Leadership puts the spotlight on higher education in South Africa–the good, the bad and the ugly


“You have all become complacent with this rubbish we call education. You have become institutionalised by keeping a dysfunctional system afloat.” Professor Jonathon Jansen.

Almost on a daily basis, news and social media headlines blare out the bad news about South African higher education. “Education could do better,” says Science and Technology Minister, Naledi Pandor on News 24. Bus Tech reports “South African education crisis enough to make you weep,” while My Broadband states, “South Africa has the worst maths and science education in the world,” according to the Wold Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Information Technology report 2015 that states South Africa has ranked last out of 140 countries for two consecutive years.

Outspoken Democratic Alliance (DA) politician Wilmot James told an audience in Washington DC on 9 October that it was a “travesty” that South Africa finds itself last in global rankings in educational outcomes, despite education being the single and biggest item on the country’s budget.

“The effect of under-educating South Africa’s youth has placed a physical constraint on the economy, as there are around 950 000 scarce skills jobs that cannot be filled.” These jobs, he said include engineering, health, law and financial professionals, as well as first line managers.

Not only did South Africa rank last in maths and science education in the latest WEF ranking, coming lower than Angola and Mozambique, it was also ranked 139 out of 143 countries at the overall quality of education.

Department of Basic Education Minister, Angie Motsekga says that the idea that the country’s maths and science is the worst in the world is a perception, “as the report is based on opinions by business leaders and should be rather seen as a satisfaction index”.

According to her department there are more rigorous tests of sample learners that show that the quality of South African education is not the worst in the world. “In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science study we are near the bottom, and in the Southern and East African Consortium for monitoring educational quality (SACMEQ), we rank eight out of 15 among more similar countries in the region.”

The DA, who also released its statistics on the country’s maths and sciences results are not confident that learners are achieving, as the numbers enrolled to write Grade 12 maths has decreased from 44.3% in 2012 to 40.8% in 2015. Only 12% of learners enrolled for maths in 2014, achieved over 50%.

Serious concern

“This is a cause for serious concern as maths is critical for ensuring that our learners receive the skills they will need to access tertiary education.”

One of the country’s harshest critics, Professor Jonathon Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State is blunt, having said for several years that government should declare a crisis in education. “You (educators and government) have all become complacent with this rubbish we call education. You have become institutionalised by keeping a dysfunctional system afloat.”

In 2014, after President Jacob Zuma hailed the matric pass rate as ‘’miraculous’’ Jansen opined that the South African education system was a huge fraud. “Government conveniently used these matric results as a barometer of the state of the school system when all other statistics show we have been deteriorating.”

In his latest tirade, while addressing university and college academics at the AGM of the KwaZulu-Natal Applications Office, Jansen was derisive of government’s decision to introduce Mandarin as a second additional language at schools. He said the education base is already weak without adding another language when the majority of learners are already struggling to learn English.

“We need a long-term strategy to get out of this mess and we should be thinking like Singapore who look 20 years in advance at education, but instead we only see tomorrow.” Jansen added that although South Africa has invested heavily in education it has a “lazy culture” in accepting poor results.

Minister Pandor is more optimistic about introducing Mandarin and other African languages, such as Swahili as she says there is a need for these languages in South Africa. However Pandor, who has just presented a report on basic education, higher education, health and science and technology agrees that more could be done to improve the country’s education system.

"While there have been improvements in the National Senior Certificate (matric) results, maths, science and technology results need to improve. The numbers are not yet good enough and much more needs to be done."

She also spoke about extra funding for students and expanding access to technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges. “It was felt (by the ANC national congress) that we are funding trivial courses, such as hotel and dressmaking rather than technical and vocational courses." Pandor also criticised teachers for the poor classroom performance due to absenteeism. “In many disadvantaged schools, learners are not receiving the amount of teaching that they should be getting and we need to crack the issue of discipline and attendance.”

President Zuma also announced recently that he has established a task team to address funding challenges at tertiary institutions. His announcement has been given the nod of approval by vice-chancellors and university leaders.

Many undergraduates drop out of tertiary education institutions due to lack of funding and this is one of the causes of continuing student unrest.

Explore solutions

The task team will consist of officials from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET)‚ the Presidency‚ the National Student Financial Aid Scheme‚ two vice-chancellors representing the leadership of universities‚ two student representatives, as well as other higher education participants‚ to explore solutions to short-term student funding challenges.

"This is a progressive move that will go a long way towards ensuring that there is enough funding for higher education and training. It will also complement efforts that have been ongoing in order to address the funding challenges,” explains portfolio committee chairperson, Yvonne Phosa.

