The valuable lessons learnt during South Africa’s Academic Advising journey

Published On: 26 August 2022|

Students want to be empowered to drive their success towards achieving their own academic and career goals. This is where academic advising is critical.

gugu tiroyabone

At last week’s Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme’s Engage 10 event that was dedicated to Academic Advising for Student Success, Ms Gugu Tiroyabone, Assistant Director: Academic Advising from the University of the Free State (UFS), drove home the point made above.  As she gave an overview of the development of Academic Advising as a profession in South Africa, she also shared progress made by seven public universities to date, with the help of a Collaborative Grant from the Department of Higher Education and Training, led by UFS.

She emphasised the importance of understanding just what academic advising is, within the South African context.

According to Siyaphumelela Advising Workstream (2017), academic advising is an ongoing and intentional teaching and learning practice that empowers the student in their learning and development process to explore and align their personal, academic and career goals.

As a shared responsibility between the advisor and advisee, advising aims to maximise the students’ potential by facilitating a conceptual understanding, sharing relevant information and developing a relationship focused on promoting academic success. The envisaged result is that students have a meaningful academic experience while in higher education and feel a sense of belonging to the institution.

advising an international impact practice

Ms Tiroyabonei said two institutions – UFS and the University of Pretoria (UP) – started looking at work of academic advising in South Africa in 2010, with UFS being the first to join the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA), a global organisation based in the US. This stemmed from the work of the South African Survey on Student Engagement (SASSE) which highlighted the importance of academic advising and underlined its importance for student success.

In the early 2000s, the Teaching Development Grant (TDG) offered by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET)  encouraged the development of student support. However, it was only when the University Capacity Development Grant (UCDG) included student advising as one of the “pillars” in enhancing student success in 2018, that advising rose to prominence and started being embraced by South African universities.

The DHET intentionally supported the development of advising in South Africa by providing collaborative grant funding to seven institutions, led by the UFS. The collaborative grant initiative was built on the work in the advising work stream of the 2021 Siyaphumelela initiative. Through the work of Siyaphumelela, a task team was established to investigate introducing academic advising in South Africa.

“In 2021 and 2022 the first round of the collaborative grant to seven universities ended and we are now into its second round, where 14 South African higher education institutions will receive funding for developing or enhancing academic advising professionally at their respective institutions. Meanwhile, the remaining 12 public universities within the sector will have access to the global and national community so that academic advising continues to grow across the country,” she said.

“Thanks to the work of the task team, we defined academic advising and started to position it as a teaching and learning process that empowers the student but, most importantly, looks at addressing and aligning the success of students through the lens of personal, academic and career goals. We are no longer just fixated on getting the module marks right but also looking at the student’s aspirations, as an individual. What are their capabilities and abilities? How best do we help them to succeed?”

overall how would you

She shared data from an academic advising module, with input from several institutions, where students were asked about their experiences of academic advising. Nearly 70% of respondents had had an encounter with academic advice which she believes is promising as it indicates that the majority are aware of what academic advising is and what it can do for them. In terms of the quality of academic advising, the majority indicated a positive experience; 25% felt the encounter was excellent and only 4% felt it was poor.

Ms Tiroyabonei shared the distinct journeys of seven of the institutions and their approaches, emphasising that academic advising is not a one-size-fit-all solution: “It’s not that one institution tried out credit load and now that becomes the magic bullet that will solve academic advising at all our institutions.”

Milestones realised with the University Capacity Development Grant (UCDG)

She said, thanks to UCDG, these seven institutions were given R400 000 per annum over three years, which tallied up to R1.2 million. They were able to supplement this money through institutional funding. Below is an account of the milestones these seven institutions have realised, to date.

Durban University of Technology (DUT)

  • Appointment of academic advisors to service all their faculties which is a front-line for students.
  • Appointment of tutors, mentors and advisors (TMAs). This allowed students “a middle layer” to approach if they felt intimidated by engaging an academic staff.
  • Advisors worked on Auto Scholar which allowed for curriculum mapping and tracking the progress of students.

Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT)

  • Student academic advisors have partnered with the institution’s internal stakeholders, such as the Student Counselling Unit, and external stakeholders such as the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture.
  • Advising practice is governed by the Student Academic Mentoring and Support Framework. It has become an institutional effort rather than just a faculty or departmental undertaking.

Nelson Mandela University (NMU)

  • Academic advising and success coaching conceptual framework and policy was established.
  • Thanks to this framework and policy, retention rates for first time entrant (FTEN) students in 2021 was 91% which rose to 96% in 2022.
  • Success rates for FTEN students in 2020 was 83% growing to 85% in 2021.

University of Cape Town (UCT)

  • Professional certification of eight staff in academic advising (Academic Advising Professional Development [AAPD] Short Learning Programme [SLP]).
  • Ten peer advisors trained to support students in two faculty-based hubs.
  • The creation of a central helpdesk known as UCT Central Advising and Referral System (CARES) which provides the campus community with a central point of contact for the information and services they need.

University of the Free State (UFS)

  • The development of a Professional Development Short Learning Programme (NQF level 5) with 273 advisors trained across the country. Each participant leaves the programme with a portfolio of evidence which they can use to establish academic advising within their own contexts and communities.
  • The creation of the Institutional Student Support Contact Centre (Graduation Positioning Support) where students are offered help by means of phone calls, WhatsApp Chatbot and email.

