Redressing or Reproducing Inequalities? Narrative accounts of working-class students’ experiences of completion and non-completion in South African higher education

  • Mukovhe Masutha

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Post-apartheid South Africa entrusted the country’s higher education sector with a historic and supreme task: to break the cycle of poverty and redress the socio-economic legacy of colonialism and apartheid that has polarized South Africa into one of the most unequal nations in the world. In response to this mammoth task, the democratic government established the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), a national loan and grant scheme aimed at providing undergraduate students from poor and working-class households with increased access to higher education. Regrettably, the rise in access has occurred alongside high dropout rates and low completion rates amongst NSFAS funded working-class students, with over two thirds of NSFAS funded students dropping out without a qualification. This scale of non-completion amongst working-class students undermines the very idea of higher education as a vehicle to achieve a more equitable and socially just South Africa.

Specifically, my study shines the research spotlight on high non-completion and low completion rates amongst working-class students as an ever-present dimension of persistent inequality in higher education , and one that undermines the very idea of higher education as a vehicle to achieve more equitable and socially just societies. With working-class students having largely been theorized through reproductive and deficit lens, not enough attention has gone to the voice from the working-class margins and the value it offers to the higher education transformation project. I examine narratives of NSFAS funded working-class graduates and dropouts, university mangers, policy makers , academic and support staff on their experiences of completion and non-completion and how insights from these experiences can enrich the transformation and widen participation project in South African higher education and elsewhere in the world.

My research illuminates the often overlooked resourceful and transformative side of working-class students, in their journeys to and through higher education. I reconstruct and illuminate a timeline of reproductive and transformative dimensions of working-class students’ origins, their pathways en route higher education and higher education experiences, and how these phases are woven in ways that hinder and/or enable success in higher education. My findings suggest that theorizing working-class students as inherently deficient presents pitfalls in Bourdieu’s reproduction theory in ways that miss opportunities for transformation. This research contributes to the work of university managers and policymakers tasked with improving working-class students’ higher education experience and to prevent higher education policies from becoming instruments for creating the very inequalities they were designed to prevent.
Date of Award13 May 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorJurgen Enders (Supervisor) & Rajani Naidoo (Supervisor)

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