Alternative Access to Tertiary Science Study in South Africa: Dealing with ‘Disadvantage’, Student Diversity, and Discrepancies in Graduate Success

  • Nicola F. Kirby
  • Edith R. Dempster


The legacy of the inequities of South Africa’s apartheid past and the shortcomings of the post-apartheid schooling systems have resulted in a particular underrepresentation of Black African graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Extended curriculum programs have been an important mechanism for redress and massification in South African higher education, offering students from disadvantaged educational backgrounds an alternative route to tertiary study. Although equity of access has improved considerably, severe challenges to realizing equity of output remain. Amid increasing student diversity within higher education, a national call has been made to interrogate the performance of extended curriculum programs at a local level in search of clues as to how the country’s educational goals of effective transformation, inclusion and improved science graduate output can be achieved. One such program is reviewed to give context to an examination of alternative access student performance in a mainstream module. The evident success of foundation students in particular relative to the majority of direct entrants suggests that students who exceeded the stipulated mainstream admission criteria by a narrow margin and who experienced further challenges related to their proficiency in the medium of instruction (English) were disadvantaged by not having completed an access year. These findings are considered in light of the growing sentiment in South Africa that the full value of curriculum extension will only be realized when it is taken to scale, becomes an integral element of mainstream provision, and is thus available to the full range of students who will benefit from it.


South Africa ‘Disadvantage’ Tertiary science Alternative access Extended programs 



The first author would like to gratefully acknowledge the National Research Foundation for financial support.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Life SciencesUniversity of KwaZulu-NatalPietermaritzburgSouth Africa
  2. 2.School of EducationUniversity of KwaZulu-NatalPietermaritzburgSouth Africa

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