Helping students from rural communities in South Africa to access and succeed in higher education

Supporting changes in institutional practice and national policy to widen participation in higher education for under-represented and marginalised groups in Southern Africa.

Image above © Trevor Samson / The World Bank CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The challenge

Improving access to university education is a challenge that faces the higher education sector globally, and in particular in the Southern African region. What measures can best increase participation in higher education, especially from rural areas, and what can be done to make sure these students are supported to succeed when they get there?

Research impact - Improving policy and practice to enhance higher education access and participation for students from rural communities

Widening participation in higher education has been a major and ongoing concern in South Africa since the end of the apartheid regime in 1994. The SARiHE (Southern Africa Rurality in Higher Education) project, led by Dr Sue Timmis with School of Education colleagues and in partnership with universities in South Africa and the UK (Johannesburg, Rhodes, Fort Hare and Brighton), has shown that one of the categories most marginalised and affected by historical inadequacies is students from rural backgrounds.

This research is having impacts on both national policy and institutional practice in increasing participation in higher education by people who are currently under-represented.

The research has impacted on institutional practices to improve participation by young people from rural areas in the wider Southern Africa region through a partnership with the Southern African University Learning and Teaching forum (SAULT), which includes representatives from South Africa and eight other Southern African countries and has led to impacts on the design of comparative work amongst  SAULT members. Feedback from thirty participants at a SARIHE and SAULT interdisciplinary and methodological workshop in 2017 in Lesotho provided evidence and demonstrated how participants would put the research into practice, and also adopt some of the research methods themselves. For example one participant from the university of Zambia noted that they intend to adapt some methodologies used by SARiHE to advance our own country research’; another from the University of Botswana had gained  a deeper understanding of and a commitment to be responsive to education students from deprived backgrounds and alternative world view in higher education’. SAULT members have developed their own research on access and equity for students from rural contexts, drawing on the SARiHE methodology and knowledge exchange activities conducted in 2017 and 2018.

The SARiHE project has also developed pathways to impact by engaging with national and regional policymakers in South Africa in high-level discussions through an advisory board and government and NGO policy briefing sessions, to impact on national policy on increasing participation in higher education.

The SARiHE project provided the South African higher education sector with both a more nuanced theoretical understanding as well as practical insights into the concept of rurality and how it intersects with their Higher Education experience.  The resulting booklet [authored by student co-researchers] with its collection of perspectives has been made available in a wide variety of South African languages.  This allows academics, student success practitioners, policy makers and student families a rare and important insight into what rurality means in practice and how it further complicates the already difficult transition into and success at university.’ (Dr Andre Van Zyl, Director of the National Resource Centre for the First Year Experience of South Africa, Director of Academic Development Centre, University of Johannesburg).

The project recommended that the South African Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) should ensure that universities have policies and strategies to improve access for rural students, enhance support mechanisms and structures, as well as developing inclusive curricula which recognise the importance of removing colonial and exclusionary practices. A policy briefing paper and research report were distributed through these briefing sessions, as well as through conferences, via twitter and website downloads (see

The project has also had a significant impact on the student co-researchers on the project, helping them develop skills, confidence and recognition. One of them, Rocky Ramaube, a 3rd year Engineering Student, said: The SARiHE programme has helped me in so many ways that I can see [myself] as a better student now. I have gained some knowledge of how to do research and how to deal with people better. (….) My university life have changed for the better as I am now more confident and open to new ideas and ways of life than I was before. I no longer feel like a village boy in the big city but a person in just another place.” (29 October 2018).

These co-researchers have been key to generating impacts of the project in supporting access to higher education in rural areas. In 2019, four thousand booklets including personal testimonies from the student co-researchers and key messages on access and transitions to Higher Education were translated into 11 official languages and distributed in rural areas and are available from the project website ( Rocky commented further on this initiative: ” There are more people who are thinking of going to higher education, because of what they see [is] possible. People have definitely changed their view on the education and what they can achieve through it.” (29 October 2018).  These student authored booklets were also distributed by the National Resource Centre for the First Year Experience at their annual conference in May 2020 to 120 delegates and is available on their website (see

Underpinning research

Significant inequalities in access and participation continue to be major challenges for higher education in South Africa, including representation, academic achievement and completion rates. Against these inequalities and a backdrop of continuing coloniality in higher education, students from rural contexts experience distinct challenges in accessing, transitioning to and participating fully and successfully in higher education.

The SARiHE project, co-funded by the Newton Fund, the Economic and Social Research Council (UK) and the National Research Foundation (South Africa), addressed these issues using a participatory research approach, working with student co-researchers across three universities studying STEM and Humanities disciplines, to document their lived experiences before coming to higher education and as university students. The project worked with these student co-researchers to identify the significant challenges of coming from a rural background into higher education, to understand how students address those challenges, and the benefits of a rural upbringing to university learning.  The research involved 71 students from 3 universities and from homeland (rural) communities across South Africa.

This qualitative, participatory research study provides detailed understandings of experiences of school and home, applying to university and academic and social lives of students once they arrived at university. It pinpoints the ways in which decolonial practices in universities continue to shape the lives of students from rural areas whilst demonstrating student agency and cultural resources and funds of knowledge they bring into higher education. The research argues that such students are misrecognised by higher education systems and practices requiring urgent changes in policies and practices.

The project recommended that the South African Department of Higher Education and Training ensure that universities are:

  • Expanding recruitment from rural schools, developing enhanced outreach strategies that ‘speak’ to rural communities.
  • Collecting access and completion rate data on students from rural contexts and making these publicly available.
  • Addressing the wide-ranging digital, social and structural inequalities faced by students from rural environments.
  • Recognising the importance of removing colonial and exclusionary practices and curricula, and enabling students from rural contexts to participate fully in university life.
  • Ensuring that the previous experiences of rural students are taken into account when designing and implementing learning, teaching and assessment policies and practices

These policy recommendations are all the more important since existing digital inequalities faced by rural students are exacerbated by the current coronavirus pandemic. Digital divides are already stark and access to both infrastructure and connectivity are often severely limited in rural areas. Students from rural communities already reported the difficulties of decoding the university systems they encountered when they arrived since their prior access to technology in schools and at home had been very limited. In the current pandemic crisis, where students, including those in their first year, will be expected to work remotely from home, there are real risks of some being denied opportunities to study.

Key facts

  • The research demonstrated the challenges of transitions of students from rural communities into higher education in South Africa, resulting in inequalities and marginalisation.
  • The research has led to linked, comparative work in eight other Southern African countries through the SAULT forum (Southern African Learning and Teaching Forum).
  • University learning environments and staff within them do not always acknowledge or value the skills, home languages or prior educational experiences that students have developed in their rural communities. This leads to difficulties in participating in academic and the social fabric of university.
  • Students from rural contexts want to be recognised as key contributors to knowledge production and to learning and teaching activities that are relevant for all students.
  • Universities and university policies need to address these education and student wellbeing issues through application, induction, outreach and curriculum changes in South Africa, other Southern African contexts, UK and globally.

Date published

December 2020

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