Project 1.6

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

Project themes

Admissions theme


Work in this theme involves a multi-level analysis through the interrogation of existing policy documents, empirical studies and existing datasets to explore the interaction of government policy, regulation and funding; institutional policies and practices; and individual student choices. A focus of the study is to capture the changing and contested meanings around identifying the legitimate subject of alternative admission policies, and underlying conceptions of social justice.

Research questions

  1. What are the changing patterns of access to HE by type of institution, field of study, and level of degree? To what extent have historical inequalities in access been addressed and what new ones are emerging, including those related to wider societal changes such as new patterns of immigration?
  2. What are the effects of government policy on access to and participation in higher education? How is this mediated by organisational policies?
  3. What are the socio-economic drivers of educational success prior to HE? How do we account for patterns of student choice?
  4. What lessons can be drawn comparing the UK and SA public and organisational policies for widening participation?

Data sources

We will use data from:

In addition, we will use statistics including HESA statistics, the Council for Higher Education’s vital statistics and reports and institutional admission policy documents.

Student experiences theme


Research from a range of contexts suggests that, although undergraduate students’ experiences at university can be individually and socially transformative, such potential is not always fulfilled.

A number of critical dimensions have been identified:

  • the need for students to have a sense of belonging in their institutions;
  • the need for curricula to be designed to support students’ personal engagement with disciplinary and professional knowledge;
  • the need for students to experience teaching and teachers that are both supportive and set high standards.

However, the means to create teaching and learning environments that support these dimensions is less clear. We also need to develop better understandings of how to provide non-traditional students with more equal access to disciplinary and professional knowledge and the role of students’ wider university experiences in these transformative processes.

Research questions

  1. What pedagogic, curricula, and social elements are needed to construct undergraduate experiences that are personally transformative for all students?
  2. How might such experiences prepare students to engage in social transformation?

Data sources

Data from two existing NRF studies (the ‘Social Inclusion’ project and the ‘Institutional Differentiation’ project) and two CGHE projects (Knowledge, curriculum and student agency and the The transformative potential of MOOCs and contrasting online pedagogies) will inform much of the work of this sub-theme.

In addition, supporting evidence from potentially informative studies currently being conducted elsewhere in the region will be used. For example:

  • data from an ESRC-DFID funded project investigating the relationship between HE pedagogy and critical thinking in Kenya, Ghana and Botswana;
  • data from a project on the student experience at University Cape Town and Makerere University (Uganda) on the relationship between student engagement and citizenship competences;
  • data from a Department of Higher Education Training Grant examining the implementation of the Flexible Degree policy in four South African universities (University of Cape Town, University Fort Hare, University of Johannesburg, and Cape Peninsula University of Technology);
  • and data from an ESRC Project on Pedagogic Quality and Inequality in UK undergraduate degrees in Sociology.

Graduates theme


Within the broader partnership focus on the transformative potential of higher education this theme focuses in on the contribution that graduates might make to society. The theme allows for this question to be explored across the geographical contexts of the UK and South Africa, with some extension into other African contexts.

In some respects these are significantly different HE contexts, especially in terms of the size of the system, the degree of youth participation and funding mechanisms – yet the challenges faced with regard to the role of HE in society are sufficiently similar to suggest value in a comparative approach.

Research questions

  1. What are the destinations of HE graduates, in terms of employment, further study and broader life trajectories, and how have these changed in recent times?
  2. In what ways do graduate employment trajectories depend on social background, institution, discipline, and national context?
  3. How do graduates themselves perceive, interpret and evaluate these trajectories in relation to their aspirations and commitments?
  4. In what ways are graduates’ broader life trajectories influenced by their experiences of HE – again, how does this differ across the contexts of social background, institution, discipline, and national context?

Data sources

At a broad level, the study will draw from a wide range of statistical data that already exists on graduate employment and graduate trajectories. This will be complemented by work that explores at a more micro level individual narratives of graduates, the opportunities and constraints they face, the choices they make, and to what extent it is the transformatory potential of their HE experiences that has shaped these trajectories.

Specifically, the data sources and findings that will be drawn on include a HESA study on 2002/3 cohorts of SA graduates; CHEC study on Western Cape 2010 cohorts; interview data from NRF project Getting to Graduateness; graduate survey data from Brazil (CES, ENADE and RAIS analyses); graduate survey data from a British Council study (Kenya).