Project 1.6

Pathways to personal and public good: understanding access to, student experiences of, and outcomes from South African undergraduate higher education

The aim of this project is to investigate the transformative impact of higher education on society, and the conditions required to enable this impact, in South Africa.

Project team

  • Paul Ashwin, Lancaster University
  • Vincent Carpentier, UCL Institute of Education
  • Jenni Case, Virginia Tech
  • Tristan McCowan, UCL Institute of Education
  • Rajani Naidoo, University of Bath
  • Rebecca Schendel, UCL Institute of Education
  • Janja Komljenovic,, Lancaster University
  • Delia Marshall, University of the Western Cape
  • Sioux McKenna, Rhodes University
  • Melanie Walker, University of the Free State


The South African government recognises higher education as having a distinctive and crucial role in building post-apartheid society and as a driver of equity, social justice and democracy. However, the precise extent and nature of the social returns of higher education remain unclear, particularly in light of contemporary global, social, and economic challenges.

The capacity of higher education researchers in South Africa to explore these impacts needs to be improved. Policymakers and university managers need resources to support the further development of higher education in ways that enhance the potential benefits of wider access to undergraduate higher education.

In order to address this, the project will:

  • increase understanding of how undergraduate higher education in South Africa can most effectively contribute to the development of individuals and society;
  • develop the capacity of an internationally networked group of South African higher education researchers, with a particular focus on post-doctoral researchers;
  • facilitate the development of larger research scale projects that bring together consideration of access to, students’ experiences of, and the contribution made by graduates to an undergraduate education;
  • produce resources to enable policymakers, managers and practitioners to further develop higher education in ways that enhance the benefits of widening access to higher education in South Africa.


The project examines the pathways from an undergraduate education to the public good in South Africa through three interlinked themes:

  • access and admissions;
  • students’ experiences while studying;
  • the economic and social contributions made by graduates.

Policy implications

This project will help policymakers and university managers develop and widen access to undergraduate higher education in ways that enhance the potential benefits for society.

International partners

This project is an international centre partnership between CGHE and a cluster of National Research Foundation (NRF) projects in South Africa located at the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University and the University of the Free State. It brings together leading and emerging higher education researchers from South Africa, the UK and internationally.

The project builds and extends the work that is being undertaken in the CGHE project Knowledge, curriculum and student agency.

Other relevant CGHE projects include:

The partnership also builds on four NRF-funded research projects, with principal investigators on these projects all taking theme leader roles:

  • NRF Chair in HE and Human Development (PI Professor Melanie Walker, University of the Free State)
  • NRF ERSA Social Inclusion in Higher Education (PI Professor Sioux McKenna, Rhodes University)
  • NRF CSUR Teaching and Learning across a differentiated Higher Education sector (PI Professor Sioux McKenna, Rhodes University)
  • NRF CPRR Getting to graduateness: A close-up social realist study in science and engineering (Professor Jenni Case, University of Cape Town)

These four NRF projects span important dimensions of the present research question – from broad issues around development (Walker), to detailed work on access and the teaching and learning environment (McKenna), through to close-up work on graduateness (Case).