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Universities, in general, are out of touch with the new-generation student, and bridging this gap can significantly increase students’ chances of achieving success at tertiary level. This was the view of Dr Andre van Zyl, Director of the Academic Development Centre at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), during a reflection workshop held in view of the Tshwane University of Technology’s own first-year experience strategy, called TUT 101. 

One of the main activities of TUT101 is the first-year orientation which was implemented this year across all campuses to assist with the social and academic integration of first-years.

Dr van Zyl was responsible for initiating the First-Year Experience (FYE) initiative at UJ and has spearheaded the South African National Resource Centre for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition (SANRC). The main aim of the SANRC is to improve student success in South Africa by developing and disseminating research in the field of student transitions, with a special focus on the transition from school to university.

CHANGING STUDENT PROFILE
Dr van Zyl stressed that what universities think they know about students does not always correspond with reality and that the FYE movement acknowledges how students have changed over the years.

In his presentation, titled The UJ FYE: An Institutional approach to the first year, Dr van Zyl referred to valuable findings from student profile questionnaires and initial student experience surveys that now guide first-year orientation at UJ. One of these surveys, for instance, brought to the fore that food (or a lack thereof) is quite high up on the list of student concerns, something decision-makers at the university would not otherwise have known.

Several interventions, among others a food bank and a partnership with Gift of the Givers, have since been introduced to address this challenge.

The student profile questionnaire also pointed to a large percentage of so called first-generation students. “You can imagine that they are not familiar with terms such as predicate and professor,” Dr van Zyl said.

“The UJ FYE is a holistic initiative which encompasses all aspects of first-year student experience in the context of an invitational and equitable institution. It comprises both curricular and extra-curricular initiatives, and is far more than a single event, programme or course. It attempts to establish an ethos and a way of life, through which all first-year students will experience the transition into university life,” he added.

UJ has clearly reaped the rewards with this approach. In the last seven years, student pass rates have improved steadily.

During the TUT 101 reflection workshop, academic and support staff got an opportunity to discuss what worked, what did not work and changes they propose to next year’s first-year orientation.

Dr Mumthaz Banoobhai, TUT 101 coordinator, said that it was evident that the successful transition of first-year students to university is a university-wide responsibility. “It starts from students’ first interaction on the day they set foot on campus.”

For more information on the Tshwane University of Technology please contact Willa de Ruyter on tel: 012 382 5352 or send an email to deruyterw@tut.ac.za.