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An exploration of how black, successful university students from low socio-economic backgrounds experience and negotiate the university space.

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Legislation and policies developed for the transformation of higher education in South Africa, has led to significant gains for the beneficiaries of the sector. For instance, there has been a significant increase in access to higher education. However, although there has been significant progress, there is still a long way to go. This study sought to explore the experiences of black successful students from low socio-economic backgrounds at university. In essence, the study set out to understand the enabling and constraining factors that the students experienced. The study was a qualitative study, located within the critical research paradigm. Semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions were used to collect the data for the study. Bourdieu’s notions of capital, field and habitus were deployed to understand the experiences of the students. Findings of the study revealed that, while the participants reproduced some aspects of middle-class culture, they resisted its social and political logic and did not assist it to achieve its mission of reproducing and legitimising inequality. That is, the participants used their agency to demand from education what it had committed to, but had not given, in order to achieve academically. For instance, higher education demanded possession of linguistic capital, which basic education had not given. However, in response, students, often with the help of the university, found ways to push against middle class codes framing access to higher education in order to achieve academically. However, in certain cases, the collision of their working-class upbringing with middle-class thinking presented difficulties for some participants. These participants often struggled to maintain positive ties with their family and friends, who began to see them as outsiders. For example, the participants reported estrangement from their families and friends. However, participants’ narratives revealed that, for some of their families, this was a product of deprivation, which required all of their attention. Findings suggests that deficiency and lack of technological and laboratory skills are not a given for students from low socio-economic backgrounds; they must be fought for. However, with the appropriate support, students from these contexts can deploy their agency to push boundaries, navigate the toxic mix of disadvantage and succeed academically.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.