The problem with academia

There is something very obviously wrong when 21 years into South Africa’s democracy, only 16% of university students are black – up a paltry seven percent since 1994. And only 16% of black students finish a university degree in three years, compared to 44% of white students.

These figures were quoted by the Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC) Professor Sharlene Swartz at the WSSF2015 session introducing a panel of scholars that is engaging with the HSRC in qualitative research aimed at assessing the conditions and experiences driving this problem.

The research involves following 80 students at eight universities across South Africa over five years, interviewing them in-depth once a year and engaging with them in other ways, including through a Facebook page.

In the third year of the research, ‘some are finishing their degrees, some have dropped out, and some have taken a year off and then re-enrolled at a different institution,’ explained Swartz.

There are obvious – but often silent, unsurfaced and unacknowledged – practical issues that many students face. ‘Financial stress is pervasive,’ said doctoral student Stanley Molefi. His peer, Emma Arogundade, also working toward her PhD, told of one student who regularly skipped weeks of university studies because he was unable to afford the transport, and walked five hours to print out and hand in an assignment.

A major stumbling block, as Dr Alude Mahali of the HSRC pointed out in her presentation, was language. Students were often enrolled at institutions where teaching happened in a language that was not their mother tongue.

While Afrikaans had again become a field of contestation recently, for many students English (which parents often thought of as the ‘language of the world’) was not much more inclusive. One student said she was lucky to have  had good English instruction at school, because a friend of hers had been taught English in Xhosa. As a result, her friend had to form sentences in her head before speaking ‘to make sure that it makes sense’ – an obvious impediment to academic success when the university takes English as the norm.

Dr Mahali said that English – and accent – had become ‘social currency’ in South Africa.