Successful students do more than graduate: they are equipped to be responsible citizens

Published On: 21 November 2022|

Defining student success is more than just attaining a university degree. It is about preparing young adults for responsible and responsive global citizenship.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, former Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Free State (UFS) and Distinguished Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University, believes academic success is a must, but only one measure of success.

“Personal transformation is key. In a country scarred by racism, sexism, and xenophobia, you have to extend the meaning of success beyond the traditional metric of academic performance.”

Professor Elizabeth Balbachevsky, from the Department of Political Science at the University of São Paulo (USP) in Brazil, is of the view that academic success, “expanding your knowledge, your ability to learn and use that in the practical world is the core vision of the university. But changing the way people see the world is also very important.”

Professor Hans De Wit, Emeritus Professor and Distinguished Fellow, Centre for International Higher Education, Boston College, says student success for academic institutions means more than graduation. “There are more important aspects that we’ve underestimated in student success: they also have to be good citizens; to be prepared in a society that is more inclusive, and diverse”.

The context

The three academics discussing the subject were part of a break-away group at last week’s HELM (Higher Education Leadership and Management) Summit 2022, whose aim was to explore innovative leadership development strategies for sustainability and change in higher education, globally. The summit also considered practical implications for leadership development in the context of disruption, complexity, change, and in the pursuit for the Engaged University.

The three-day event was hosted in collaboration with the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), a representative association of Deans of Arts and Sciences in the United States of America. About 500 delegates were registered to attend the virtual conference from Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and the United States.

The speakers responded to questions raised by the HELM Senior Associate and session host, Dr Birgit Schreiber (left), who said student success is a widely debated issue. “While this is a high-ranking focus for higher education across the world, there is less consensus on the definition of student success: how we may want to support it or even measure it.”

Critical questions

She asked four questions, to which each speaker responded:

  1. What is student success?
  2. Who defines it?
  3. How will we know, perhaps retrospectively, that we were successful or unsuccessful?
  4. If you had a magic wand and can do one thing for higher education (or remove one thing) – what would it be?

What is student success?

Professor Jansen (right) said a low number of students get to university in South Africa – compared to other countries – and an equally small number proceed to graduate within four to six years.

“For me, student success has to be academic success; you have to be able to pass well enough in the courses that constitute the subject and the degree. If we miss that simple, obvious point, then the system collapses.”

Promoting personal transformation, he used as an example Stellenbosch University, which is in the throes of a row over institutional racism. “I think that the personal transformation of 30 000 students has to be part of the way in which we measure success.

“We should not forget that a big part of what we do, at universities, is leadership preparation. That becomes a very important part of what constitutes success; not simply churning out thousands of graduates every year but knowing with confidence that those students would lead whether it’s in the NGO sector, in Government, business, or internationally… that they are not only invested in themselves as individuals but also in leadership in a really broken country and continent, and in the world.”

Professor Balbachevsky (left) narrated how public universities in Brazil are tuition-free “but also highly research-focused and top of the higher education hierarchy.

“Segregation might be forbidden by law, but we have structural racism: because of our slavery heritage, the elite is white, and, in the past, white children went to well-regarded universities.” She said current affirmative action policies ensure half of all university places are reserved for low-income families or other minorities.

“This transformation opened our perception of how ingrained racism and the problems related to it are. One of the most important indicators of student success is the way he or she changes the way they see the world.”

Professor De Wit (right) believes academic institutions have ignored their social responsibility role, which he described as “our third mission in higher education.

“We have to prepare students better for a society that is much more inclusive and diverse. If we don’t, people won’t understand the complexity of the context; we cannot exclude people from a different culture or country. We have to be inclusive – it is needed more than ever for sustainable development.

“If you only prepare students to be professionals in a career for self-enrichment, that will be a wrong approach to student success. We have to emphasize the social role of students.”

Who defines this success?

Professor Jansen told how, during his days at the helm of the University of the Free State, UFS had the second lowest throughput rates of all of South Africa’s institutions. UFS also became notorious for the “most egregious racist act when four white students racially abused five black workers.”

His team defined what was important for them and agreed on an Academic Project and a Human Project. The first required that they dramatically raise the academic standard of this former white university, which became an important measuring tool in determining academic success more broadly. They also reconfigured the University to ensure that black and white students could learn to live together.

“Each institution has to define what success means in relation to your history, geography, your particular political world. Stellenbosch does not have a problem with student success rates. But there are serious problems with transforming the way students think. It is no good having 98% graduation rates but producing students who become a danger to society without having addressed the way in which they see the world.”

Jansen said there has to be an institutional set of decisions about what is important to that particular institution’s context.

He called for democratic conversations among universities’ stakeholders – staff and students — who might have a different view of success. He said at Stellenbosch, an inquiry found black students did not feel welcome, that they belonged, or were recognised.

Professor Balbachevsky agreed that the many university stakeholders need to define the cultural changes that are important. She spoke about how student movements are active in discussing these issues.

“I witness a change in students who arrive with a narrow definition of success (a job and money) who begin to shift focus as they interact and have their minds opened. The issue of belonging is very important; it’s something we in Brazil have taken for granted because of our homogeneous profile. Now we’re getting students from different socio-economic cultural backgrounds including indigenous people who do not speak Portuguese.

“Our challenge is to adapt our curricula to embrace these non-traditional students.” She said a special effort was put into supporting students who come from families with no past academic experience. “Society evaluates the degree of success of our students, as does the labour market regarding the skills we teach them.”