University of Pretoria (UP)

  • Peer advising as an extended advising strategy has been formalised.
  • 23 Faculty Student Advisors (FSAs) have been appointed – at one point they only had four.
  • Student advising appointments increased from 3305 in 2020 to 4264 in 2021.

University of the Witwatersrand (Wits)

  • Scholarly contribution including a literature review on advising best practices in South Africa and conference attendance.
  • Biometric scanners to monitor service departments visited by students looking for support.
  • Eighteen advisors have been trained though AAPD SLP.

She also dealt with questions she and other advisors are often asked.

When it comes to face-to-face or online academic advising, is one more important than the other?

“When we started advising, we were adamant that it must be in person. And then the CoViD pandemic came along and we started introducing online platforms. It is critical that at the beginning of the year, you try and have a balance of online and face-to-face engagements with the students. Obviously, online allows us to reach more students while in person meetings are more individualised.

“Just last year UFS saw more than a million messages between success coaches or advisors and students, with the latter coming back at a 61% return rate. We are realising that the multiple forms of expression of advising is critical. It also gives students flexibility.”

One of the big things that underpins academic advising is what we call the concept of academic advising and thus having a curriculum for academic advising with learning outcomes. “You have to look at it both qualitatively and quantitatively so the collection of data is critical.”

How do you track the impact of advising?

“It’s been a painful process that is going to take time. We have negotiated, begged and pleaded with advisors to capture every moment and encounter they have with a student, whether it is a telephonic conversation or a face-to-face appointment. In 2015 to 2018, at UFS we did a longitudinal study reflecting on the students that came for advising and what the impact was, versus those that never came for advising. A central system to collate the information is the starting point.”

How do you advise a student that realises in their first year they are not in their right course?

“At UFS, we have rule that only permits a student to change courses once. It’s really important in that first year to have those conversations with students to understand what their career aspirations are. It’s about the advisor understanding whether there is an alternative pathway is for the student. It is important for us to emphasise that it is also the skills and the attributes that you acquire through that degree that you can fashion to other things. We’ve also got to remember that we’re no longer in a space of traditional careers – we are moving into space of employability and entrepreneurship reimagined.”

Student experiences of academic advising as shared during the conference:

Anthony Monareng (UP student): “When I arrived at university, I was anxious. I didn’t know what to expect. The first semester was rough and I didn’t get the marks I expected. I thought university was not for me. I picked myself up and got the extra help and support I needed (with student and academic advisors). I wrote supplementary exams and did very well. Now I excel in my modules and will graduate in time.”

Kyle Loader (UFS student): “I wasn’t the best of students at school,  and I needed help with motivation and self-discipline. My experience with my advisor has been amazing. She is the person who has made sure that everything is okay. It gave me the motivation to do what I want to do at the end and overcome procrastination. I can go to the advisors and ask them almost anything, not only about academics but about life as well. They motivate me to continue.”

Luzuko Vetezo (UFS student): “I was under academic pressure, and I needed a way to cope. I also needed more help and information with my course. My experience was positive; they were able to pinpoint where my weaknesses were and how to manage and mitigate them. It has also helped me outside my academics — thanks to the skills I have learnt. I am more organised and know how to manage my time. We are using education as a tool to empower ourselves and our families. I go regularly to keep improving myself.”

Prensca Ntilini (UFS student): “I got in touch with an academic advisor because at the time, I was not used to online learning. It helped me adjust to university level study, which was different to high school. I had lost confidence and felt that I was stupid and a failure. I thought people were laughing at me. Getting academic advice gave me the self-confidence to realise that I can make it. It changed my academic experience and made me realise I have potential. I became myself. It makes me have a positive mindset towards my academics. I go regularly; it brightens my mood.”

Tebogo Matlala (UP student): “When I started my university journey, I had some problems. I had transport and accommodation issues and there were language barriers. The university gave me the resources that helped. I can now comprehend what is taught in class. I look to the words of Nelson Mandela: ‘It always seems impossible until it is done’.”

Key findings

Ms Tiroyabone summed up the key findings learnt during South Africa’s academic advising journey: “What we have learnt through the first cycle of the collaborative grant is that the involvement of diverse stakeholders enabled a network of support structures to be created, which has strengthened advising and made departments involved in advising more visible. Students also better understand the difference between student counselling and academic advisors.

“Peer advising is a critical and growing factor for advancing academic advising within institutions. Many students initially want to turn to their peers for advice so we need to capacitate them to provide accurate information and referrals.

“Academic advising is most definitely positioned in the teaching and learning space. We are seeing the evolution of our academic departments and our academic centres of excellence becoming centres for teaching and learning. The training of advisors is something that is expanding and  should include a multi-stakeholder approach.

“Students need to be supported and responded to, not only at a group level, but also at an individualised level.”

The Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme is Universities South Africa’s flagship programme mainly funded from the DHET’s University Capacity Development Programme. HELM offers contextual and tailored leadership and management programmes for emerging, middle, and senior managers in universities to enhance their work performance, facilitate professional development and accelerate career advancement.  The programme hosts monthly engagement events under the banner HELM Engage to dissect and lead discussions on topics of interest in the higher education sector. HELM Engage 10 was intended to demonstrate how academic advising can catalyse student success and enhance the effective use of student support services, thus improving institutional effectiveness.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.