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Exceptional academic achievement in South African higher education.

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This thesis reports on a study which explored the equity of representation within the phenomenon of exceptional academic achievement in South African higher education. The significance of the thesis rests with its unique position among a prevailing higher education discourse of academic underachievement and high levels of failure. In this way, this study offered a complementary strengths-based perspective within the South African higher education domain. Firstly, the study was located in a historical-contextual framework, and secondly grounded within three conceptual frameworks. These included a critical quantitative stance, a social cognitive framework, and a sociocultural framework. The latter framework specifically incorporated cultural-historical activity theory and was offered as an integrative stance from which the phenomenon of exceptional academic achievement in South African higher education could be most effectively conceptualised. In response to the historical-contextual and conceptual frameworks, the study first sought to identify the profile of exceptional academic achievement in South African undergraduate students. Given the critical nature of the study, the second and third research questions sought to explore those students who did not fit the profile of exceptional academic achievement. In resonance with the historical-contextual and conceptual frameworks and the research questions, a critical dialectical pluralist stance was assumed, and a critical dialectical mixed methodology was employed. This methodology involved two interlinked phases, and these were embedded within a case study of a racially transformed and internationally ranked South African higher education institution. In the first phase of the study, a logistic regression model for exceptional academic achievement in South African higher education was developed. The model was developed from a sample of 20 120 graduates from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who completed undergraduate degrees between the years 2006 and 2010. The model identified that even when controlling for financial aid, matriculation score, and matriculation English symbol, white female students were 16 times more likely to excel when compared to African female students, and seven times more likely to excel when compared to African male students. In the second phase of the study, 18 academically exceptional African female and African male undergraduate students were purposively invited to participate in the study. Their first task involved an interpretation of the logistic regression model, this interpretation being garnered through the students’ participation in three focus group discussions. Of the original 18 students, eight then embarked on an auto-photographical data production process and participated in photo-elicitation interviews with the researcher. Using the theorised activity system within cultural-historical activity theory as a heuristic device, three systems of academic activity were constructed and analysed. The constructions generated evolving and historical activity systems of exceptional academic achievement, and a third institutional system of academic activity. The analyses highlighted the regulatory role of collective emotions in exceptional academic achievement, and in particular, the importance of the resolution of an injustice-based anger and edu-emotional struggle, with a vision for the future and the development of a positive edu-emotional valence. The three activity systems offer a conceptual perspective of exceptional academic achievement in higher education that is persistently unjust, however prospectively hopeful. The current and historical dynamics involved in the academic trajectories of undergraduate African students who excel are offered as a way in which a transformative and socio-political object of exceptional academic achievement could be attained. This object is constituted by an iterative trajectory within a fragile and homologous space between enabling and constraining environments. Importantly, these environments are positioned as having the potential to yield outcomes of both exceptional academic achievement and academic underachievement in higher education.


Ph. D. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 2014.


Education, Higher--South Africa., Academic achievement--South Africa., Educational surveys--South Africa., Teaching--South Africa., Theses--Education.