The role of non-academic mentorship in involving students from marginalised groups at a university – a case study

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The recent protest action of university students worldwide, and especially in South Africa, has shed light on access to higher education. The amended criteria for the Higher Education Quality Committee’s programme accreditation now encourage universities to reconcile their admission policies with the National Plan for Higher Education and broaden access to higher education by providing “flexible access routes” (RHO 2004:9). One such flexible access route to Stellenbosch University (US) is SciMathUS, a year-long bridging programme in science and mathematics, which offers disadvantaged students a second opportunity to improve their performance in these subjects to gain university admission. Many black SciMathUS students, due to historical social and educational inequalities, often enter the university with subject knowledge and learning skills that conflict with what the university values, which are then deemed deficient. This often contributes to a higher dropout rate among black students (Van der Berg and Gustafsson 2019). However, most SciMathUS students do not only gain university admission, they also stay on course and graduate. While previous research on the application of learning strategies in SciMathUS lecture halls (Malan 2008) and the SciMathUS student’s academic struggle (Lourens 2013) are dealt with in this study, it enters the hitherto unexplored non-academic field of the SciMathUS programme. The aim is to understand how informal mentoring in this “second-chance programme” helps students from marginalised circumstances to access the university in a way that promotes successful holistic integration into, and navigation through, university life.

Following a study of policy and literature on student mentorship, as well as interviews with mentors, it is concluded that non-academic mentorship facilitates a productive engagement with the capital students from marginalised circumstances bring to the university, which supports such students’ successful navigation in institutions of higher education.

Access to higher education has been a controversial topic for some time. In the South African context, the demand for broader access to tertiary education for all students, regardless of their social, economic and educational status, is in the news frequently. The issue of decolonisation (a demand for multiplicity and inclusivity) goes hand in hand with the issue of greater access to higher education. The call for decolonisation calls for the cessation of forms of knowledge that centred around European forms of knowledge, views and existence and the inclusion of indigenous or African forms of knowledge, views and existence in the curriculum and life of the university. Despite Africa’s long-term post-colonial governments, the normalising effect of colonialism and the marginalisation of African knowledge continued and reproduced in various ways on the continent (Fataar and Subreenduth 2016). At universities, the call for decolonisation is aimed at creating a balance between traditionally propagated Western knowledge and the inclusion of indigenous or African knowledge in the curriculum, view and way of life of the university. Fataar and Subreenduth (2016:108–9) use the term cognitive in/justice [own translation] to describe how the closed, Western-driven and dominant knowledge discourses in South African universities do not recognise indigenous forms of knowledge where people use their socio-cultural knowledge to make sense of their lives. It is this narrowness, they argue, that prevents South African universities from becoming places of knowledge multiplicity and inclusion. For this university – as for many other universities in the country – the challenge lies in transcending symbolic changes to tangible changes in terms of curriculum content, the way of teaching and learning and socialisation in all spheres of the university. In doing so, recognition is given, and the forms of knowledge that students like those in this research bring to the university, can be dealt with productively.

Many students (mostly black) still show up at universities underprepared (Sartorius and Sartorius 2013), for various reasons. These underprepared students often come from poorly equipped schools in previously disadvantaged communities where well-qualified educators and career guidance are often lacking (Mdepa and Tshiwula 2012; Pym and Kapp 2013, in Barac 2015). Other authors in Barac (2015:85) add that these students often face various challenges, for example poor finances, limited family knowledge of how higher education institutions work (Vandiar 2010; Weil and Wegner 1997), poor secondary education, insufficient information and career information at school (Sadler and Erasmus 2005; Wiese 2006) and the lack of mentorship (Rawana 1996). Once students have accessed university, they might encounter foundation courses for underprepared university students, extended degree programmes and financial, social and psychological support, all designed to mitigate the effects of unequal schooling and socio-economic disadvantage (Walton, Bowman and Osman 2015:269). What further complicates matters for black students, though, is the fact that universities’ ideas of inclusion and diversity often degenerate into a mere assimilation of minorities into the normative order (Belluigi and Thondhlana 2020:3). As a result, such symbolic approaches fail to deal successfully with the affective challenges associated with the success of students who are considered diverse (mostly historically disadvantaged, first-generation, black students). When black students from working-class schools enter the university, they must often adapt to dominant white public and private school cultures instead of the university productively engaging with the epistemic capital they bring to the university, thereby challenging the idea of plurality.

Despite the university management’s claims that SciMathUS students are fully-fledged students and uphold the university’s name in terms of bridging, greater access and transformation, the SciMathUS residence students are never incorporated into the university’s residence network and therefore remain on the periphery.

A qualitative interpretive approach was used to try to understand mentors’ mentorship practices and experiences, and their influence on students’ university engagement and navigation, from within the inner circle (De Vos, Strydom, Fouché and Delport 2005:308). Mentors’ practices in the SciMathUS residence were analysed using the university’s 2015 mentoring guide for formal mentorship in university residences to elicit meaning, gain understanding and develop empirical knowledge (Corbin and Strauss 2008). A questionnaire was used in which mentors did self-reflection on their practices. This was followed by semi-structured interviews for description and more detailed explanations concerning mentoring practices. The counteraction of coercion in the recruitment of participants was part of the protocol for obtaining institutional consent and ethical clearance from the university before conducting the study.

The study found that the assumption that black students are fully included in the university since they have material access to the university (via the SciMathUS programme), is problematic. There is not yet a shared understanding in the university about who the members of a university society are, what they should look like and what attributes are acceptable to such a community. As Barry (2001:196) argues, a common understanding of the value of education often reflects the views of the elite and their aspirations for maintaining such an interpretation. Equality (in the context of South Africa) is complex because, according to Walzer (1983, in Broekman and Pendlebury 2002), it requires a deeper understanding of the differences in people’s forms of capital. This implies that everyone not only has equal access to well-being, power and education, but also equal processes and equal outcomes. Thus, if one group in the university has a dominance or monopoly over power, well-being and education, we can hardly speak of equal access.

The integration and successful navigation of students therefore requires more than a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead of merely assimilating and treating them as a homogenous group who benefits from the university’s changed access policy, deeper engagement with the kinds of capital non-traditional students bring with them to a university space is needed. The study shows that while good management and teaching can play a role, non-academic mentorship not only helps to bridge access, but also to build survival capital through recognition and productive engagement.

It cannot be generalised that non-academic mentorship contributes directly to the improved academic progress of students, as there are so many other contributing factors that are not considered in this study. This study was aimed at simply understanding mentorship experiences from the perspective of non-academic mentors. The direct impact of non-academic mentorship on the academic achievements of SciMathUS students, as well as the possibilities that this type of mentorship offers for epistemic inclusion in the university, are therefore areas for follow-up research.

Keywords: bridging programme; denial of indigenous knowledge; engagement; higher education; mentoring strategies; navigation; student mentorship; students from disadvantaged backgrounds


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Die rol van nie-akademiese mentorskap om studente uit gemarginaliseerde groepe by ’n universiteit te laat inskakel – ’n gevallestudie

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