Where you come from defines your life chances and opportunities. This is true because being rural and coming from a rural area influences how one experiences life in general and higher education in particular. Rurality can be defined using different lenses such as demography, geographical positioning and culture. Other meanings are empirical and ontological. Empirically, rurality is defined as sparsely populated human settlements whereas the ontological meaning is drawn from people’s experiences.

Some of the characteristics of rurality include; farm life, villages; beautiful sceneries of rolling mountains and hills, rivers and valleys; cows and sheep; ethnic languages; indigenous food and vibrant cultures. Rural areas are custodians of indigenous cultures, values, artefacts, indigenous languages and knowledge systems. One is never alone in rural areas. The Ubuntu philosophy promotes communal living and caring for each other. To the contrary, urban areas are more cosmopolitan, affluent, individualistic, and different in terms of human settlement and economic activities. Students from rural areas seeking higher education in urban areas have to deal with the fast life in big cities and transitioning into higher education.

Learning in the rural areas starts at a very early age. Informal learning takes place in homes and other designated spaces in the village squares. Parents, village elders, grandparents, initiation schools, aunties and uncles, religious leaders are responsible for teaching younger members of the society. They teach them about their cultures, gendered roles and how to function as full members of society. The African saying, “when an elder dies, a library has burnt down” emphasizes the importance of the elder members of society. They are very knowledgeable and when they die, they go with it since it is not written and stored away in libraries.

Beyond the beauty and preservation of culture, rural areas don’t enjoy the same level of development as urban centres. They are under-developed and marginalized. Basic infrastructure and amenities that are found in urban areas are scarce. These include tap running water, good road networks, electricity, and access to technology and internet. Getting to school is cumbersome in some areas. Some students walk long distances and have to contend with missing school during rainy season because of impassable bridges. Many of the schools are poorly equipped and resourced. A majority of them do not have functioning and well equipped libraries, laboratories, computers, sporting grounds and equipment. Schools also struggle to attract and retain competent teachers because of the unattractive working conditions. These factors have long term implications on performance, learning and teaching. It is therefore of great concern that learners from rural areas are expected to perform at the same level as students from urban areas.

Some are of the view that spontaneous knowledge that learners get from informal learning and scientific knowledge that is a function of formal learning should co-exist. As it is, the two bodies of knowledge are treated as separate entities and the one is viewed as more superior to the other. Students from rural areas and working class communities suffer symbolic violence throughout their learning trajectories. Their lived experiences, norms, values and languages are incongruent with the culture and expectations in institutions of learning and curriculum. As a result, a majority of them struggle to adjust and excel in education. Statistically, those who struggle to complete their courses in good time, drop out or have low throughput rates come from this group of students.

This does not mean that a majority of students from urban areas are privileged and less challenged. Contrary to this view, there is overwhelming evidence indicating that privilege and marginalization exist side by side in urban areas. Learning is experienced differently depending on socio-economic factors which influence decisions on whether one attends school in a fortified or exposed teaching and learning environment. Fortified (privileged) teaching and learning environments are portrayed as being more secure, are stress free, motivate learners and offer adequate support morally and materially. These are crucial in enabling a student to succeed in their academic careers. Exposed (under-privileged) learning and teaching environments are fundamentally different from fortified sites. They are perceived to be insecure, have very few facilities and do not offer adequate support to the learners. The success rate in such environments is very low although some students overcome their disadvantages and succeed against all odds.

Securing a place in higher education is very prestigious. It marks a very important stage in the lives of young people. It signals growth, independence, better life and good jobs in future. On the overall, it’s an opportunity for upward mobility especially for students from impoverished communities. Equipped with a richness of rural experiences and confidence, students from rural areas come to higher education with valid dreams. But they struggle with transitioning because of the hurdles hey have to navigate. They quickly realize that their ethnic languages are inconsequential in learning and teaching. Those who attend higher education in big towns find it hard to adjust because everything around them does not resonate with humble village lives. Navigating big lecture halls, adjusting to new accents, learning how to reference and use technology in learning pose new challenges to them. It takes them time to make sense of their new reality and before long, an academic year has ended and they have no grades to show for the years spend in university. In the meanwhile, the village has very high expectations from them. They await the graduation day and the degree that is supposed to transform the whole family. Their dreams of changing their family circumstances fade away.

The reality that many students grapple with is explaining failure in higher education to their families and communities. Some communities invest in bright students by fundraising for their education. This is why institutions of higher learning have to make a deliberate effort to understand and support students from rural areas to succeed. They should take a keen interest in their experiences, their preparedness to engage with university content, their individual circumstances and how mitigate the articulation gap. This is relevant especially now that students are more aware of their struggles and articulating the need to decolonize and reform education and institutions of higher learning. The divergences in the student body should be considered while making considerations for support in order to avoid a one-size-fits-all scenario.

It is easy for those in the margins to be ignored because their voices are always submerged and their stories are told from inauthentic sources. The SARiHE rurality research project is very crucial and timely. It comes at a time when rural students are keen to tell their own stories and share their education trajectories. Already the participants are very excited about the prospects of the project and they see themselves as making meaning contributions to higher education policies and the practice of teaching and learning. Importantly, they want to make it easy for those who will come after them. It is clear that shared experiences bring comfort of knowing that you are not alone. However, we ought to keep in mind that lived experiences also differ greatly in terms of religion, language, class, race and gender. The varied experiences tell a story of humanity. United but also separated by personal circumstances that influence how students access higher education.

By Beatrice Akala
5 May 2017