“Higher education can be an important catalyst of social mobility, but many of our country’s socioeconomic inequalities are replicated within the post-school education system itself.”
This is one of the observations made by Dr Emma Whitelaw, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
Her PhD – obtained in 2023 and with a focus on post-school education in an unequal society – is critical, as institutions of higher education prepare for the latest intake of students seeking to further their studies.
SALDRU carries out applied empirical research and capacity building with an emphasis on poverty and inequality, labour markets, human capital and social policy, striving for academic excellence and policy relevance. Dr Whitelaw’s PhD and ongoing research contributed to SALDRU’s Siyaphambili post-school research initiative.
Whitelaw said because inequalities reproduce themselves in the sector, it can then reproduce and even deepen broader cycles of social inequality.
“I therefore wanted to, and still aim to, contribute empirical evidence through careful economic analysis to better understand these inequalities in post-schooling, which can hopefully inform decision making in the sector.”
“Data that tracks students from university entrance to employment is necessary to inform funding decisions that can ensure higher education fulfils its social and economic potential.”
Together with her colleague Associate Professor Nicola Branson, they have identified a lack of evidence about whether the current funding system is cost-effectively promoting upward mobility.
“Projected rises in enrolments and increasing demand for the National Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) mean that it is more important than ever for policy makers to understand the returns to NSFAS, and the cost-effectiveness of these large government investments. To fill this gap, we suggest that data that tracks students from university entrance to employment is necessary to inform funding decisions that can ensure higher education fulfils its social and economic potential.”
According to Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande, government continues to support students from the working class and the poor, with over 70% of university students, and over 90% of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) college students benefitting from NSFAS bursaries.
What’s more, Nzimande announced in January that they have set aside a R3.8 billion initial capitalisation fund to support the “missing middle” students. The new Comprehensive Student Funding Model aims to support students, including those currently not supported by the NSFAS bursary and funding policy. This category of students is those who come from families with a total income of more than R350 000, but not more than R600 000 per annum.
Is post-school funding a threat to the stability of the post-school education model?
“I think it depends on what is meant by stability, and if one considers the current state to be stable. As we discuss in this column, it is important to recognise that as the nature of funding models change; incentives can shift. Factors that could change students’ incentives for going to university, as well as universities’ incentives to improve student performance and graduation rates, have the potential to impede social mobility and inclusive development,” Whitelaw said.
On whether she believes there’s a chasm that exists in expectation from students, institutions and policy makers, Whitelaw said her work did not delve into this aspect. “I want to believe that ultimately, at an aggregate level, goals align, but complex challenges exist and different stakeholders may view the relative importance of these challenges differently based on their lived experiences, disciplines, and competing pressures,” she noted.
“We measured student performance based on three pieces of information available to us: credits taken, credits passed, and the share of credits passed.”
Part of her research showed that household inequalities appear to be playing out in student academic performance differentials at UCT to a greater extent since COVID-19. She elaborated: “It’s important to note this is only up to 2021, and we have not yet explored what played out in 2022 and 2023. This finding was also among students who enrolled before 2020. To plausibly measure the impact of the pandemic on performance, we required a counterfactual, ie what performance was expected to have been had the pandemic not occurred.
“To achieve this, we employed a quasi-experimental approach, and compared students’ performance during the pandemic against that of their peers prior to the pandemic. We measured student performance based on three pieces of information available to us: credits taken, credits passed, and the share of credits passed.”
She continued: “First, we observed average improvements in credits passed and the share of credits passed among students in 2020, especially among those who were situated towards the lower end of the performance distribution before COVID-19. It seems that lowering credit loads may have enabled students to pass a greater share of their credits.”
Several other factors are likely to have contributed too. These include not only more room for improvement at the bottom end of the performance distribution, assessment and/or marker leniency and student collusion, but also improved quality of engagement from both students and staff, better responsiveness to students’ needs and perhaps an improved quality of assessment.
Informing decision making
“However, we did observe differential effects by funding status. In 2020, students not on financial aid in the bottom quartile of the performance distribution increased their share of credits passed by 16.88 to 19.63 percentage points (depending on year of study), with financial aid students in the same quartile experiencing an increase of roughly half that size, between 7.79 and 9.41 percentage points. This points to a widening achievement gap along socioeconomic dimensions (using funding status as a proxy for socioeconomic status),” Whitelaw said.
How does the sector ensure evidence-based decisions are made? “There needs to be comprehensive monitoring of system-wide student success – from the day they enrol through to their graduation and employment. This data exists in silos but is not yet linked in the way that is urgently needed to inform decision making. What’s more, this evidence can be used to help universities collaborate with each other to save overall costs across the sector.”
Together with Branson, their latest strand of research continues as they consider student retention during 2020 across all 26 public universities in the country. “Our results foreground the complex interplay of factors impacting a student's decision to drop out of or remain in university, highlighting that student funding, institutional responses and/or relational context during crises like COVID-19 can positively impact student retention,” said Whitelaw.
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