Madiba then spoke about the various challenges the DSA has faced with regard to impoverished students such as the need for food, toiletries, and accommodation. She emphasised that the challenge to producing responsible graduates is levelling the playing fields and removing obstacles that inhibit certain students. Learning Communities, according to Madiba, aims to introduce the concepts of ubuntu, friendships and caring relationships into the university community. Madiba emphasised that peers can play a significant role in supporting vulnerable students and closed off by saying that “it is our responsibility to understand impoverishment”.

The next speakers were a group of students who have been involved in the Learning Communities project. The three students spoke about the challenges they faced when they came to UP and how Learning Communities assisted them in succeeding. All of these students are still actively involved in the projects and have all started assisting and co-ordinating their own Learning Community groups.
Razia Mayet’s presentation was on “Striking a Balance between Performativity and Supporting at Risk Learners at a South African Comprehensive University”. As a facilitator in the Learning Development Unit (LDU) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Mayet believes that the LDU “goes beyond mentorship and tutorship”. She highlighted structures that the LDU has in place to assist struggling students, one of them being the Residence Academic Advisors (RAA). This group of second and third year students was formed at the realisation that students who live in residences did not perform well academically compared to their peers who were not in residences. Each RAA is allocated ten students whose “first port of call is to offer immediate [academic] help” or, when necessary, refer the student to the other academic assistance structures in place such as the tutorship programme or the writing centre.
Mayet described UJ’s demographically diverse campuses, which has about 40 000 students, as “multicultural” before elaborating on the need to identify “academically at risk learners”. According to the director of UJ’s Academic Development Centre, Dr. Andre van Zyl’s 2011 research, 60% of students at UJ do not speak English as a first language and 43% of students are the first in their family to attend university. The Council of Higher Education’s (CHE) 2013 report illustrates that in the South African Higher Education context, about 55% of all entering students including 45% of contact students never graduate. Mayet added that “in the main degree and diploma programmes only 27% of all students including 20% of African students and 24% of coloured students graduate on record time”. Mayet then went on to pinpoint the many factors that put students at risk of academic failure, which include institutional issues such as poor student experience and socio-economic factors, such as poor living conditions and lack of adequate food and funding.
After Mayet’s presentation, there was a Q&A session with representatives of the TSC, DSA staff and the floor. One of the questions asked was whether UP, through Learning Communities, was doing enough to enhance student success. While there were mixed views from both sides, it was noted that UP is zoned in on academic success through channels such as the Learning Communities and Fly@UP. However, it was concluded that there is not adequate focus on students’ mental and emotional support at the institution.

 

Photo: Ciske van de Heever