Accessing higher education

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					Accessing higher education
A Giannakopoulos: University of Johannesburg Sheryl B Buckley: University of Johannesburg

As technology started changing the way of life, this had an effect on those who were already employed as well as those that were going to seek employment. The cry by the masses for further education exerted unprecedented demands on business and the governments. Massification of education became the norm rather than the exemption. Universities had to re-visit entrance requirements, changing of curricular, employing more staff, extending buildings to cope with the new demands and so on. However, the proverbial problem of attrition started been exacerbated as universities were not prepared for such a demand for higher education. The governments around the world on the one hand forced the universities to change their policies to satisfy the masses’ for education demand and on the other hand demanded more accountability of the funds provided to the universities. The universities were faced with the dilemma between free access for all to higher education and operating in a financially viable manner. New selection procedures were introduced, career guidance centres were created, use of technology was increased to supplement education and more stringent financial controls was applied.

This paper will show that twenty years after the technological revolution, universities are still battling to overcome the new “future shock” of Toffler.

Technology, globalization, “no child left behind”, education a basic human right (not just primary or secondary), previously deprived communities of higher education (e.g. South Africa) are just a few reasons for accessing higher education. As a result a very important radical change that happened in the ’80s overseas and in South Africa after 1990, was massification of higher education. This came about in two ways: More mature learners came back to continue with higher education (and research shows that they are more prone to dropping out (e.g. Astin, 1993) to be able to cope with the fast changing world; and access of higher education to masses rather than the elite or as in the South African situation, for the privileged. But as access was increasing, academic attainment and degree completion was lagging behind (Newman, Couturier & Scurry, 2004:159). Consequently, if the attrition rate before massification averaged about 60%, then after massification more learners attended higher education and the rate was expected to go up as it did to about 70%. Drop out rates were noticed to be the highest among the Black and Hispanic students in America (70% and 90% respectively) (Newman et al, 2004:159). Miller (1995) reported an increase in access and retention rates in minority groups in some American higher institutions. So massification is more than just increase in numbers. It involves more open access and more heterogeneity.

Open universities, community colleges, and more private higher education institutions came into existence to cater for such increase in student numbers. Such increase affected also attrition rates. It has been established that attrition rates differ from institution to institution (especially between highly selective, full time, institutions and others, open universities and distance education institutions) and even within faculties and departments within the same institution. The “suspicion” was (still is!) that institutions set “their own acceptable rates” as benchmarks. If the attrition rate was higher, adjustment of marks was taking place (and still does by the standardisation committees) if lower it was

a bonus. Most recently local (Zaaiman, 1998; Nair, 2002; Eiselen & Geyser, 2003; Tait, Van Eeden & Tait, 2002) and overseas researchers (Moxley et al, 2001; Barnett and Griffin, 1997) are still adamant that the problem is still very rife. It is estimated between 30% and 45% while Dennis (1998:77) gave a 50% drop out rate. According to Moxley, Najor-Durack and Bumbrigue (2001) attrition rates around the world are in Japan 10%, UK 20%, Germany 28%, USA 37% and France the highest with 47%.

The high attrition rates prompted many governments to re-visit their funding formulae and demanded more accountability by universities. Governments set up committees to investigate the problem (Tinto, 1993) and institutions revisited their admission policies, institutional environments and supplementary studying programmes (Zheng, Saunders, Shelley & Whalem, 2002; Eiselen & Geyser, 2003; Nair, 2002; Windschitl, 1998). For example, Hayton and Paczuska (2002) discuss the enquiries by the Robbins in 1961-63, the University Grants Committee, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate and the Department of Education and Science (1983) and numerous other committees and later the Dearing enquiry of 1996-97. These enquiries examined among other problems attrition, selection and retention.

