Financial access is extremely important for poor and working class students wanting to get a foot in the door at universities. But on its own this isn't a guarantee of success.
South Africa has very poor student throughput (that is, from enrolment to graduation) and low retention rates in undergraduate education. Only 30% of students complete a three-year bachelor's degree in three years. And less than two-thirds complete within an additional two years.
A recent study of students' experiences in BA and BSc degree programmes found that curriculum structure and flexibility can play a crucial role in students' progression and success.
The study traced the influence of higher education on the lives of 73 young people who had registered for a BA or BSc at one of three South African universities. In-depth interviews were carried out with them six years after their first year at university.
We found that most students didn't enter university with fully formed ideas of their interests and strengths. The experience of knowing exactly what they wanted to do, coming to university and seamlessly doing it, was rare.
Our study found that flexibility in the structure of BA and BSc degrees was important. It helped students to find their strengths and passions, and to allow them to change direction during the degree if they needed to. This in turn helped them complete their studies.
In narrowly specified programmes with limited choice or flexibility, students could be left feeling trapped in programmes that no longer matched their interests or strengths.
Curriculum structure in the formative science and arts degrees varies substantially across the country's universities. Some universities offer flexibility of subject choice within the BA and BSc degree structures (taking into account prerequisites for senior courses), or even the choice of a few electives in other faculties.
In at least one university in South Africa, students can select a mixture of BA and BSc subjects, in a very flexible, liberal arts type approach. Including Philosophy in a Science degree, taking Zoology with Psychology, or Law with Geography, allows students to engage with a broad spectrum of concepts and ways of thinking.
Other institutions have more highly specified offerings - for example, a BA in Tourism, or a BSc in Biological Sciences. These sort of programmes were introduced in some South African universities in the early 2000s, in response to a policy move away from the traditional bachelor degree.
This was intended to make undergraduate degrees more "relevant" and to lead more directly to particular employment options. In these rigid degree programmes, subjects are tightly specified with little room for choice of elective modules or for curriculum flexibility.
Our study found that flexibility really helped students. This is not surprising, considering that most of the young people we interviewed came from schools that offered limited career guidance. Also, many are first in their families to enter university; they have limited family experiences of higher education to draw on.
Change in direction of study was easier for those in BA programmes, since the BA rules of subject combination allowed for more wrong choices and changes in direction without leading to an extra year of studying.
This is to be expected as the sciences have hierarchical knowledge structures: senior BSc courses have junior courses as prerequisites. Failure in key first year science courses meant that students could be barred from progressing to the second year of study. If there was no chance to retake these courses during the year, a whole extra year of study was required.
So what can universities learn from these students' experiences?
There has already been one significant proposal around curriculum restructuring in South African universities; it suggested lengthening the three-year bachelor's degree to four years. This is unlikely to be adopted given the current financial pressures on the country's higher education sector.
But we do think there is still scope to address some curriculum issues our study has highlighted within the current BA and BSc structures.
Universities should know that students don't enter higher education with a full sense of their strengths and interests. A curriculum needs to make some trial and error possible. Professional degrees such as medicine or engineering may need a more specified curriculum, but the relative flexibility in the formative BA and BSc degrees is important. This allows students to try out different disciplines and find their passions.
In a degree with limited choices and, at some universities, very fixed prerequisites, many students fall by the wayside and can't easily get back on track. For these students, mounting debt tends to compound the challenge of academic progression.
The academic year could also be better structured to enable flexibility. Vacation periods could be used for students who need time to resit assessments, repeat prerequisite modules or attend credit-bearing summer schools. This would support students' progression through the curriculum.
A more flexible programme, coupled with strong academic advising structures, allows young people to find their strengths and interests - and to change direction, if need be.
It can also allow them to develop the sort of interdisciplinary perspectives needed to address the key issues facing society in the 21st century.
Universities will need to rethink curriculum structures to enable rather than constrain students' success and progression through higher education.
This is an edited abstract from "Going to University: The influence of Higher Education on the lives of young South Africans" (2018) Case, J., Marshall, D., McKenna, S. & Mogashana, D. African Minds. Available for download here.
The other authors of the book from which this piece is extracted are Professor Jenni Case (Head of Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech), Professor Sioux McKenna (Head of Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University) and Dr Disaapele Mogashana (student success coach and consultant at True Success Institute).