UNISA, one of the country’s 23 tertiary institutes that runs courses and degrees through distance learning has acknowledged the poor pass rates in its institution and is about to let struggling final year students do open-book tests from home, in order to pass. They have twenty-four hours to complete these tests and have to sign a declaration that it is their own work.

This latest move has UNISA academics worried as they fear it will lower the university’s reputation as a reputable university.

After government removed the higher grade pass mark and lowered the pass mark to 30% the matric pass rate dramatically increased. Jansen, who has been calling for the matric pass rate to be increased to 50%, is incensed saying that no self-respecting country would accept this level of mediocrity.

Dave Jenkings, educational psychologist at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth, comments on the low matric exam pass rate, which is in favour of graduation over education, and says this is a “perception thing”.

“There are debates about doing away with (matric) pass marks. An example is Kenya, where passing is not an expectation, but the pressure is on achievement, which is recorded in a certificate that learners receive when they complete high school.” He adds that the massification of education, where everyone has a social expectation of entitlement to a university degree, is an international trend and is not unique to South Africa.

“The idea is that everyone should have a tertiary education, rather than apprenticeships, or career orientated education such as at TVET colleges where practical basic skills are taught, rather than the theoretic education that everyone demands.”

Stephanie Allais a faculty member at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at Wits University also suggests that South Africa should do away with the pass mark and issue learners a certificate “containing simply a list of their grades, without the notion of passing or failing, similar to a system already used in Kenya.”

Allais explains that many countries put pressure on the academic side of school curricula as more learners want to go to tertiary education. But she adds that school curricula are expected to reproduce the working environment.

Useful skills

“A common justification for increasing the vocational content of the school curriculum is that in the past many learners would not have been doing higher grades at school. These learners, it is argued, can’t cope with the academic curriculum of a general education, but could gain useful skills through school.”

While maths and science are not popular subjects at school many learners enrol for semi-vocational subjects, such as business studies (about 40%) and about 20% for tourism.

“These subjects are not teaching them robust academic skills by building concepts and knowledge, or preparing them for work in any meaningful way.”

Allais comments that without quality jobs in defined occupations, quality vocational education is virtually impossible to achieve, because skills and education usually follow economic development, which has not happened in South Africa.

She says that a simple change in the system such as removing the notion of pass or fail from matric could allow for more focused education reform in order to greatly improve the performance of the system.

While debate continues about poor maths and science results, universities like NMMU, says Jenkings are tutoring high school learners on Saturdays and during the school holidays to improve their results. Companies and state organs such as PetroSA have taken a step further in education by starting academies for learners and school leavers.

PetroSA opened a maths and science academy in Mossel Bay at a cost of R1.2million in 2008. Group communications manager Thabo Mabaso says the aim is to help learners from disadvantaged high schools in the region. Tutors and facilitators mentor learners in maths and science after school in specially converted lecture rooms with state-of-the-art IT equipment. The company also sponsors undergraduates at tertiary institutions in programmes such as chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering, as well as petroleum geology.

“The reason for the academy is to enhance learner’s abilities and understanding of maths and science, which we hope will lead to more learners qualifying for PetroSA’s bursary programme.”

Terrence Harrison, group manager for talent learning at ArcelorMittal that has five factories in South Africa, says the company decided to develop apprenticeship programmes of its own after apprenticeship programmes virtually ceased when South Africa entered the new democracy.

“Many state-owned companies either stopped or reduced their training capability and companies decided to wait until the new learnership programmes started and it was left up to companies to generate those unit standards.”

Qualified staff

ArcelorMittal joined forces with other companies to produce more engineers and other qualified staff than they need, who are then released onto the local market.

After 1994, government set up the Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) authorities to increase the skills of people in different sectors. The various SETAs cover every industry and occupation and replaces the Industry Training Boards.

Each sector SETA coordinates skills development of unskilled workers in its particular area. There are 23 sectors, each with its own SETA that focus mainly on apprenticeships, learnership programmes and internships.

The mining and minerals industry Mining Qualification Authority (MQA) SETA is responsible for sector transformation through skills development, sector research and to monitor, evaluate and review the delivery, capacity and quality of skills development in the sector.

Bursaries are also available through the MQA SETA to students enrolled in careers that have been identified in the scarce and critical skills sector, especially those students whose studies are in the core mining sector.

Minister of Mineral Resources, Ngoako Ramatlhodi said in his 2015/2016 budget speech that his department is collaborating with the DHET and other stakeholders through the MQA. “We want to ensure that skills programmes continue to respond to the changing mining landscape by improving on the skills of mining communities and labour sending areas.


Cathy Dippnall

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