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Rural pupils continue to experience significant inequalities in access and participation in higher education

The government and the civil society have a shared responsibility to make it possible for rural learners to have equal access to higher education, says the writer. Picture: Channi Anand/AP/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

The government and the civil society have a shared responsibility to make it possible for rural learners to have equal access to higher education, says the writer. Picture: Channi Anand/AP/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Apr 30, 2022

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By Naledi Ramontja

Education is recognised as a route out of poverty, however; poor pupils from rural areas still experience distinct challenges in accessing higher education.

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Despite their poor educational background in early grades of school, rural pupils do not have equal access to higher learning – and this contributes greatly to existing social inequalities in our country. The amount of hard work they have to invest in overcoming the educational imbalance that piles up from early childhood contributes to their final grades that determine their entry in higher education.

Lack of information, socio-economic barriers, geographic location and poverty are all contributing factors, which makes it difficult or rather impossible for poor rural learners to access higher education.

The main challenge rural learners face is lack of information including information about different institutions of higher learning, different courses offered and available financial assistance. For many, access to information is important but understanding information is another thing. Language barriers and the standard of education offered in rural schools challenges many learners’ understanding on basic information such as instructions on application forms.

Majority of these learners come from poor families who cannot afford to pay for costs associated with applying for higher learning such as application fees, National Benchmark Tests (NBT) fees, not to mention the cost of data. Paying for data necessary to send an online application cannot be prioritised over having food for many poor families, and that does not mean that education is not valued.

In many rural areas factors such as history of educational background in the family play a big role in terms of access to information. For example, those whose family members have an educational background are more likely to have information, motivation, encouragement, help and guidance as compared to those who do not have any relatives with educational background at all.

This creates a cycle of experiences, where learners from families with no educational backgrounds end up not receiving any higher education at all, and those with better advantage standing better chances to reduce poverty in their homes.

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Of course, technology should solve the issue of lack of information, but many rural communities do not have proper infrastructure that supports internet connection.

There are no communal areas, recreational spots, and other central areas that urban areas have that supports free internet connection. Other than cellphones, many rural learners do not have any experience of using a laptop, PCs and other gadgets that simplify the application processes when applying for higher learning.

Similarly, this can be the case with urban learners, but some urban schools have computers and free wi-fi, which can be used to obtain information. There are also community libraries and internet cafes where information can be obtained at a reasonable cost.

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In addition, there are no outreach programs in rural communities, hence learners’ knowledge and understanding about choice of study and application processes is limited.

Recruitment and communication methods used by various institutions to recruit prospective learners affects and determines who gets information, assistance and privilege to further their studies. Many of these institutions seem to target learners in urban schools and schools that are located closer; therefore outreach visits and career days are only conducted in those schools.

In the 2019 State of the Nation address (Sona) President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the government will provide every learner with a tablet; which will contain school-reading content.

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Three years later, this promise is still not fulfilled, yet there are growing digital inequalities and issues related to the quality and standard of education rural and urban; and between public and private schools. The government should ensure that education is used as a tool to bridge this inequality.

Introducing technology at a primary level is one way to do so. Technology has the potential to vastly bridge the inequality gap - and it has become instrumental in mitigating learning disruption caused by Covid-19.

Most universities adopted e-learning to ramp up their learning progress during the lockdown. Sadly, this was practised by students with resources, and those with no resources were unable to engage in online learning; and the worst affected were those in rural areas.

Recently, a number of universities such as the University of the Free State and the University of the Western Cape took a lead by eliminating application fees for first-year undergraduate South African students as a means to eradicate monetary barriers and to promote equal access to higher learning. The misrepresentation and inequality contradicts the National Development Plan’s goal of reducing inequality and improving education for all.

The government and the civil society have a shared responsibility to make it possible for rural learners to have equal access to higher education. Rural schools need quality internet facilities, and other necessary infrastructure to support learners.

The Department of Higher Education and Training can encourage institutions of higher learning to implement outreach programmes that speak to rural communities, and ensure that rural learners receive support and information for online applications as well as career counselling at school.

Similarly, most rural learners need information and assistance with applying for financial aid and student accommodation. In addition, the government should foster Corporate Social Investment in rural areas, where the private sector assumes the responsibility of providing resources in disadvantaged areas and schools. The government should harness support for rural-based higher education institutions, provide resources for academic development, increase their intake and research capacity. By doing so, South Africa will be investing in equal education, that brings value to all regardless of their backgrounds.

* Naledi Ramontja works for the institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg.

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