It is that time of year again when South Africans celebrate National Senior Certificate results, ushering a generation of youth out of the school system and into the world. Of the 788,717 who successfully completed these exams, 186,058 achieved passes that potentially open the doors of university study.
As we read about the results, we take delight in the success stories, like the student from a poorer background scoring multiple distinctions despite having no properly qualified maths or science teacher. Or the rural student who earned a university entrance despite walking long distances to school each day. These achievements should be celebrated, as they are truly exceptional.
But the problem with these stories, uplifting as they may be, is that they often carry a subtext.
“If he can do it, why can’t the rest of them?”
The presumption that hard work alone leads to success – and that laziness leads to failure – follows the student into the university. Here, despite a wealth of careful research that proclaims otherwise, most people believe that success emerges from the intelligence and work ethic of the individual.
In a recent journal article, we have argued that academics often ignore the research on student failure that shows it emerges from a number of factors. Many of these factors are beyond the attributes inherent in the student. Instead, most hold on to the simplistic common sense assumption that success comes to those who deserve it. Academics who hold this view are prone to assume that students are successful because of what an individual student does or does not do.
But the reality is a far more complex interplay of individual attributes with social structures which unfairly affect some more than others.
The lure of meritocratic explanations
There is a widely held view that education is a meritocracy, where success is determined by the merit of the individual. The term was coined in British sociologist Michael Young’s 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. In it, he described a dystopian society stratified by educational level and intelligence. The term has been appropriated to suggest that those who do well at university do so on the basis of personal effort and acumen rather than as a result of their privileged background.
University academics have access to research looking at the complex mechanisms of higher education. Despite this, many are likely to believe that the university is a meritocracy. Believing that students succeed or fail on their own merits sits more comfortably than scrutinising the role universities play in reinforcing divisions in society.
In every country around the world, higher education success most strongly correlates to social class. Parental education levels, wealth, social influence and status are the strongest indicator of university success. But class does not work in isolation from other forces.
Social class intersects in varying ways with race, gender, language, and so on. In some countries, for example, race is used as a means of dividing society and assigning social class. In many countries, gender too plays a role in who gets access to the powerful knowledge offered by the academy. All of these factors and more have a role to play. But it is social class that most consistently tracks higher education success across geographical contexts.
If you did well at university, chances are that you worked hard and you’re bright. But those two characteristics probably account for a much smaller part of your success than most of us would care to admit.
What class privilege looks like
Entering university from a middle-class family doesn’t only confer financial, health, educational, emotional and nutritional benefits. It also provides less visible privileges. A middle-class student probably had role models like relatives who went to university, possibly even the same university, who could explain the university system. It’s likely that they took part in everyday conversations about professional identities, and they could probably draw on social networks to assist them in adapting to university life and then entering the workplace.
The late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that underprivileged students fail not because they are less intelligent than middle-class students but because the curriculum is biased towards what middle-class students are already accustomed to. It is this that reinforces the relationship between social class and success in higher education around the world.
Many of the privileges that middle-class students enjoy are so arcane as to be invisible, even to themselves. These students often bring with them a sense that their role at university is to engage not just with facts but with the disciplinary rules for how knowledge gets made. Typically they are willing to challenge what is presented to them and to seek flaws in the evidence provided in the texts they encounter. They also have a stronger confidence in their right to be there and to participate fully. These, and many other ways, aid middle-class students to enter the academy primed for success.
What needs to happen?
Academics who are committed to social justice often have to grapple with the fact that the university does not reward students on the basis of merit so much as on privilege. This calls for teaching in ways that constantly seek to make the expectations of the classroom transparent and the disciplinary norms and values explicit.
Teachers need to make these practices clear to students and, in the process, harness students’ agency to craft their own place in the world and their own contribution to knowledge. Regular feedback on student work, for example, allows students to begin to see what counts as knowledge in the particular discipline.
It is also important to expose academic practices to scrutiny. Increasingly the academy is being challenged to consider forms of knowledge long omitted by the colonial order.
The university promises society that it will produce both powerful knowledge and competent graduates adept at using such knowledge to tackle societal and environmental problems. But not all university practices are inherently powerful and much powerful knowledge remains outside its walls.
If some students enter the university with easier access to the practices needed for success, nobody can pretend that institutions are a meritocracy rewarding attributes inherent in the individual. Understanding the complex relationship between social class and educational success requires that educators reconsider almost all aspects of their teaching.