What does student success mean, and how can universities contribute to it?

Published On: 11 December 2023|

Student success at South African universities should not be reduced to a simplistic, one dimensional measure based on grades and academic accomplishments, according to research presented at the Student Affairs Student Success (SASS) wrap-up colloquium that took place in Johannesburg on 28 November 2023.

According to the peer learning group (PLG) E, student success is complex and includes psycho-social and academic dimensions. Higher Education efforts to support student success need to be intentional, designed and implemented on a national scale. Academic support and advising should be aligned to, and integrated into, the academic engagement of students. Students should have the opportunity to track themselves, get “right-in-time” support and be able to access advice when needed.  

PLG E was part of the graduating Class of 2023, of 51 participants in the inaugural SASS programme which is being run by the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme of Universities South Africa (USAf).

SASS is a direct response to a national Training Needs Assessment (TNA) survey that HELM carried out among student support professionals working in Student Affairs, Student Development and Student Support services across the 26 public institutions. The programme content, informed by expressed needs of the surveyed professionals, was conceptualised by a consortium of higher education and student affairs experts, under the auspices of HELM. 

The participants – who had been grouped into 10 Peer Learning Groups (PLGs) – presented  findings from research projects they had undertaken, that were related to the SASS session themes we will examine here. Those projects were focusing primarily on student success and how those working in student support services can contribute towards both students’ and institutions’ success.  

Case study 1: Institutional Alignments: A Comparison of Five South African Higher Education Institutions and their Approach to Student Affairs and Student Success

PLG J explored the organisational structures of five public universities to illuminate the structural underpinnings of Student Affairs (SA) and how these link to notions around student success. This study examined how these specialised divisions that make up Student Affairs and Services in an institution are structured to support and develop both staff and students. 

Using a comparative analysis of the different organisational structures, the study explored how distinct institutional domains are created to advance student success. In some cases, these domains are siloed, which presents challenges for institutional collaboration and resource integration.


  • Senior leaders could encourage collaboration between different disciplines, centres and departments by using reporting and monitoring mechanisms in which Student Affairs and student success feature prominently alongside one another as institutional concerns.
  • Distinct institutional structures could maintain the high-level efforts around what a student needs to have a feeling of well-being and belonging that is conducive to optimal academic performance.
  • Regardless of the approach any given institution adopts, Group J remained convinced that holistic student development is not possible in an organisational culture that separates student development from other aspects of a student’s experience. 

PLG J comprised (from left, above) Mr Asiphe Wakeni, Technology Enhancement Specialist at the University of Zululand; Ms Khanyisa Mabece, Teaching and Learning Consultant at the University of Fort Hare; Dr Graham Dampier, Senior Manager: Academic Literacies at the University of Johannesburg; Ms Moshia Mohale, Academic Development Practitioner at the University of Limpopp and Dr Titus Williams, Acting Dean: Student Affairs at the Central University of Technology.

Case study 2: Unveiling the Connection: A Comparative Analysis of Teaching and Learning Policies in South African Universities and Their Implications for Student Success

PLG C (The Cats), for their part, unveiled the connection between policy and practice, striving to pave the way for an educational landscape where student success is at the forefront of an institution’s priorities.

Dr Gert Young, Senior Advisor: Higher Education Teaching & Learning at Stellenbosch University said : “Our policies take ‘student success’ for granted. They rarely engage with it by exploring notions that underpin the concept and generate sound definitions. Clear definitions are important. From them we derive objectives against which the success of our endeavours can be judged, as well as criteria in terms of which we can measure. Our policies are also not sufficiently explicit about the connection between support and success. In practical terms this means that in our institutions we are developing independent structures that often don’t operate in integrated ways.”


Utilising comparative analysis, the Group found that there was explicit mention of “student success” in the six selected South African universities (from which the team members come) with the term appearing six times in Nelson Mandela University’s Teaching and Learning Policy and only once in the policies at the University of Venda and the University of Pretoria. This discrepancy suggests a potential gap in articulating the connection between educational strategies and student outcomes within certain teaching and learning policies.

The group emphasised the need for universities to adopt a reflective stance, consistently assessing the impact of their teaching and learning policies on student success and making necessary adjustments. Furthermore, a call to action emerged from this group’s research,  for universities to cultivate policies that champion inclusivity, recognising the pivotal role of diversity, equity and inclusivity in providing tailored support and ensuring success across a spectrum of student backgrounds.

Making up PLG C were (from left, above) Mr Freddy Mavhungu, Deputy Registrar: Academic Administration at the Central University of Technology; Dr Kgadi Mathabathe, Deputy Director: Academic Development at the University of Pretoria; Dr Gert Young, Senior Advisor: Higher Education Teaching & Learning at Stellenbosch University and Dr Themba Mthethwa, Deputy Director: Teaching & Learning at the Mangosuthu University of Technology. Also in PLG C, but not pictured, were Dr Nosiphiwo Delubom, Deputy Director/Head of Department: Universal Accessibility & Disability Services at Nelson Mandela University and Mr Mpfariseni Ligudu, Deputy Registrar at the University of Venda.

Case study 3: Not Just A Tick-Box Exercise: The Role Of Student Satisfaction Surveys In Promoting Student Engagement, Leadership And Success

PLG D (The Drifters) explored how students can be more actively included in shaping support services. To that end, the relationship of engagement and satisfaction was explored.  

