With Grade 12 pupils across the country in the throes of their final exams, one inevitably wonders about next year and where those who pass will find themselves.
The announcement of subsidised free education last year has increased access to higher education.
However, the question we should ask is no longer how prospective students enter institutions of higher learning, but how they exit successfully – with an appropriate qualification that will enable them to start earning an income and contributing to the economy as soon as possible.
I believe universities have a critical role to play in ensuring their students’ success.
It often involves taking a step back and getting actively involved in the schools that supply a new cohort of students every year.
We should not wait until they reach campuses to identify academic obstacles; we should be proactive and do what we can to help improve our school systems.
The University of the Free State has established the Social Responsibility Enterprises, which targets almost 80 schools in the Free State, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape.
The initiative assists school principals with school management, and mentors teachers in maths, physical science, accounting and English to master curriculum content, pedagogy and classroom management.
Mentors visit schools and share knowledge and technology to improve the standard of teaching.
Another important initiative is the Internet Broadcast Project, which aims to take quality education to all pupils across the Free State, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds and the standard of education at their schools.
Schools are equipped with internet broadcasting devices, and lessons by qualified presenters in a studio are transmitted live.
The pupils also have an opportunity to interact with these presenters.
A total of 71 000 pupils in 83 different schools are reached through this project every week – and the impact is far-reaching.
The Free State has delivered the best matric results in the country for the past two years.
However, preparing pupils for higher education is not enough; the crucial factor is how they exit successfully.
University of the Free State’s Centre for Teaching and Learning is continuously developing data analytics to better understand our students and to help them navigate their studies.
Making use of international funding, the centre is playing a leading role nationally in developing academic advising (using predictive data analytics), which helps students match their studies with their career and life goals.
One of the main factors that has been found to inhibit student performance is food insecurity.
Research has shown this to be a challenge faced by universities across the world. In South Africa, our institutions of higher learning have risen to this challenge, responding with efforts in various forms.
A research study conducted by our department of nutrition and dietetics indicated that 59% of the student population suffers from food insecurity.
Many of these students eventually drop out of higher education because of the need to earn an income.
The No Student Hungry initiative, which was launched in 2011, provides students in need with modest food allowances and daily access to one balanced meal.
The programme allows students to focus on their studies without worrying about their next meal, thus increasing their chances of excelling academically.
The food programme is enhanced by the development of an institutional endowment fund aimed at raising capital from business, industry and the private sector.
Teamwork like this is needed on all levels to transform the educational landscape in our country.
As institutions of higher learning, we need to increasingly find innovative ways to become involved in the broader communities we serve – beyond our academic curricula.
In this way, we will finally be able to move beyond the question of access that has been dominating the discourse for so long, and focus more specifically on ensuring that our students successfully exit the post-school system.
Petersen is rector and vice-chancellor at the University of the Free State