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  • Student Engagement in South African Higher Education
  • Matthew R. Wawrzynski (bio), Ashleigh M. Heck (bio), and Christopher T. Remley (bio)

The relationship between student engagement and student outcome achievement is well documented in the higher education literature for US students (Astin, 1993; Kuh, 2003; Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2005; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005) and has recently gained traction for students in other countries such as Australia (Krause, 2007a, 2007b; Krause & Coates, 2008; Krause, Hartley, James, & McInnis, 2005), New Zealand (Leach & Zepke, n.d.; van der Meer, 2009; van der Meer & Scott, 2009), Malaysia (Azman, Ali, & Jelas, n.d.), and England (Mann, 2001; Yorke & Longden, 2008). Yet, few studies have examined this relationship in countries with evolving or restructured systems of higher education, such as South Africa. Student engagement and corresponding barriers may differ across cultures, underscoring the need for research in restructured higher education systems. Further, the instability and ongoing change characterizing South African colleges and universities post-Apartheid suggests that how students engage in and benefit from the college experience may vary greatly from students enrolled prior to Apartheid in the more structured higher education systems of the United States.

Amid ongoing higher education restructuring and reform in South Africa, research exploring student outcomes and the barriers to engagement in South African higher education has only recently appeared in the literature and has mainly focused on intellectual ability as a primary barrier to students' academic success (Cross & Johnson, 2008; Cross, Shalem, Backhouse, & Adam, 2009). Although it is important to examine academic outcomes and their barriers, since the majority of a student's time is spent outside the classroom, it is equally important to explore how the cocurricular experiences influence student learning outcomes. Such research could prove useful to anyone invested in student learning and success and, more specifically, for faculty and administrators in higher education.

Our intent was to fill a void in the student engagement literature by assessing (a) college students' experiences with, interest in, and time devoted to cocurricular activities, (b) student characteristics and perceptions of learning outcomes, and (c) reported barriers to student engagement in post-Apartheid South Africa. Student engagement, a concept originating from Pace's (1982) measures of quality of effort and Astin's (1985) theory of involvement, refers to "the time and energy students devote to educationally [End Page 106] sound activities inside and outside of the classroom, and the policies and practices that institutions use to induce students to take part in these activities" (Kuh, 2003, p. 25). Student engagement also represents how higher education institutions "allocate their human and other resources as well as how they organize learning opportunities and services to encourage students to participate and benefit" from involvement in activities (Manning, Kinzie, & Schuh, 2006, p. 25). The concept of student engagement as a predictor for achieving student outcomes (e.g., cognitive complexity, persistence, academic achievement, and leadership development) provides a framework to examine the student experience in South African higher education.

Recent qualitative studies on student transition and assimilation into higher education post-Apartheid have identified emerging themes about the South African college student experience (Cross et al., 2009; Cross & Johnson, 2008), though little research has been conducted to examine student engagement in South Africa. We examined factors influencing student outcomes at one South African university; specifically, we sought to answer the following:

Historical Context of Post-Apartheid Higher Education

In order to fully understand the role of student engagement in South African higher education and its importance to student learning today, a brief overview of the historical context from which its restructured higher education system emerged is required. After the fall of Apartheid in 1994, South African higher education slowly began what was, and continues to be, a seismic shift in the operation of its colleges and universities (Letseka & Maile, 2008). In March 2001, the National Plan for Higher Education (NPHE) mandated the reform and desegregation of South African institutions (Department of Education [DoE], 2001). The NPHE cited a postsecondary graduation rate of 15% among all matriculating university students and the inefficient structure of higher education as key justifications for an overhaul of the system. Further, the NPHE highlighted the problem of duplicated efforts among historically separate institutions for...


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