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Towards an Afrocentric paradigm for understanding student success in the college of Humanities at a University in KwaZulu-Natal.

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Previous studies on the problem of poor students’ throughput in higher education in South Africa had tended to work within the paradigm of understanding in which research and the outcome of research are portrayed as objective and predetermined. Unfortunately, such approaches produce models and theoretical frameworks that err in disregarding the historical and the contextual in people’s lives. On the other hand, deductive and unilateral (one size fit all) perspectives and methodologies that assume that people’s lived-experiences and realities are neutral and value-free similarly fail to account for university students’ success or failure that emanate from the dynamic and unique nature of the culture and the context in which they live and work. Hence, the complex and diverse nature of South African students’ population in higher education institutions do call for innovative and participatory methods of inquiry this is able to generate comprehensive conceptual models to inform prospective intervention programmes. In contrast to these past approaches, the present study utilized a grounded theory methodology to facilitate the co-contribution of student participants in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data aimed at answering the persistent question about the factors that influence students’ learning outcomes in higher education. The objective of the study was to facilitate the emergence of conceptual schemes or models that could inform a framework for understanding the first-year student’s success at a university in KwaZulu-Natal province. The study employed focus group discussions to stimulate a controlled and detailed inquiry into what enables and/or constrains 2012 first year students’ academic success at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, College of Humanities, Pietermaritzburg campus. The study involved 108 students who participated in seven participlan focus groups. Additionally, the study integrated the lessons learnt and data obtained from three first year students’ participlan focus groups in 2011 who took part in the pilot phase of the research project. The results show that the narratives of the students draw attention to the existence of some socio-economic factors, social class issues, socio-academic programmes and institutional infrastructure with potential to either impede or promote the success of students at the university. Fundamentally, some of the major themes that emerged from the study included the persistence of social inequalities in shaping the lived experiences, identities and perceptions of some of the students. The findings also indicate that majority of the student participants are aware of their agentic role within the learning process and did acknowledge the operation of some negative and positive influences of certain systems towards their success at the university. The results of the study further showed that even though institutions of higher education in South Africa, such as the UKZN have progressive policies, it is crucial to constantly profile students and engage them especially at the first year level to demystify inherent negative ideologies about campus life and address particular identifiable students’ concerns and challenges to ensure successful socio-academic integration and easy alignment between the student-institutional expectations. The findings of the study equally showed that the lived-experiences of students are diverse and dynamic and do embrace a both/and, or a combination of African and Western values, ideologies, and practices. Such findings suggest that the complex realities of the students’ campus life should always be taken into account when any attempt is made to promote planned institutional intervention programmes for the benefit of the students. The study highlights the relevance of the Afrocentric paradigm in the study of students’ performance in higher education and the need for the application of multi-perspective process of inquiry when designing research projects that aim to explore a culture-sensitive phenomenon such as academic success in higher education in South Africa. Based on these findings it is recommended that future studies of students’ performance in higher education would benefit from the application of participatory methodologies that give voice to the marginalised and the dominant worldviews of the participants. Such approaches hold enormous promise of yielding rich and holistic information that could contribute towards emancipation of the students and facilitate transformation of institutions of higher learning in the South and other regions of Africa.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.