The interplay between structure and agency: How academic development programme students 'make their way' through their undergraduate studies in engineering

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University of Cape Town

The interplay between structure and agency: How Academic Development Programme students 'make their way' through their undergraduate studies in engineering. This study explores and seeks to explain the ways in which a group of Academic Development Programme (ADP) students 'made their way' through their studies in engineering at the University of Cape Town. Underpinned by Bhaskar's realist philosophy of social science, the study uses Margaret Archer's morphogenetic realist social theory to explore the interaction between the university (social and cultural relations) and the students (agential relations). Data was generated through a series of three interviews with each of 12students in the fourth year of their studies and through an analysis of selected university documents. Margaret Archer's morphogenetic approach, which allows for the temporal analytical separation of structure, culture and agency, provides methodological and analytical tools to investigate interactions between their respective emergent properties. It posits that structure and culture predate the actions of agents who transform it. As such, structural and cultural emergent properties condition the situations in which agents find themselves. Furthermore, agents' personal emergent properties, such as corporate agency and reflexivity, allow them to deliberate on their courses of actions. Key to this theoretical approach is the notion that structure and culture do not act in a deterministic way; their properties can only become powers when they are activated by agents' projects. With regard to structure, it was found that the combination of a fragmented curriculum, a shortened examination period, and unfavourable examination timetables all served as potential constraints to students' projects. With regard to culture, it was found that the ideas of mainstream students and lecturers about ADP students exacerbated such ADP students' experiences of marginalisation and exception. Moreover, the study found that the mainly black student enrolment of the Academic Support Programme for Engineering in Cape Town (ASPECT) was experienced by students as racial prejudice. While the findings suggest that students thus found themselves in extremely constrained circumstances, they were also found to have exercised corporate agency and different modes of reflexivity to overcome some of their constraining circumstances. Following an analytical process of retroduction, the study suggests that the ADP, although it facilitated students' entry into the university, simultaneously positioned them within a situational logic of constraining contradiction and as such exacerbated their experiences of exception. Moreover, it is argued that, although the university has made major structural changes to accommodate students from disadvantaged educational backgrounds, the ideas that shape the ADP space perpetuate the view that these students have an educational' deficit'. In conclusion, the study suggests that higher education should reconsider the idea of separate programmes, as their inherent situational logic appears to work against some of their fundamental goals, which are to facilitate redress and to widen participation.

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