The contours of disadvantage and academic progress : analysis of perceptions of students from disadvantaged schools at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
The overall purpose of this study was to analyse the perceptions and experiences of students from disadvantaged schools regarding their academic progress at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). The study focused on the students’ material and social circumstances, their learning environment while at University, their connections to their home community, and their career aspirations. It set to answer three key research questions, namely: (1) what are the contours of disadvantage that can be discovered through investigating samples of students from disadvantaged schools at UKZN? (2) How do the ‘contours’ seem to co-occur with factors relating to academic progress? (3) What are the perceptions of students from disadvantaged schools at UKZN about their pre-university experience and the learning environment at university? The notion of disadvantage was defined using the Department of Education (DoE)’s classification of schools into the quintile system which is based on measurements of the poverty of the catchment community. Thus, this study shows that the notion of disadvantaged students in higher education can be investigated through class-based, rather than merely racially-based definitions. This study was conducted within a three-fold conceptual framework based on sustainable livelihoods approaches (SLA), social capital theory and social justice ideology. The SLA approach teaches us that livelihoods can only be understood and captured in particular contexts. This research project therefore aimed to gain a clearer understanding of such a context, in this case, the campus environment. Through the phenomenological approach of the openended questions in the interviews, this thesis taps into the perceptions of students themselves about their environment and how they cope. Social capital theory postulates five spheres: the academic, the social, the economic, the support, and the democratic. These were probed in both a survey of a sample of disadvantaged students, and by interviewing eight students. With regard to academic progress, the measurements used were the matric aggregate, the grade point average for salient years and programmes, and the time it took for students to graduate or dropout. Comparisons are made between the norm of students, the disadvantaged (those from low quintile schools), and those in the sample. The purpose of utilizing such measurements is to contribute to the social justice discourse about university education based on Taylor’s notion of Fair Equality of Opportunity (FEO), where disadvantaged students’ abilities and aspirations can best be developed and exercised, leading to the attainment of self-realization. Until disadvantaged students show academic progress that fits the norm, the contours of their disadvantage need to be continually investigated; it is hoped that the findings of this thesis will contribute to further research and concrete proposals which can be implemented to improve conditions so that students who are already disadvantaged as a result of their schooling are not further disadvantaged while at University .
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