Higher Education… Things can only get better -Tim Phillips 

 

Learners need to be inspired to achieve more. Teachers need to be trained to enable higher quality learning.

 

South Africa, as far as the developing world goes, has a well-structured and very comprehensive higher education sector. There are around 30 public universities and which can broadly be grouped in three categories – Traditional Universities, Technology Universities and Comprehensive Universities.

 

The Traditional Universities are essentially the “red bricks” of South Africa, stooped in history (relatively) and offering the high quality theory-led study programmes, akin to the degree format used in the West (with a price to match). Some of the most prominent schools are The University of Stellenbosh, University of Witswaterstandt and, the jewel in the crown, The University of Cape Town, founded in 1829 and, as recently as 2015, a world Top 100 University (currently ranked 148).

 

The Technology Universities or technikons, are focused more directly on vocational training courses, diplomas and degrees. And the Comprehensive Universities were introduced by the government to broaden the spectrum of students entering higher education. Essentially, a second tier of universities for a second tier of students. Much like the Basic Education sector in South Africa, Higher Education is inherently biased towards to those from particular social and economic backgrounds. Come from a money, go to a good school, get into a good university, get fast tracked to a great career, have a happy life. A simple theory, but not a reality for the majority of young people in South Africa. A youth unemployment rate of over 50% is the only stat you really need to know to see how badly the education system, on all levels, is failing.

 

So the real question here is why is the system failing so catastrophically. Perhaps a good start would be look at some statistics. Student registrations to universities have more than doubled since 1994, with over one million enrolments each year. Of these students 78% are non-white. And of these students 85% do not complete their degrees. Take a moment to digest that. 85% of non-white students drop out of university in South Africa.

 

While there may be a variety of reasons for this… some social and financial issues immediately spring to mind. The biggest problem, in my opinion, is how poorly the vast majority of students are prepared for university during their time at school. Basic Education is failing the vast majority of students, and this is having an unavoidable domino effect of producing leavers unable to cope with the demands of independent learning and life in the work place.

To expand on this point further. The majority of schools in South Africa have a final examination taken by graduating students called the Matric. A number of private schools have now adopted the International Baccalaureate, as it is a globally recognised qualification and enables their students to study overseas without taking an Honors year at university first. But this is a very small minority of all schools nationally.

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The Matric can probably be most closely compared to GCSEs in the UK, and is widely viewed as a pass/fail system rather than being directly graded per subject. Commonly, students take seven subject including math, science and their native language (there are 13 official languages in South Africa. English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu being the most common). So far so good. In order to pass Matric, and qualify for further education, a student needs to obtain over 40% in three subjects, and over 30% in three subjects. This ultimately means students are required a near 35% average to pass. Not exactly ideal preparation when the majority of universities fail any grade under 50%.

What’s more, there is are the critical concerns about the quality of education delivered to students on the path to their Matric, and how the examinations are manipulated for political points scoring. Results talk – and since 1996 the pass rates in matric exams have risen by roughly 25%, which far more students now sitting the exams it must be added. This is powerful political statement of empowering black learners for the ANC. However, as we touched on earlier the cause and effect simply doesn’t add up. If more students are passing their school exams why are so many failing at the next stage, and why are so many unable to find work. These statistics are unsurprisingly included somewhat less in the ANC’s political rhetoric.

It really is frustrating to continually bring race into the equation, but it is near impossible to have a rational conversation about “social & economic” inequality in South Africa without recognising the connection. I have heard arguments to the contrary – i.e. South Africa has an issue with classism not racism – personally think these arguments boarder on idiotic, and show a total lack of perspective and ignorance to historical context. The reality is the schooling system favours white students from more affluent backgrounds. If you pay for a good school, where a teachers’ role is to mould you for university, the transition to higher education is relatively simple. If you have been educated in a township school, where the only real task of a teacher is to try to get you to pass, naturally you are going to struggles when faced with the challenges of university and further education. Right now higher education in South Africa is a social and political minefield. If you want to really get a grasp on how far South Africa has come since apartheid, tuning into the daily updates of the #feesmustfall campaign would be a good start. Something we have not even touched on in this piece.

It ultimately comes back to the fact large scale reforms are required across the education sector. Learners need to be inspired to achieve more. Teachers need to be trained to enable higher quality learning. Schools, across the board, need the provisions to enable learners to maximise their potential. And ultimately the government needs to start viewing learners are people, not statistics, if there is any hope of closing the gap between the top tier of education and the bottom.

Here’s to hoping.