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Wrap-around support helps level playing field for disadvantaged students — Prof Ramjugernath
Author: Deresh Ramjugernath
Published: 17/02/2023

​​​​Wrap-around support helps students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to achieve academic success and equips them with valuable skills to enter the world of work. This is the view of Prof Deresh Ramjugernath, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching at Stellenbosch University, in an opinion piece published by University World New​s on 16 February 2023.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

​Prof Deresh Ramjugernath*

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence."

I am reminded of these renowned words of 18th Century author, Abigail Adams, each year when we encounter the scramble for enrolment at universities and other institutions of higher learning. It is a truism meant as advice for those eager to embark on an educational journey that will shape their futures. However, given the context and realities of our country, the ardor and diligence invariably also apply to our institutions of higher learning.

The key question is: given our fractured schooling system and the diverse socio-political contexts of our students on entering post matriculation education, how do institutions level the playing field? It is one thing to propagate our united goal to broaden access to as many deserving students from previously disadvantaged communities. It is quite another matter to ensure consistent access with success.

In South Africa, the gap between privileged and disadvantaged, a consequence of the gross inequality and the legacy of apartheid, is aggravated by the current economic crisis — increased unemployment, poverty, crime and corruption. Needless to say, financial circumstances have a significant effect on the ability of students to study successfully. And the ever-increasing demand for bursaries, scholarships, study loans and educational sponsorships are common knowledge.

Yet, admittance to an institution of higher learning with a bursary or scholarship to one's credit is no guarantee or passport to academic success.

For many first-year students, orientating to campus life and tertiary studies can be hugely challenging. In South Africa, according to research conducted by Statistics SA,  70% of first-year students are the first in their family to attend university or college.

Being a first-year student is difficult for most people (even those who come from families where previous generations have attended university). It takes grit to adapt to the new environment and it requires new and different ways of learning and thinking.

Ultimately, there are a host of factors, apart from the ability to master the subject content and a bursary to your name, that contribute to the successful outcome of a student's learning experience and their overall academic performance.

In our quest to level the playing field and to optimize the chances of academic success for particularly our students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Stellenbosch University has partnered with The Dell Foundation whose Young Leaders Programme has designed a formidable wrap-round support initiative that serves as scaffolding for successful performance throughout the student's academic career. It focuses amongst others on:

  • Strengthening academics via tutors and learning communities who have regular check–ins and support students throughout their graduate programme. (This is in addition to our longstanding successful tracking system that monitors the academic performance of new-comers, with early alert systems on poor performance and remedial action plans to keep scholastic achievement on track.)
  • Financial support with a 'gap cover'-orientation: to alleviate the additional stresses encountered by students during their day-today student life, covering any shortfalls from their tuition and accommodation [National Student Financial Aid Scheme] funding or keeping student debt low, providing funding for essentials such as membership fees for student societies, textbooks, photocopying, travelling, toiletries etc;
  • Situational support: focusing on the mental and social wellbeing of students by offering support in the form of counselling, mentorship and developmental workshops;
  • Work readiness: via a digital platform with tools and resources to support students to effectively manage their academic careers and to overcome barriers to employment such as creating a winning resumé, effective marketing of themselves for career related opportunities and preparing for professional interviews;
  • Job placement: which offers personal coaching and guidance consultations for final years to effectively create and implement action plans against their post-graduation goals for work or further study.
  • Membership to an Alumni Community that enhance professional support and knowledge-networking opportunities for career development and expansion.

This range of support mechanisms enable students to excel academically and gain valuable skills from their campus experience. It is geared to significantly reduce the dropout rate which is currently notably higher amongst students from disadvantaged groups, students of colour or those who form part of the 'missing middle.'

Having wrap-around support equip students with more than just a degree — it provides them with skills necessary to flourish academically and to enter the world of work with the graduate attributes that will serve them well as engaged and responsible citizens that are focused on making a positive contribution to society.

As leading institutions of higher learning, it is thus incumbent on us to assist and promote the process of human restitution by moving beyond the traditional paradigm of distancing ourselves from the deficiencies of basic education and to step-up our efforts to level the playing field with ardor and diligence. It is nothing less than a moral obligation to tertiary education and the future of our country.

  • Photo: First-year students at Stellenbosch University's welcoming event. Photographer: Stefan Els

*Prof Deresh Ramjugernath is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching at Stellenbosch University.