Equity, access and success: adult learners in public higher education
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Unlike research into access and success for school-leavers entering higher education (HE) in South Africa, very little research has been conducted into adult learners in HE. Apart from generalized, albeit extensive, socio-economic studies on poverty and inequality, including changing patterns of participation in education more generally (for example, Gelb, 2003), there is little information, at the systems level, on ‘deeper’ questions, such as the push/pull factors for adult learners entering higher education, the barriers they face and experience once in higher education institutions, their success and completion rates, and their reasons for entering HE institutions. These issues have taken on a much greater significance than before in post-1994 higher education policy developments that call for the widening of the social base of higher education to include, inter alia, adult learners. In this context, the broad purpose of the research was to find out whether a higher education system that facilitates access, equity and success for adult learners exists or is being formulated in South Africa. One aspect of the research was to investigate the participation rates of adult learners in the higher education system, in general, and to attempt to identify variables (apart from age), such as gender, class, race, marital status and family obligations, employment status and sectors, and funding sources, which may characterize adult learners as a distinct group. The second aspect of the research was to study the ways in which three public institutions – the Vaal University of Technology (VUT), the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) – engage with adult learners as a ‘special’ category of student. This aspect of the study was designed to identify systemic and contextual factors that facilitate or hinder the participation of adult learners, and to provide insights into the nature and quality of adult learners’ experiences of particular institutions and programmes. The questions that framed the research were: • Who are the adult learners in public higher education? How are they defined and characterized? How are these understandings of adult learners reflected in programme design? • Which programmes do adult learners access? What is the nature and quality of these programmes? • Are institutions responsive to adult learners, and to policies advocating an increase in their participation? Why, or why not?