Universities found themselves in a precarious situation where they had to maintain a balance between their moral obligation to the nation’s young adults and industry, and to be financially viable while at the same time maintain their roles as knowledge generators or as Abeles (2006) puts it, “knowledge brokers”. Research output (doing fundamental and applied research, increase in the number of post graduates), increase in the throughputs, accountability for the funds allocated to them, improve campus life and administration, advent of the Internet as a “free knowledge supplier” , have forced the universities to re-visit their missions. These have placed enormous burdens on management and they too are required to climb down of the “ivory tower” that until recently appeared to be made of “stainless steel” and “untouchable”.

The turmoil in higher education caused by the massification has to reach an end which will be to the benefit of all stakeholders. This will not be achieved by “passing the buck” where everybody points fingers at the others but by “joint venture” where each stakeholder’s responsibilities are clearly defined.

Accessing higher education: a right or a privilege?
The term “access” and the activities associated with that originated in the 1960s and 1970s. Its main feature was targeted programmes to meet the needs of certain groups of people, young and old, especially minority groups, wanting to enter into higher education, even though they did not comply with the minimum entry requirements (Andrews, 2003:54). For Tight (1989) means: either to allow someone to improve their “old” qualification or to be given the right to higher education for a more relevant qualification to cope with the modern demands of economy. Evans (1985:134) defines access as enabling people to study at whatever level is appropriate to them. On the other hand “access courses” are designed to enable young or adults to get access to further or higher education institutions once they passed such courses. For example, if a learner had an M-score of 12 and the requirement for a certain degree was 15 then he/she could take certain courses where if passed he/she could earn the right to higher education. In certain institutions by passing these courses one could get some credits for the proposed degree in other access courses (or bridging courses) comprised of courses that armed the learner with the necessary skills to cope with degree courses. In both cases “access” and “access courses” one deals with either educationally disadvantaged people or people who are in need of improving their qualifications but do not satisfy the necessary entry criteria. In the South African situation, due to apartheid many Black people had received a kind of inferior education (and in some cases they still do) and although they had the potential to achieve, they would not accumulate enough points to enter higher education. To overcome this injustice, some institutions created expanded curricular others access courses.

But education and especially higher education is very expensive. That is the reality of the situation. Therefore, a financial burden is created and someone has to carry it, be it an individual, a company or the government. And that is when the question as to whether higher education is a right or a privilege arises. Answering this question might have two opposing answers but both are correct. It depends on the perspective that one is looking at. From a person’s perspective, who wants to be educated enough to face the demanding technological world, it is a right. From an institutional perspective it is a “privilege” in the sense that unless one can afford it and/or “has what it takes” to complete a diploma/degree he/she should be excluded. These two opposing views create a moral as well as a pragmatic dilemma. Allowing access for all, like in community colleges, it becomes a challenge to educators because at the end of the day they are still accountable for the non progression of the learners. Williams (2003:8) states that publicly funded education for all cannot be afforded but access should not depend on ability to pay for it. The author, accepting that universities should strive for excellence agrees that it is impossible to allow access for all and simultaneously achieve excellence; and excellence requires learners of high calibre and the greatest majority will graduate. Research has shown that the attrition rate is more that 80% (Yorke, 2002). In highly selective institutions a 10% attrition rate (Yorke, 2002) is still problematic due to high costs of such education. That is different courses cost different amounts and medicine or engineering cost much more than a humanities degree in history or sociology.

What makes answering the question of “right or privilege” even more difficult is the reliability of any selection procedure. As an example: if the best selection procedure identifies ten and rejects thirty learners and only six out of ten are successful a good probability exists that out of the rejected thirty some could have been successful; and this is immoral but pragmatic. On the other hand, by admitting all fourty are we really doing justice to all those that would not have made it since they “do not have what it takes” to graduate? If one adds the costs of education into the equation then the institutions should exercise their right to admit only those selected. Furthermore, if the institutions use the M-score (and some extra requirements such as a B for mathematics) as the only way of selection and there is enough research which shows that a low correlation exists between M-score and graduation then it can be argued that the institution is not really serious in being fair to the prospective learners; and fairness is another criterion that should be used.

