High academic achievement among black South African students : enabling and constraining processes.
Thamae, Mpheng Priscilla.
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One priority for South African higher education has been on increasing the numbers of students who are able to access higher education. Moreover, it has been important to increase access for students from historically disadvantaged race groups (Higher Education South Africa, 2015). As a consequence of this focus, higher education access has indeed increased in post-apartheid South Africa; however, the academic achievement of students who manage to access higher education still needs improvement. Findings from studies locally and internationally, indicate that academic achievement is constrained and/or enabled by the complex interplay of internal and external processes (Council on Higher Education, 2013). For the purposes of this study, academic achievement was understood to include the attainment of final marks for modules that students pass, while high academic achievement was consequently understood as marks attained in the 70 – 100 % range. The purpose of this study was to identify and explore the processes which enable and constrain high academic achievement for black South African students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The study used a qualitative methodology to achieve this purpose. Three focus group discussions and an interview were conducted with high achieving black South African students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. A semi-structured focus-group discussion and interview schedule were used to guide the data collection process, while thematic analysis was employed for data analysis purposes. Findings suggest that high achieving black South African students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal found multiple enabling and constraining processes as important in their high academic achievement trajectories. Specifically, being motivated to break the family poverty cycle, time management skills, studying a preferred course/degree, emotional and financial support from family, association with likeminded peers, positive attitude from lecturers, and having access to resources (such as the internet, library services, textbooks and laptops) were isolated as key enabling processes in the participants’ high academic achievement. In contrast, losing focus and motivation in one’s academics, lacking time management skills, some lecturers’ negative attitudes, complex university structures and procedures with slow and bureaucratic services, and English language as the primary medium of instruction were reported as barriers to the participants’ high academic achievement. These findings suggest that high academic achievement at university for black students is affected by both internal and external enabling and constraining processes. University interventions aimed at improving academic achievement levels need to consider both internal and external processes in their execution.