Research aims

To understand the practices, challenges and opportunities for students from rural areas accessing and participating in higher education in Southern Africa. We are also exploring how curricula, which remain imbued with colonialism, can be reimagined and reconfigured to build on and value all (including rural) HE student experiences.

Research questions

The research addresses how students from rural areas in Southern Africa negotiate the transition to higher education foregrounding the social and cultural capital they bring and how they are shaped by their home, school and community by asking the following research questions:

  1. How can the complexities of rurality be conceptualised in relation to higher education?
  2. What are the dimensions of rurality as experienced by students transitioning from home to university in the global south?
  3. How and in what ways do students negotiate the transitions from rural home, school and community and how does this influence their trajectories through higher education in Southern Africa?
  4. What are the challenges for students from rural areas facing higher education curricula which remain imbued with colonialism?
  5. What are the practices that shape approaches to learning of students from rural areas in universities in Southern Africa?
  6. How and in what ways do digital technologies, social media and mobile communications influence rural students’ higher education trajectories?
  7. How and in what forms might inclusive and living curricula be developed that build on the experiences of all students, including those from rural contexts in Southern Africa?

Methodology and Plans

The SARiHE project is conducting research over several stages. We have adopted a participatory methodology, which can be argued to be a ‘decolonising’ mode (Bozalek and Biersteker, 2011), as it avoids a deficit positioning of underrepresented students.  

Students from three South African universities – University of Johannesburg, Rhodes University and University of Fort Hare – are participating as co-researchers, working alongside academic researchers.

Co-researchers are:

  • Collecting accounts of everyday practices in the form of digital documentaries
  • Contributing to discussions and focus groups
  • Contributing to data analysis
  • Participating in presentations and academic writing, and publishing both on the website and in print

There are three main data collection stages to the research project:

Stage 1: January – December 2017 – Literature review and synthesis

We are undertaking extensive searches of international literatures and relevant socio-economic data to map existing research, explore how rurality is conceptualised in different relevant contexts, and how it is understood in relation to learning and teaching in higher education.

Stage 2: March – September 2017 – Data gathering with student co-researchers

We are training 72 second-year students from the STEM and Humanities disciplines to become educational researchers. The students will document and discuss together in focus groups:

  • Their prior learning in rural areas and their experiences as university students
  • How they negotiate the transition to university
  • What kinds of social and technological resources they draw upon
Drawings of My Rural World
Examples of co-researcher visual depictions of their learning journeys as part of multimodal documentaries. Reproduced with authors’ permission.

Stage 3: January – April 2018 – Data gathering with academic staff and institutional leaders

We will conduct interviews and focus groups with administrators and academics.

We aim to explore:

  • Varied perspectives on students’ transitions to university learning
  • Examples of good practice
  • How institutions manage access and support for under-represented students
  • How institutions support for students from rural areas
  • How inclusivity and diversity are manifested (or excluded) within the university curriculum and pedagogic practices and where there are contradictions and tensions