19 November 2018

How undergraduate education can transform South African society

A new book launched today in Cape Town looks at how undergraduate education in South Africa has a transformative impact on people and societies.

One of the book’s main conclusions is that in order to support social transformation, higher education policymakers need to take more account of the differentiated nature of higher education systems and to understand more fully what happens in all parts of these systems.
The book examines recent studies of South African undergraduate students’ access to and experiences of higher education, as well as the economic and social contributions made by university graduates. It identifies the barriers that currently limit the public good outcomes of South African higher education, but also the opportunities for personal and societal transformation.
Professor Paul Ashwin from Lancaster University, co-editor, said:
“The book is the outcome of a three year collaborative project between South African and international researchers in which we examined what is currently known about South African undergraduate education. One of our key findings is that the knowledge we have is partial. For example, we know incredibly little about the experiences of students in historically disadvantaged universities in South Africa, despite the crucial role these institutions play in widening access to university”.
The book highlights a number of tensions in how higher education and its effects are understood. For example, in South Africa, higher education is expected to play a key role in alleviating the inequalities inherited from the apartheid era. Yet research shows that much of the attraction of a degree is the ‘graduate premium’ it confers on individuals in the job market. Consequently, popular support for higher education is often related to its role in reproducing existing inequalities in society.
The book argues that it is important not to focus on individual universities at the expense of considering higher education systems as a whole. Policymakers should shift their attention from superficial measures of university success, such as those promoted by global rankings, and instead focus on the health of their higher education systems as a whole.
The authors conclude that if South African undergraduate education is to play a key role in enhancing the public good, as envisaged in policy, then this will require significant changes to current practices that support access to, student experiences of, and outcomes from undergraduate education. This will require not only more evidence, but wider public debate about the ways in which higher education should contribute to the transformation of society.

Higher Education Pathways: South African Undergraduate Education and the Public Good, edited by Paul Ashwin and Jennifer M. Case is published by African Minds.