This paper concentrates only on government subsidised institutions like the University of Johannesburg (UJ) where the operating costs are met through the government’s subsidy, student fees, investments and donations as well as from research and development. After the demise of apartheid in 1994, previously disadvantaged and disfranchised groups (mostly Black people) were given the right to higher education as long as pre set entry requirements were satisfied. Student numbers increased dramatically and the attrition rate (mostly dropping out after the first semester/year) also increased. For universities, initially, increased in numbers implied an increase in revenue. However, universities were not prepared for such an influx of learners in two ways: firstly many of the learners were ill prepared and secondly due to years of apartheid many lecturers could not cope with the “new type of learner”. Very soon universities realised that the cost of increasing the numbers through access or recruitment became more costly than investing in retention of students.

During the apartheid era there was certain uniformity in the unjust educational system as it was mainly whites that enjoyed higher education which was considered to be of superior quality compared to then Bantu education. In the post apartheid era, when learners of other ethnic groups started enjoying equal rights, the uniformity was eliminated. Universities initially refused to accept responsibility for not producing the desirable results (high graduation rates irrespective of the quality of the new learner) but slowly begun to revisit curricular, modularising, career education, selection procedures and creating departments (such as the Academic Support Unit (ASU)) aiming at assisting learners in certain subjects (e.g. mathematics and science). In short they started climbing down of their ivory tower and had to re-position themselves. Lavitz, Noel and Richter (1999:31) emphasized the prevailing credo in the United States of America (USA): “The success of an institution and the success of the students

are inseparable”. institution.

This shifted the emphasis on responsibility.

That is from the learner to the

Some universities go as far as to lower their entrance requirements in order to increase the student numbers and others use the same principle to widen access (Macrae & Maguire, 2002:24). In both cases they tend to attract lower caliber students and as result their attrition rates tend to be higher. This results in a low-status institution which in the end is to the detriment of all stakeholders. Moving from a low-status to a high-status institution more often than not is an impossibility.

Access and attrition
If we had to divide the prospective students to two main groups, the access and the traditional group where admission requirements differed in both cases certain selection procedures have to be devised if an optimum graduation rate is to be achieved. In government subsidised institutions, graduation rates and number of subjects passed are two of the variables that are involved in the subsidy formula. However, the number of first time enrolments (FTE’s) is determined by the government. If extra then the university is responsible for all the costs of these students. There is sufficient research that indicates that in highly selective institutions attrition rates are at a minimum (e.g. Harvard and Oxford or Cambridge, Yorke, 2002). Yorke (2002) argues that the best selection techniques can tell us little with what a year at the college can. Of the first year failures only a small percentage would have been likely excluded by a better selection. A selection process is based on its ability to predict future academic success. This ability has been quite limited (Riggs & Riggs, 1990-91; Graham, 1991 both cited by Eiselen & Geyser, 2003:254). It has also been argued earlier that it is not possible to predict future success since the factors that existed before selection and after selection are different. This strengthens the idea of Zaaiman (1998:14) of risk learners after selection. However it is reported in various studies (Yorke, 2002) that even at a highly selective institution a 10% overall attrition was reported and the highest, 22% was reported in applied sciences. Therefore selecting students for the access or traditional groups has its flaws.

An alternative way could be to use the first semester/year of study as a means of “final” selection of students where research shows that a 50% of the attrition does occur during this time. In this case the number of students selected could be doubled. This method has been used in an “unofficial way” for many years. But as subsidy is also influenced by the ratio of first time registration to graduation this method in the end is counter productive for the student and the institution. What is of concern is that after years of “experimentation” in improving such ratio, by the introduction of access courses, expanded curricular and so on, the M-score is used by many faculties at the UJ as the only selection criterion as stated earlier. Research though shows that GPA (great point average, equivalent to M-score) scores are good indicators but with relatively low reliability. As the time went by and technology and society changed such single predictor was proved to be unreliable as the correlation between predicted success and actual was decreasing. That is when selection methods were revisited by many institutions and redesigned to increase the reliability of the selection tools. Current research shows that some institutions did succeed in increasing graduation rates but attrition is still high.

