusion chapters. The first paper provides insights about advising as gleaned from the baseline data, while the second draws on the same data to highlight the impact of students’ structural and material constraints on the work of academic advisors. Papers three and four use interview data to glean academic advisor insights about advising prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic, respectively. The thesis concludes by highlighting the transformative potential of academic advising for South African higher education yet cautions that a major shift in the way advising is perceived and practiced is required for its potential to be realized.
A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Humanities in fulfilment of the requirement for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2023
Academic advising, Academic advisor, Decontextualized learner, Higher education, Morphogenesis, Social realism, Student advising