New students' in South African higher education: Institutional culture, student performance and the challenge of democratisation
Perspectives in Education
School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
South African universities confront a situation that most advanced countries face: the increasing enrollment of the so-called 'new students' ("non-traditional" in SA) from disadvantaged milieus, less prepared for the requirements of the traditional university culture. They are urged to respond to this challenge within a moral system that upholds justice, equality and solidarity, while confronted with a neo-liberal discourse that emphasises efficiency, performance, competition, and individualism. The university practice thus reflects a tension between two hardly reconcilable logics, the logic of performance and the logic of competence, which renders difficult the adjustment of 'new students', the work of the lecturers, often guided by the logic of performance. Lecturers and students are subject to these contradictory logics, characterised by ambivalences and lack of clarity about expectations and what constitutes good academic practice - source of misunderstandings and frustrations. Most institutions strive to articulate both perspectives, constrained however by their peculiar histories. With reference to the University of the Witwatersrand, I seek to unpack how higher education addresses the problems arising out of the increasing intake of students from the historically disadvantaged social groups and the insufficiency of results they achieve, particularly the processes of learners' affiliation to the university culture, and the difficulties associated with their academic success or failure.