An educationally challenged background need not hamper success at university level, as has been shown by a number of UCT Education Development Unit (EDU) commerce students who have walked off with top marks in what are often believed to be the most difficult commerce courses, including financial accounting, economics and statistics.
In the past six years, students enrolled in the EDU Academic Development Programme (ADP) have often outperformed mainstream students in some key areas, achieving top honours.
Several students have achieved subject distinction in recent years; and in 2011, the top first-year commerce student in mathematics was Sakhe Mkosi, a BCom EDU undergraduate who averaged above 93% for his courses that year. Subsequently he remained on the Dean's Merit List throughout his studies at UCT, and is on track to graduate with a BCom (Chartered Accounting) degree this year.
Over the years the Commerce EDU has become recognised as one of the country's most successful academic development programmes in terms of graduation and throughput success rates for black students, says Daniel Munene, EDU's Programme Co-ordinator. The EDU falls under UCT's Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED), which is responsible for the university's academic development programmes.
Munene believes these success stories are in large part due to the unit's interventions in supporting under-prepared students, but he also pays tribute to the students' determination and hard work.
"The EDU definitely walks the walk when it comes to putting transformation into action," he says. "We in the EDU feel we have a responsibility not only to take in deserving students who demonstrate potential, but also to enable them to succeed in their degrees and graduate at the end of the day. Transformation is not just about student numbers at entry level, but also about numbers at exit level."
Built on years of academic development experience at UCT, the EDU, under the direction of Associate Professor June Pym, was conscious of these imperatives when the present model of this pioneering academic development programme was established in 2001. The programme has grown from strength to strength since then and is now considered a model of good practice in academic development circles.
While some EDU students may study for a longer period of one to two years, and have more flexibility in their choices, they do the same subjects and curriculum, write the same examinations - and obtain the same degree. The EDU focuses on the whole degree time period, and is now also incorporating postgraduate students.
According to Munene, there used to be a perception that students who came to EDU would be getting a lesser degree to that offered to mainstream students. This perception has since been turned around completely, especially as EDU students are now excelling in many subjects. Economics is now one of the students' most popular subjects, a result of innovative workshops that help them get to grips with the subject. In statistics lectures, students use interactive 'clickers' that electronically convey their answers to class questions. As a result, the lecturer is able gauge students' responses and demonstrate the correct answer.
In financial accounting, students use their home language to explain concepts to classmates who share the same first language. "This not only elevates people's mother tongue, but also shows that cognitively there is no problem in understanding an accounting course in Xhosa, or Zulu, because a concept is a concept!" Munene explains.
Other interventions monitor how students cope with their studies and how they integrate into the university community. One of the most important aspects of the EDU's work lies in creating a safe space for students, says Munene. "Aside from the extreme academic demands that students face, many also have to juggle a number of familial responsibilities. We do our best to advise and help students where we can, to ensure a sense of trust and community."
There is a strong focus on engaging with both academic and affective factors, as well as developing graduate attributes that will make a meaningful contribution to a socially conscious South African society. This ethos of engagement has also led to a marked increase in students' involvement in extracurricular activities and leadership programmes such as the Students' Representative Council. EDU students have also started their own society, the Education Development Unit Student Society (EDUSO).
"These are tremendously positive developments. They indicate that EDU students feel part of the fabric of UCT and that they've gained more self-confidence." Munene also praises the teaching and administrative staff for building appropriate skills and support in the unit.
The unit also sees that the students are supported financially, through bursaries and other funding initiatives. Funding from several partners, including the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants, the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation, Investec, Deloitte and the Saville Foundation, has been instrumental in supporting the unit's range of work.
"We are indebted to these organisations for sharing our transformative vision and for having the confidence that we can achieve that vision," says Munene.
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