The obstinate notion that higher education is a meritocracy

  • Simpiwe Sobuwa Department of Emergency Medical Care, Faculty of Health Sciences, Durban University of Technology
  • Sioux McKenna Rhodes University, South Africa


Student success is an enormous concern in light of the high drop-out rates in South African universities. There is a wealth of local and international research which provides complex explanations for these statistics, but the common-sense understanding is that those students who have the right attributes and who work hard will do well. While the notion of higher education as a meritocracy is pervasive, it is invalid given the effects of numerous other mechanisms at play in the students' educational experiences. This article draws from the literature to discuss the problems of the meritocratic explanation in how it fails to sufficiently account for the centrality of agency and the ways in which this intersects with societal structures. We argue that more useful understandings of student success and failure require social theory that acknowledges the complexities underpinning student success or failure.


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Author Biography

Sioux McKenna, Rhodes University, South Africa

Sioux McKenna is the coordinator of a Higher Education Studies PhD programme in the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning at Rhodes University. Her research interests focus on the role of higher education in society, who gets access to the powerful knowledge in the academy and what constitutes ‘powerful knowledge’. She also has a particular interest in doctoral education and postgraduate supervision.