The South African White Paper (1997a) on transformation of higher education states the main purposes of Higher education. The two important aspects included in the act are to develop the individual’s learning needs and aspirations by developing their intellectual abilities and aptitudes and to provide the labour market with high level competencies and expertise necessary for the growth and prosperity of a modern economy. However learners come from diverse backgrounds and possess diverse knowledge, skills and academic potential. These diversities force the institution to select those learners that will most probably be successful (selection phase). Because if an institution is to admit learners, who, for whatever reason, have no chance of academic success would be immoral (Fraser & Killen, 2002). This probability of success necessitates the identification of factors that contribute to

academic success so that the institution can predict such success. As a result all selection models will carry a certain predictive validity. And “… predicting future behaviour is an important element of selection” (Zaaiman, 1998:61). Since learners drop out for a multitude of reasons such factors also need to be identified and used as predictors. One such method was the acceptance of the use of the learning potential as another predictor. Zaaiman (1998:15) defined learning potential as the ability to benefit from instruction. The South African situation lends itself to the use of such predictor because of the great number of academically disadvantaged learners who had (and some are still having) received poor schooling. A lot has been written about disadvantaged learners (Nunns & Ortlepp, 1994). Zaaiman (1998:15) also cites a number of other studies done with respect to disadvantaged learners. The premise is that since all human beings possess the potential to succeed in a differentiated way then identifying the learning potential of the learner and selecting them on this basis creates a fair and just selection procedure. Dynamic testing is intended to assess such potential (Zaaiman, 1998; de Beer, 1994; Nunns & Ortlepp, 1994). So far, though research results show that dynamic testing have not supported this premise (Zaaiman, 1998). But selecting learners in a fair and just way even if all learners were of equal academic and learning potential a number of them do withdraw and thus never complete their studies. Reasons for such withdrawal also need to be identified (causes of attrition). However, if a learner can benefit from instruction and be afforded a conducive learning environment then it is the institution’s duty to ensure that the learner receives all the necessary help to achieve his/her goal (institutional intervention). Such measures which fall within the control of the institution will lead to a satisfied and motivated learner who will persist till graduation (retention) (Floud, 2002).

One cannot separate access and attrition or graduation irrespective how an institution is financed. And finances do play a very important role for the institution and the student. The only way to have a win-win situation is if the student graduates and that is a common goal. It must be emphasized here that the cost of retaining the students and graduating (even if it takes longer than the prescribed period) is much cheaper than recruiting more students. It is equally true that irrespective of the quality of the new students, it is the university’s duty to devise the means to ensure that the maximum number of students will graduate by devising retention procedures.

Access, participation and the disadvantaged
Newman, Couturier and Scurry (2004:154) state clearly that jobs requiring college education are on the increase while blue collar jobs are on the decrease. But this change in the work-force is not the only impetus for a higher level of education. “Participation in the community and in the political system also requires improved education (Newman et al, 2004:154); and participation is directed here especially at low income families and students of colour. The same context was used in England but in South Africa it deals with Black people. But by making it possible to enter a higher learning institution and not successfully completing it, it is counter productive. In a market driven economy, companies are reluctant to invest on someone that is unlikely to complete his/her studies. This slowed down access if not reversed it (Newman et al, 2004-155). But it is not only school leavers that need higher education but also many of those working who need to improve their qualification or get a required certification. Higher qualification leads to better income, more job possibilities and social mobility.

