Choices of degree or degrees of choice? : a sociological analysis of decision-making in tertiary education.
Dominant theories on choice of higher education, such as the rational action theory, view prospective students as rational consumers operating in an educational and vocational marketplace. This approach is founded on the assumption that young people are logical, self-interested and utility-maximising beings, and that choice of career or field of study is the outcome of a technically rational process. A growing number of studies are, however, challenging the central assumption of this approach. Recent studies on educational and vocational choice-making indicate that aspiring students may not be as calculating as the dominant research and policy discourse suggests. They emphasise that the decision-making process is, in fact, far more complex and unpredictable than traditionally assumed by the conventional models. As a result, there have been calls for the need to develop an alternative approach. The pragmatic rationality model by Hodkinson and Sparkes is one example. This study employs an unconventional approach to the logic of choice-making. Instead of drawing up a quantitative assessment of a large sample of students – the most common method of inquiry in this field of research – it uses case study research to investigate, in depth, how students from two specific vocational disciplines made their choices. The research is based on qualitative, semi-structured interviews with 26 first-year students in the Civil Engineering and Social Care programmes at the Durban University of Technology and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The study explores the applicability of the pragmatic rationality framework in the South African context, and investigates its potential impact on higher education policy. The analysis finds that there are general processes by which all the students had been affected, summed up in the framework of pragmatic rationality. The endorsement of this approach can be read as an implicit rejection of the rational action theory and the dominant assumption of aspiring students as rational agents. Although pragmatically rational decision-making was detected throughout the sample, the students were found to have made very different kinds of choices within very different types of circumstances. These differences were identified particularly in the levels of knowledge upon which the students had based their decisions. The observations made in this study are useful in terms of developing a more accurate understanding of educational and vocational choice-making in South Africa.