The research project explained that there might be a risk to reducing student satisfaction surveys to mere ritualised “tick-box” exercises. Instead, institutions of higher learning need to increasingly explore innovative ways of engaging students as these relate to the students’ experience (Explorance, 2023). The research suggested that it is very helpful to invite students to share their views and experiences which can lead to increased critical reasoning and problem-solving. 


  • Students benefit from and value inclusion and involvement. They want to be heard and taken seriously and, while institutions have mechanisms to engage students, these processes might benefit from being improved. Student engagement includes institutions of higher learning providing its students with a variety of tools, spaces and opportunities to express themselves, share, be involved, engaged and be part of shaping the very support responses that aim to promote student success.
  • HEIs have a duty to be attentive and responsive to these expressed lived experiences in ways that are both affirming and relevant – “they need to meet students where they are at.”
  • Students need to see institutional accountability in action.

PLG D included Ms Zoleka Dotwana (left, above), Director: Student Affairs, University of the Free State and Mr Tulani Nkuntse, Director: Student Affairs at the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University.  Also in PLG D, but not included in the photo above, were Mr Yamkela Bewana, Digital Learning Advisor at the University of South Africa; Dr Paulette Naidoo, Director: Counselling at the Mangosuthu University of Technology and Mr Azwidowi Mukheli, Director: Student Affairs at the University of Venda.

Case study 4: Inclusive Student Support Services (Helping Students Achieve Success)

PLG G (the Gleaming Goats) highlighted that Student Affairs in South Africa may benefit from exploring how Global North and Global South notions persist in HEIs.  

In South Africa, where historical injustices have left a profound impact, efforts to decolonise educational institutions have gained momentum. Group G’s study proposed a conceptual framework to explore the decolonised structures and systems and how these promote and hinder student success. 

One of their recommendations was that universities establish a systematic methodology in order to promote inclusivity, cultural responsiveness and equitable outcomes.

Key elements of any conceptual framework should include the following: 

  • Staff and students profile data
  • Curricular transformation
  • Diverse faculty demographics
  • Culturally relevant support services
  • Empowering both students and staff through research and inclusive policies 
  • Community engagement and student empowerment

Peer Learning Group G comprised (from left) Mr Sabelo Peter, Manager in the Directorate of Learning and Teaching at Walter Sisulu University; Mr Zenzele Mdletshe, Manager: International Office at the University of KwaZulu-Natal; and Mr Siseko Mtengenya, Manager: Student Housing at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Also in this Group, but not featured in this picture were Mr Munienge Mbodila, Manager: Student Tracking at Walter Sisulu University and Ms Thato Tantsi, Manager, Postgraduate Funding at Rhodes University.

Case study 5: Taking a Bird’s Eye View: Perspectives from Student Affairs Practitioners on What Constitutes Student Success

The Group self-titled The Executive Eagles (PLG E) explored the meaning of student success through the lens of Student Affairs practitioners.

What is success?

  • Student success is dependent on which lens a student, professional support staff, administrative staff or academic staff member is using.
  • Success includes a wide range of dimensions, including psycho-social and academic accomplishments, these are often located in co-curricular and curricular spaces.
  • Success is not a fixed standard but a flexible and individualised construct that reflects and signifies an individual’s potential and progress.
  • A successful student is one who can adjust to the volatile, uncertain and complex challenges posed by a postmodern society, who can employ differentiated and multiple problem solving skills to manage ambiguous situations on the academic and personal front, and who can maintain hope and employ inner strengths when there are challenges to overcome.

Factors that contribute to success

  • Social justice interventions, i.e. interventions that contextualise students and address issues in the context into which they are embedded.
  • Recognised co-curricular programmes that are integrated to and aligned to the curricular programmes. 
  • Attaining goals, overcoming challenges, enhancing existing skills and developing new ones that are aligned to the goals set by the students.
  • Alignment of administrative and operational services, programmes and student administration, student support, facilities and resource management, information, governance and the integration of financial information into strategies and priorities.


  • Social justice issues and challenges in their context can impact student success negatively.
  • Mental health challenges, facing difficulties, integrating socially, and struggling to manage various aspects of one’s life.
  • Financial constraints and poverty.
  • Career assessment and advising is essential but is often absent.


  • Student Support should offer a wide variety of services in a range of modalities which mirror the diversity of students and students’ diverse ways of engaging.
  • Success is dynamic and continuously evolving. Academic performance alone cannot be used as a metric, hence wider debates on notions of students success are required. 
  • It would be useful to implement support and development practices (both inside and outside the classroom) that focus on principles of universal access and universal design for learning.

Peer Learning Group G comprised (from left) Mr Sabelo Peter, Manager in the Directorate of Learning and Teaching at Walter Sisulu University; Mr Zenzele Mdletshe, Manager: International Office at the University of KwaZulu-Natal; and Mr Siseko Mtengenya, Manager: Student Housing at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Also in this Group, but not featured in this picture were Mr Munienge Mbodila, Manager: Student Tracking at Walter Sisulu University and Ms Thato Tantsi, Manager, Postgraduate Funding at Rhodes University.

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