The development of agency in first generation learners in higher education: a social realist analysis

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Teaching in Higher Education

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Taylor & Francis


University of Cape Town

This paper reports on the findings of a formative evaluation of the mentorship support programme run by the Maskh'iSizwe Centre of Excellence for recipients of its bursaries. Learning theory traditions have typically been divided into those that prioritise individual cognition versus those that prioritise the context in which learning occurs. In both these traditions, the individual agent is dissolved. This paper interrogates the ontological assumptions held by dominant learning theories regarding relations between individual and society that neglect agency in the learning process. Archer's social realist ontology offers a way forward by reinstating the full properties and powers of learners as agents. Archer's social theory supports theories of learning that emphasise ontology and practice, as well as epistemology. It is therefore suggested that support programmes for undergraduate financially disadvantaged learners ensure that they first develop a sense of personal identity and social agency as a pre-condition for succeeding academically and developing a professional identity.

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Teaching in Higher Education on 8 September 2009, available online: