Negotiating the transition from rurality to higher education in Southern Africa

  • Wisker, Gina (CoI)
  • Timmis, Sue (PI)
  • Lucas, Lisa (CoI)
  • Trahar, Sheila (CoI)

Project Details


This research project aimed to help bridge the knowledge gap between rural schools and higher education in South Africa. Researchers are collaborating with colleagues based at the University of Bristol and the University of Johannesburg. Together, they were awarded funding of £550,000 by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the National Research Foundation (NRF). The University of Brighton had a £35,984 portion of the overall grant.

Professor Gina Wisker led this project for the University of Brighton and it builds on her previous Higher Education Academy International Sir Ron Cooke Scholarship work on ‘Education for social justice, critical professionalism and capabilities’. Professor Wisker is a visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg and this project benefited from a strong and practised collaboration between the three institutions.

Key findings

New knowledge generated
The research has significantly expanded understandings of the transitions of students from rural communities into higher education in South Africa. It has also contributed to the design of linked, comparative work in other Southern African countries through the SAULT forum (Southern African Learning and Teaching Forum), a significant research collaborator with members from nine Southern African countries. The work has also led to new understandings of rurality as multi-dimensional, contextual and relational. We argue that rurality should be understood as multi-faceted and in relation to geography, space, history, power, culture, access to material resources and identity issues.

The research demonstrated the numerous challenges for students from rural contexts in accessing university, including linguistic, cultural and technological barriers and divides. The research also highlighted the deeply rooted historical effects of colonialism and apartheid, which continue to shape the educational pathways of young people in rural areas in South Africa, through severe educational and infrastructural constraints and enforced mobilities. However, what we sought to make more visible, were the rich and diverse lives of students from rural areas, including their extensive cultural and local knowledge, their roles and responsibilities within communities, the importance of familial and community support. These funds of knowledge were critical to successful transitions to higher education. Yet these were often ignored or unrecognised by higher education institutions, making transitions far more difficult.

The research has also identified how university learning environments and staff within them do not always acknowledge or value the knowledges and skills that students have developed in their rural communities or the distinctiveness of their home languages, prior educational experiences and trajectories. This leads to difficulties in participating in teaching and learning and in the social fabric of university. Whilst many of the challenges of widening access were acknowledged in interviews with senior and academic staff, there continue to be powerful structural and cultural constraints and resistance that frustrate opportunities to decolonise curricula and teaching practices. In our study, students from rural contexts wanted to be recognised as key contributors to knowledge production and to learning and teaching activities that are relevant for all students. These experiences have implications for university policies on education and student wellbeing in South Africa, other Southern African contexts, UK and globally.

New/improved research methods
The methodology and methods adopted for the research have made a contribution to qualitative research on lived experience, with potential to assist in decolonising research within higher education. Adapted from previous research by the research team, we recruited and worked with 71 student co-researchers over approximately 18 months. We also conducted interviews and focus groups with senior leaders and academics. Co-researchers researched their own lives using multimodal, digital methods, discussed the research through extensive workshops and published their own booklet for distribution to rural communities. The longitudinal, multimodal participatory study design gave a voice to student co-researchers, thereby avoiding a deficit 'disadvantaged' positioning and addressing the criticisms of extractive research. An open source toolkit, describing the methodological process in detail, is planned.
University of Brighton publication:Wisker G (2020) Decolonising the Curriculum: Some thoughts in 'Decolonising the Curriculum: Teaching and Learning about Race Equality'

Effective start/end date1/10/1631/03/19


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