Geographies of access and participation: narratives of first year students receiving financial aid.
Gabela, Nombuso Patience.
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After the dismantling of the apartheid laws which divided South Africa as a nation, the country became a democratic one entitling all citizens the right to education. The South African government has made it a mission to ensure that education is accessible to all its citizens (Freedom Charter, 1955; Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996; National Commission on Higher Education, 1996; National Student Financial Aid Scheme [NSFAS], 1999; Department of Education, 2001). Post-apartheid education legislation and policies, supported by the values of democracy, equity, quality and the expansion of educational opportunities for all, has resulted in increased numbers of South African youth accessing higher education. While there has been a significant increase in the number of previously disadvantaged students in higher education such as poor, black, and female students, South African universities still have a low retention and poor graduation rates. This research study set out to investigate the higher education experiences of five first year university students who had gained access through financial aid. The study was conducted in one university in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, a province with a large rural population. It is a qualitative narrative inquiry, which adopted a critical stance using Bourdieu’s concepts of capital, field and habitus as well as the concept of geographies of youth. As a narrative inquiry the study, through the use of participatory methods, privileged participants’ experiences and acknowledged their agency in the research process. Data was collected by means of in-depth individual interviews, a focus group discussion as well as a mapping exercise with selected participants. The same data was then analyzed by reading it thoroughly in search of the key ideas emerging. Subsequently the data was then coded, that is, a word or a phrase was used, for example, decision to proceed to university in order to organize the collected data. This study revealed that even though there were other contributing factors, funding was the main factor influencing students’ access to and participation in higher education. Finance whether from guardians or sponsors gave the students the opportunity to enter into this institution in order for them to pursue their careers. Lack of finance meant that they could not take control of their lives, in other words, they could not make informed decisions regarding their future. According to the study, gaining access to higher education is not a simple task if you are a student from a disadvantaged family as the registration fee is merely an entry fee but it does not guarantee participation in the university culture. Other academic factors that influence access to the curriculum and participation include the challenge of learning in a second language, unfamiliarity with assessment strategies and practices, the lack of technological and academic literacy as well as the lack of resources to support effective teaching and learning. Non-academic influences such as the lack of and poor student housing also impacted on students’ participation and achievements in this institution. In terms of the university’s intervention to assist students, this study found that even though students were struggling academically, there were support programs provided for them as a platform to catch up with the rest of the students. However, the university’s budget constraints meant that these tutorial classes had to be cancelled which greatly impacted on the overall performance of the participants. Due to the financially, academically and socio-culturally related dynamics experienced by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it can be concluded that more research should be carried out in South African HEIs to further examine the experiences of such students to explore the gap between higher education policies and practices.