Cultural signals in understanding firt-year student engagement: How can universities become more culturally sensitive? The case of a rural South African university

Keywords: Cultural signals, cultural repertoires, cultural orientation, integration, student engagement, cultural capital, academic performance and academic success


High levels of student engagement, particularly in first-year university students are associated with a wide range of educational practices and conditions including students’ social and academic integration into the institutions of higher education. These educational practices link student engagement with students’ performance to students’ academic achievement leading to graduate throughputs. The study sought to understand first-year student experiences of the university’s ability to provide an academic environment that is conducive and responsive to learning for students with unique characteristics. Data were generated from first-year students enrolled for a Bachelor of Education degree in a rural South African University using focus group interviews with students that were purposively selected from this cohort using areas of specialization as the criteria. Also, one-on-one interviews were conducted with students that had performed well in their examinations as well as those that did not perform so well. The results revealed that students’ cultural orientations are a precursor of how student would thrive in their academic journey and that students’ cultural repertoires influence the extent to which students integrate and engage both academically and socially into the university environment. In this article, we argue that students’ cultural orientations have implications in their academic performance and social integration in their first year of study at university. This article contributes to the ongoing research agenda of student engagement, academic success, first-year student experience and throughput employing students’ cultural signals as another dimension to understand such critical phenomena.

Author Biographies

J. S. Mkhize, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban

Lecturer, University of  KwaZulu Natal, School of Education in the discipline of Adult Education.


L. Ramrathan, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban

School of Education


Axelson, R. D. and A. Flick. 2011. “Defining Student Engagement.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 43(1): 38‒43. DOI: 10.1080/00091383.2011.533096. 28 March 2014, At: 05:26.

Badat, S. 2010. “The challenges of transformation in higher education and training institutions in South Africa.” Development Bank of Southern Africa, 8.

Bourdieu, P. 1992. Language and symbolic power. Harvard University Press.

Boyd, B. 2008. Art as adaptation: A challenge. Style 42(2‒3): 138‒143.

CHE see Council on Higher Education.

Council on Higher Education. 2016. South African Higher Education Reviewed. Two decades of democracy. Pretoria: Council on Higher Education

Council on Higher Education. 2017. Vitalstats 2015, Public Higher Education 2017. Pretoria: Council on Higher Education.

Council on Higher Education. 2019. Vitalstats 2017, Public Higher Education 2017. Pretoria: Council on Higher Education.

DiMaggio, P. 1982. “Cultural capital and school success: The impact of status culture participation on the grades of US high school students.” American Sociological Review: 189‒201.

Fitzgerald, H. E., K. Bruns, S. T. Sonka, A. Furco, and L. Swanson. 2016. “The centrality of engagement in higher education.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 20(1): 223‒244.

Govender, S. 2014. “Successful access at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa through Ubuntu: The student voice.” Indilinga African Journal of Indigenous Knowledge Systems 13(1): 11‒27.

Hlengwa, A., S. McKenna, and T. Njovane. 2018. “The lenses we use to research student experiences.” Higher Education Pathways: 149.

Kahu, E. R. and K. Nelson. 2018. “Student engagement in the educational interface: Understanding the mechanisms of student success.” Higher Education Research & Development 37(1): 58‒71.

Keesing, R. M. 1974. “Theories of culture.” Annual Review of Anthropology 3: 73‒97.

Krause, K. L. and H. Coates. 2008. “Students’ engagement in first‐year university.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 33(5): 493‒505.

Kroeber, A. L. and C. Kluckhohn. 1952. Culture: A critical review of concepts and definitions. Papers. Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard University.

Kuh, G. D. 2006. “Built to Engage: Liberal Arts Colleges and Effective Educational Practice.” In Liberal Arts Colleges in American Higher Education (ACLS Occasional Paper), ed. F. Oakley, 122‒150. New York: American Council of Learned Societies.

Kuh, George D., Ty M. Cruce, Rick Shoup, Jillian Kinzie, and Robert M. Gonyea. 2008. “Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence.” The Journal of Higher Education 79(5): 540‒563. DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2008.11772116.

Letseka, M. and S. Maile. 2008. High university drop-out rates: A threat to South Africa’s future. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council.

McGhie, V. F. 2012. Factors impacting on first-year students’ academic progress at a South African university. Doctoral dissertation, Stellenbosch University.

McKay, J. and M. Devlin. 2016. “‘Low income doesn’t mean stupid and destined for failure’: challenging the deficit discourse around students from low SES backgrounds in higher education.” International Journal of Inclusive Education 20(4): 347‒363.

Mdepa, Wandisile and Lullu Tshiwula. 2012. “Student diversity in South African higher education.” Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning 13(1): 19‒33.

Meek, V. L., L. Goedegebuure, R. Santiago, and T. Carvalho. (Eds.). 2010. The changing dynamics of higher education middle management. (Vol. 33). Springer Science & Business Media.

Mesoudi, A. 2016. Cultural evolution: A review of theory, findings and controversies. Evolutionary Biology 43(4): 481‒497.

Ramrathan, L. 2013. “Towards a conceptual framework for understanding student dropout from HEIs.” South African Journal of Higher Education 27(1): 209‒220

Ramrathan, L. and G. Pillay. 2015. “Re-imagining and expanding the discourse of student access, through put and drop-out within the South African higher education context.” Alternations 17(2015): 6‒27.

Reckwitz, A. 2002. “The status of the ‘material’ in theories of culture: From ‘social structure’ to ‘artefacts’.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 32(2): 195‒217.

Scott, I., N. Yeld, and J. Hendry. 2007. “A case for improving teaching and learning in South African Higher Education.” Higher Education Monitor No. 6. The Council on Higher Education, Pretoria.

Statistics South Africa. 2012. Census 2011 Census in brief. Pretoria. Statistics South Africa. Cape Town.

Strydom, F., G. Kuh, and M. Mentz. 2010. “Enhancing success in South Africa’s higher education: Measuring student engagement.” Acta Academica 42(1): 259‒278.

Strydom, J. F. and M. Mentz. 2010. South African Survey of Student Engagement. (SASSE) – Focusing the Student Experience on Success through Student Engagement. CHE Publication. Pretoria.

Tinto, V. 2012. “Enhancing student success: Taking the classroom success seriously.” The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education 3(1): 1‒8.

Tinto, V. 2014. “Reflective practice. Tinto’s South Africa lectures.” Journal of Student Affairs in Africa 2(2): 5–28 | 2307-6267 | DOI: 10.14426/jsaa.v2i2.66

Trowler, V. 2010. “Student engagement literature review.” The Higher Education Academy 11: 1‒15.

Van Zyl, A. 2013. “Teaching the students we have: Two perspectives on first year students at the University of Johannesburg and the UJ First Year Experience initiative.” Unpublished Doctoral thesis, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg.

Wacquant L. 1998. “Pierre Bourdieu.” In Key Sociological Thinkers, ed. R. Stones. Palgrave, London.

How to Cite
Mkhize, J. S., and L. Ramrathan. 2021. “Cultural Signals in Understanding Firt-Year Student Engagement: How Can Universities Become More Culturally Sensitive? The Case of a Rural South African University”. South African Journal of Higher Education 35 (3), 107-25.
General Articles