The #FeesMustFall protests in South Africa: exploring first-year students' experiences at a peri-urban university delivery site
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Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in South Africa are changing to align their practices to those of corporate companies (Bourner & Flowers, 1997; Morris, 2003). Lately, HEIs have been taking on an emphasis on client service and -experience (Steck, 2003). Consequently, a considerable number of expectations have been raised around HEIs to adequately prepare graduates for the workplace (Ball, 1990; Bridgstock, 2009). Higher Education South Africa (Department of Higher Education and Training, 2016) identified the following pressing challenges experienced by HEIs: large student drop-out rates, low completion rates, inferior levels of school leaver readiness and poor borderline growth as well as poor higher education involvement rates. Additional to the existing challenges, HEIs had to manage the unexpected disruptions that were concomitant with the #FMF protest actions of 2016. Careful examination of the existing body of research on student experiences shows a lacuna in research found on the individual first-year student experience. The present study writes into this lacuna, exploring individual student experiences at a peri-urban HEI delivery site in the light of the #FMF movement. It provides HEIs in South Africa with practical wisdom and input towards improved coping with and managing of future disruptions, such as protest actions, to reduce student turnover and improve the overall student experience and -success. The objective of the present study was to explore how South African first-year students enrolled at a peri-urban HEI delivery site experienced the #FMF protests actions. The study utilised a qualitative research approach (Creswell, 2014) and an interpretive descriptive design as the research strategy (Sandelowski, 2000) to conceptualise the individual student experiences. The research sample (N = 15) was purposefully selected and included registered students at the HEI delivery site who were in their first year in 2016, though some second year students were also included. Data was collected by employing, firstly, the Mmogo method® (n = 11) and, secondly, individual follow-up interviews with two participants involved in the Mmogo method® session and two additional voluntary participants (n = 4). The findings of the present study can be divided among four main themes: (1) clashes between students and police and/ or campus security, (2) impact of the protest actions on students’ lives, (3) psychological experiences, and (4) attitudes towards and needs related to the HEI education system. The significant contribution of the findings is to provide practical wisdom (Tracy, 2010) to HEIs regarding the perceptions of first-year students during times of disruptions such as the #FMF protest actions. At its conclusion, the project provides recommendations for future research.
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