Towards a clearer understanding of student disadvantage in higher education: problematising deficit thinking

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Higher Education Research & Development

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Taylor & Francis


University of Cape Town

The combination of massification and increased diversity in student body pose particular challenges to higher education. The paper attempts to contribute to conversations around one of the ‘silences’ in higher education research – the uncritical use of ‘disadvantage’ discourse and its effect on pedagogic processes. It explores some of the challenges of coping with student diversity, with particular reference to a South African higher education context. Students enter higher education institutions with a variety of educational backgrounds, not all of which is considered to be sufficient preparation for the demands of higher education. The dominant thinking in higher education attempts to understand student difficulty by framing students and their families of origin as lacking some of the academic and cultural resources necessary to succeed in what is presumed to be a fair and open society. This constitutes a deficit thinking model: it focuses on the inadequacies of the student, and ‘fixing’ this problem. In the process the impact of structural issues is often ignored or minimised. Employing a deficit mindset to frame student difficulties acts to perpetuate stereotypes, alienate students from higher education and disregards the role of higher education in the barriers to student success. In the process universities replicate the educational stratification of societies. This paper suggests that we need to find more suitable responses to diversity in the student body. These require a change in our way of thinking: we need to thoughtfully consider the readiness of higher education institutions to respond to students, and cultivate the will to learn in our students. We need to find ways to research the full texture of the student experience and to value the pre-higher education context of students. In addition the notion of ‘at risk’ students could be helpful, and the original sense of the concept needs to be reclaimed.