She said a university has many roles, especially in developing countries, to provide learning opportunities for those unable to go to university. Her university has 87000 students, alongside 100000 people who enrol for short programmes and classes. “We evaluate their success differently,” she said.

Professor De Wit believes that context is key. He told of how three Boston institutions – Boston College, Harvard University and MIT – catered to different students. Boston College is a Catholic Jesuit institution focused on social justice, with a different perception of what the institution should be.

“Similarly, in Amsterdam, there is a huge difference between a research university like the University of Amsterdam and the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam – the students have different career paths and different backgrounds. So, defining student success is always context related.”

He added that aspirations of the labour market had to be factored in. How institutions respond to those outside – society and industry – and inside – students and academics, defines student success. “We should give students more of a voice in this process. There is a tendency to talk about students and not to students about what they need. They are an important player and we should use them.”

Session host, Dr Schreiber then asked: “What about the absolutes? What is negotiable and non-negotiable?”

Professor Jansen cited academic success as absolutely non-negotiable “in a country like ours, where the social and individual rates of return to investment in education is the highest in the world. There are huge costs: to individuals and to families.” Very low pass rates meant there was huge “wastage” in the system “because we don’t take our talent seriously.

“Given the brokenness of the school system (students are not the problem) we have to explore other ways. When I was VC, we created a separate campus so students could take another year or two to be able to meet the standard for admission. Many thousands of those students went on to become professionals. Making sure that a working-class kid is able to become a first-generation graduate – that surely has to be non-negotiable.”

How will we know we’ve been successful?

Dr Schreiber asked: “What will it look like, in a few years — what is the evidence of being successful?

Professor Balbachevsky said there was a problem in Latin America, where credentials are more important than the content of the education the student receives. One-third of Brazil’s students are enrolled in teacher education “but half of our students reach high school without learning how to read. We produce teachers who can’t teach – it’s the degree that’s important not the content of the learning behind it.”

Success, for her, would be to break down the walls of well-funded elitist higher education – despite half of all places being reserved for low-income students.

“We have a highly competitive, prestigious public sector, and a very profit-oriented private sector. We need to change this or we’ll have a divide between those institutions for the poor, and those for the rich. This is a challenge for many in the Global South.”

Professor de Wit said evidence of success from an institutional point of view is rated by ‘terrible things like rankings rather than the content of the quality of things’.

These, he said, were defined by external indicators that are not based on quality.

Grade inflation

“When I worked in the United States, there was the issue of grade inflation – where students were not interested in getting good quality education, but high grades. These would get them into the labour market.

“In the Netherlands, we had the opposite. Students were not interested in high grades but in completion – getting a degree. We called that the six culture – the grade is from one to 10; if you have six, you pass, and students were happy with that.”

He said the perception of how they saw their career differed between American and Dutch students. An influx of international students from Latin America, Africa and Asia, who wanted a high-quality education, meant Dutch students suddenly had to compete.

Ultimately, “we have to convince students, institutions and society that not just the degree is important but the quality of the education; to prepare them as professionals and as citizens for the world. We have to go back to our original missions – we’ve forgotten about or purpose because we’re in a competitive environment where we compete in rankings!”

Fundamental success indicators

Professor Jansen added that from an institutional perspective, the success of degrees is based on students:

  • What they say when they leave
  • Where they go when they graduate
  • How they lead where they are
  • How often they come back to contribute

Dr Schreiber asked: “What about Global awareness – something we are so much more aware of, since CoViD?”

Professor Jansen said that the University of the Free State required every student to acquire some international experience – whether it was crossing the border into Botswana, or visiting universities in other parts of the world. “We sent them to Asia, North America … for broader experience. The reason? South African students are isolated from the rest of the world, as are American students. It’s part of transforming of changing the way students see the world.”

The international exposure, he said, had a life changing positive effect.

Dr Schreiber read out an audience question: “When you say that stakeholders will define success, would you include industry and employers?

Professor Balbachevsky said the labour market was an important stakeholder in the learning processes of the university. “We prepare people to work in the real world, so we have to have some insight from industry and the labour market.” She said a tradition inside university culture shunned real engagement from the labour market, erroneously thinking it only produced academics in a rarefied environment.

Professor De Wit said it was important to define the labour market. “Sometimes we ask big multinationals to provide input but forget about local industries and small and medium companies. Most of the students are going to work in a local or national environment – but remember, local industry also needs skills that allow participation in international markets.”

Professor Jansen said it was important to listen to industry partners critically. “University education makes you competent in the assigned curriculum but also prepares teachers to ask questions like what else can we teach? What is missing?

What would the experts change?

Rounding off the session, Dr Shreiber asked each speaker what they would change if they had a magic wand.

Professor Balbachevsky would help overcome the hierarchical design of universities in Brazil. “It’s as important for the students as it is for the society. As long as we continue with totally unconnected systems with separate institutions for the poor and the rich, higher education will fail.”

Professor De Wit countered by saying while getting rid of the hierarchy creates a much more competitive environment, it is not in the interest of quality, student success and of society. “We need to cherish the diversity of the higher education system. Not all institutions can be and should be world-class institutions. We need different kinds that relate to the labour market and to society in a different way.

“I’ve seen community colleges in the United States which are playing an important role in bringing in first-generation, low-income and rural students into the higher education system. I say let’s get rid of hierarchy but at the same time recognise the importance of diversity in relation to students’ success.”

Professor Jansen wants to see more of a sense of compassion, of brotherhood and sisterhood, of a broader sense of responsibility.

“Then the university doesn’t simply replicate what other institutions do – the home, the school, the church, the mosque, and the football club – but it adds value to a changing society and a changing world.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.