A research project by the Higher Education and Human Development (HEHD) group at the University of the Free State (UFS) concluded that the inequalities and exclusion of the labour market and pathways to further study must be addressed by wider economic and social policies for ‘inclusive learning outcomes’ to be meaningful. The research also found that universities ought to be doing more to enable black working-class students, especially those from rural areas, to participate and succeed; and that student success (or failure) involves a complex interplay of individual effort and talents and social, economic and educational structures of possibility.
The Miratho project, which was conducted between 2016 and 2021, also concluded that the benefits of a university education should be rich and multi-dimensional to result in functionings in all areas of life as well as work and future graduate study. The HEHD group is led by Prof Melanie Walker, the SARChI Chair in Higher Education and Human Development.
Research project in the HEHD
According to Prof Walker, research in the Higher Education and Human Development group focuses on how or if higher education advances well-being and human flourishing in sub-Saharan Africa as a matter of justice in and through higher education policy, processes and practices and at multiple levels of the higher education system.
Currently there are 16 research and publications projects: five PhD projects, six post-doctoral fellow projects, and five externally funded projects. These include the Miratho project which was funded by the UK Economic and Social Sciences Research Council in their multi-million Raising Learning Outcomes Programme. This is one of only four of 33 projects led by a South-Based PI.
Taken together, these projects and previously completed projects make a substantial contribution to South-based social sciences scholarship, says Prof Walker.
“Researchers in higher education have claimed that our research enables a wider range of credible voices and experiences and that our research generates knowledge that has explanatory power. We think this constitutes significant and useful Southern knowledge, conceptual and empirical, for our higher education communities,” according to Prof Walker.
Miratho research project
The 4.5 year multi-method Miratho research project investigated transformationally inclusive learning outcomes for low-income rural and township youth at five South African universities, two rural and three urban. The research was conducted by Prof Walker, Dr Mikateko Mathebula, a senior researcher in HEHD, Dr Patience Mukwambo from the University of Pretoria, and Prof Monica McLean from the University of Nottingham.
In rural South Africa some villages become stranded during times of floods and children cannot reach schools in other villages. To prevent the disruption of their children’s education, communities build makeshift bridges, known in Tshivenda as ‘Miratho’. These bridges are rickety and it takes courage on the part of parents and students to traverse them as they might collapse at any moment. The research team called the project Miratho, because these bridges symbolise the determination of such students and their families to work together to pursue education for a better future for all, in the face of severe obstacles and risks.
“Framed by Amartya Sen’s capability approach, the team investigated opportunities and obstacles to achieved student outcomes and how higher education spaces advanced student agency, aspirations and well-being. Complex student voices and experiences were foregrounded in the project. The project produced the ‘Miratho Matrix’ with four integrated aspects to map justice and equality, namely eight opportunity dimensions, context and conditions for achievements, material hardship, and the final one; learning outcomes, explains Prof Walker.
The voices of students
Within the ambit of higher education there are social and epistemic injustices which are redressable without waiting for perfect social structures or perfectly just institutions, says Prof Walker. Dr Mathebula says the participatory strand of the research through photovoice was significant in highlighting student voices and bringing attention to how research can promote capabilities for epistemic justice. Publications from the project that demonstrate this include a journal article by Dr Mathebula, on recognising university students of rural origin as epistemic contributors.
The book Low-Income Students, Human Development and Higher Education in South Africa: Opportunities, obstacles and outcomes, based on the project, will be published early in 2022 by African Minds and will be open access. It richly documents the lives of a group of low-income youth across their higher education trajectories, their challenges, hopes, aspirations and achievements. Such longitudinal qualitative cohort studies are very rare.