Education is a risky business (Hayton & Paczuska, 2002:11). These risks are directed at many different facets: before registration, during studying and after graduation. Hayton and Paczuska (2002) and others (in the same book) discuss the various risks that exist: The authors found that students with family support even though with low economic support they are likely to “take the risk” and go to university to obtain a degree, while if they believe they will not they do not go to university. Especially in a lowincome group the fear of failure either forces them not to seek higher education or they have to work while studying which increases the possibility of failure. Some families do not take that risk (Callender, 2002:76). Snyder (2006) states that higher tuition fees in American institutions represents a substantial barrier to economic and thus social mobility. As a result the gap between the poor and the rich has widened in the past 30 years. Archer, Leathwood and Hutchings (2002:108) maintain that privilege buys

protection from risks while disadvantaged carry the greater threats and risks. As a result low-income groups are not prepared to go into debt which takes sometimes between 5 and 20 years to pay off after graduation. The authors also mention the social and identity risks which are associated with the perception of snobbishness and class exclusion since being a graduate it was seen as “elevating one self to another higher class.” Beckett (2002:215) also agrees that the disadvantaged group experiences the greatest risks, hardship and financial pressures. Graduating though from a low-status institution is better than having no higher education credentials who “risks” exclusion from the work place (Macrae & Maguire, 2002).

Finally, it is the institutional risk. Institutions having to widen access, not being fully prepared for it and being forced to it, had to invest in many different programmes to assist the disadvantaged where the return on investment was less than expected as high failure rates were maintained. Furthermore, research has shown (and UJ is no exception) that most of the student debt occurs in the low-income group. The debt amounts to millions of rands and the university can ill afford that continuing for an indefinite period. Snyder (2006) states that while the demand for higher education has increased dramatically the fees have increased by 300% since 1980, twice as fast the consumer price index, but the student debt has increased to billions of dollars while the government funding has decreased from 60% to 35%. Recently, at UJ, classes were suspended for two weeks due to student unrest as a result of raising the fees but also an increase in the initial amount to be paid on registration.

Access and retention
It has been stated earlier on numerous occasions that access does not necessarily lead to retention and subsequent graduation especially by disadvantaged groups. Higher education institutions when they came to the realisation that it costs less to retain existing students than recruit new ones revisited their retention policies and designed new means to increase their throughput. These varied from expanded curricular to bridging courses to peer tutoring to supplemental education and so on.

Initially retention programmes were seen to be like intervention programmes. They were a kind of fragmented academic and counseling support given to the learners by means of tutorials and later by peer group tutoring. The underlying principle for rendering assistance was that learners failed/dropped out because of their own inadequacies and personal problems. However, dropping out of an institution is no longer seen just as a pure academic failure, especially after Tinto’s 1993 publication, on the part of the learner. Institutions accepted that they carry an equal responsibility when a learner fails or drops out and Blythman and Orr (2002) do view “drop-out” as an institutional failure”. Successful retention programmes have become thus learner-centered programmes and are proactive rather than reactive (Peelo & Wareham, 2002; Moxley et al, 2001). Retention management systems begun to emerge. Dennis (1998), Moxley et al (2001), Felder, Felder and Dietz (2000), discuss various ideas as to how retention management system should be designed in great details. Moxley et al, (2001:112) epitomise the scope of retention as one which incorporates learner readiness and self-understanding, academic development (the most traditional retention programme), personal and social development and professional and career development.

Enrollments on the other hand also affect retention and attrition. Dennis (1998) maintains that enrollments are ultimately dependent on the retention of currently enrolled learners as well as on the steady flow of new learners. The author states that “... retention is more important than enrollments since it is a greater measure of institution’s success and it is also responsible for more than 75% of an institution’s population and tuition revenue. Retention is the key issue in enrollment planning particularly when such efforts focus on non-academic causes of attrition. Enrolments and retention are interwined as “... there can be no successful enrollment management programme without a successful retention management programme” (Dennis, 1998:2); and Gibbs and Knapp (2002:103) add by stating that enrolment management encompasses both recruitment and retention. Dennis

(1998) also suggested that differentiated retention strategies are necessary due to the different needs of the learners.

The above exploration showed that access, retention and subsequent graduation are interlinked. By widening participation in higher education, can be a risky business not only from a financial perspective but also from a moral one. All stakeholders carry an equal responsibility: the learner, the institution, the interactions between the two and the social environment, society and the government. Research showed that attrition is complex but can be combated. This requires a joint venture between the stakeholders so that factors that affect graduation can be reduced to a minimum.

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