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Mixed signals at the doors of higher education

A central feature of South Africa’s 1955 Freedom Charter was that, “The doors of learning and culture shall be opened – Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit”. Implementing this laudable goal has been much more challenging than the charter’s authors ever imagined.

In January 2012 at the University of Johannesburg, Gloria Sekwena – a mother accompanying her son who was applying for a place – was trampled to death in a stampede of 7,000 applicants.

In trying to explain the disaster, Vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg referred to the Freedom Charter in justifying the institution’s well-intended access policy of allowing ‘walk-ins’. This year, with no walk-ins, Metro police cars patrolled the gates of the campus to prevent another queue and stampede.

While the doors of learning might be open, they are heavily guarded.

Was the cause of the 2012 tragedy simply a supply-and-demand problem, as the vice-chancellor implied? Unfortunately, the root cause is much more complex.

First, the reason that many students had not applied in time could be because, based on the results of ‘trial’ school-leaving exams in September, they had not expected to qualify for university admission. But final national exam ‘inflation’ suddenly put them in the university market.

Second, it seems that whereas the old ‘school guidance’ curriculum was focused on assisting students to apply for university admission, the new ‘life skills’ programme seems to be more about life and less about skills.

Third, it could be argued that the chaotic arrival at the university gates of prospective candidates has to do with confusing signals about admission requirements, and the availability of learning opportunities.

This, in turn, is the result of structural confusion in a post-school system in transition.

The big picture

What does opening the doors of learning in higher education look like in the bigger picture?

In 2012 there were 647,000 Grade 12 candidates, 511,000 sat the final school-leaving National Senior Certificate (NSC) exam – called ‘matric’ – and 377,000 passed. On a positive note, this was a pass rate of 73.9% – up from 70.2% in 2011 and 60.6% in 2009.

However, it should also be noted that the percentage of candidates who did not write the final exam rose from 12.3% (68,000) in 2009 to 21% (138,000) in 2012 – almost a doubling of the number of drop-outs from the system.

A major point of confusion – among prospective students, their parents and even the media – arises in trying to figure out who among the successful ‘matric’ candidates are eligible to apply for which higher education qualifications in which types of institution.

First, it must be highlighted that, unlike in most other countries where higher education refers broadly to post-school education and includes a variety of institutional types, in South Africa following mergers instigated by then education minister Kader Asmal in 2002, higher education refers specifically to some kind of university: a traditional university, a comprehensive university, or a university of technology.

Second, the further education and training (FET) sector is still in the process of making the transition from the provincial school system to the national Department of Higher Education and Training.

As such, there is still no clearly defined post-secondary school college sector. And the private university and college sector is very small and restricted, with unclear selection criteria beyond the ability to pay.

Third, there is lack of clarity about what the NSC actually provides entry to. A 2005 ministerial statement declared that it is the minimum entry requirement to a university.

In particular, the NSC – which has different combinations of subjects and levels of achievement – provides admission to a higher certificate, diploma or bachelor degree at a university.

Since universities, comprehensive universities and universities of technology can – and in many cases do – offer all three of these qualification types, it means that legally, all students who attain an NSC qualify at minimum to attend a university.

But whether applicants are actually accepted or not is ultimately determined by individual universities, where often the requirements are not clearly stated – and especially not the level of achievement.

The problem of access

Let’s go back to the numbers for a minute. In 2012, 377,000 students achieved the minimum requirements, meaning that potentially 73% of those who wrote the Grade 12 examination qualified for some form of university education.

But how many of these learners will actually get a place in a university in 2013?

According to a senior university planner, based on figures for the previous four years and the combined institutional enrolment planning numbers for 2013: only about 128,000. And this number only includes students from schools in 2012, and not the almost 100,000 who will enter from the workforce, the ranks of the unemployed and other avenues.

Furthermore, while the number who obtained an NSC at minimum qualification level increased by 40,000 – from 334,000 in 2009 to 377,000 in 2012 – the number absorbed into the university system only increased by about 10,000.

So, in the end, only 34% of the learners who obtained a minimum qualification in 2012 will enter the doors of higher education.

What this also means is that 249,000 young people are under the mistaken impression that they could potentially enter the much-desired university. This desire is not unfounded: in countries of great inequality, the returns from obtaining a higher education qualification are disproportionately high.

In South Africa it has been estimated that, in financial terms, a new graduate will earn five times more than a matriculant. And, in the context of more than 50% youth unemployment, the probability of a graduate finding a job is five times higher.

However, the reality is that a quarter of a million qualified school-leavers did not make it into a university in 2013 and are, instead, in a frenzy in the higher education marketplace. This is an appalling waste of talent and a shocking return on investment by families and the state.

Misinformation, contradictions and confusion

Meanwhile, misinformation and contradictions abound.

Education politicians and bureaucrats were very quick to claim credit for improved school outputs – referring to the 73.9% of those who passed the Grade 12 exam last year and achieved a (legal) university entrance. What they don’t tell you is that only about 20% of those students were actually educationally eligible.

Journalists then deepen the misunderstanding by blaming students for not applying in time.

An article in the Sunday Independent on 13 January, by Bongekile Macupe, was a case in point. The opening statement was that “there is no happy news to tell the thousands of students who were turned away from universities this week after failing to register in time”.

Never mind the confusion of the terms ‘applying’ and ‘registering’. The point is that universities were not going to take all those students anyway – in part because there is simply no space for them all; but more importantly because many universities regard the majority of applicants as educationally underprepared for university studies.

The print media’s deception is furthered by the television media which, every year, finds an African ‘superstar’ from a township who, like one displayed on eTV this is year, achieved over 95% for mathematics and physics. In the interview, as do all the superstars, they attribute their success to hard work, goal directedness, and some support from a teacher.

When asked what he aims to study, he replied without hesitation: “Actuarial science at the University of Cape Town.” Such aspirations are appropriate for the highest-scoring learner, and he has certainly set his sights on an appropriate institution and profession for his profile.

In fact, it must be said that at this top end of the market, the signals are very clear, and are probably quite comparable to international practices.

However, the same cannot be said for the rest of the system, as confusion about entry requirements and expectations sets in with the comprehensive universities, gets worse with universities of technology, and becomes utterly opaque in the FET ‘post-school’ sector.

The term ‘post-school education’ refers to an institutional notion of learning and not to an academic ladder. In South Africa, post-school simply means ‘you are out of school’.

Educationally, it is generally understood to refer to the almost 50% of all children who drop out of school between Grades one and 12, plus the ones who achieved an NSC – an incomparable mixture of students and education skill levels.

In terms of the official qualification ladder, the public perception is not that FET is a clear vocational stream, but rather that it is a repeat of ‘matric’, since only 45% of FET college enrolments are post-matric. So why repeat matric when you already have a minimum university entrance?

A ministerial spokeswoman was quoted in the same Sunday Independent article as saying that post-school education must be seen as more than getting a matric and going to university. This is absolutely correct.

However, post-1994 education reforms restricted the emergence of a private higher education system, abolished polytechnics and left FET colleges in the provincial school system, meaning that the only real post-matric further education opportunity is a university.

Of the approximately one million students in post-secondary education in South Africa, only 25% are in colleges – including around 85,000 in private higher education.

Bringing the FET sector into the national higher education sector started under former education minister Naledi Pandor. To his credit, current Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande has made this a priority, to the extent that his ministry projects in the 2012 Green Paper an enrolment of four million learners in the post-school sector by 2030 – up from 400,000 in 2010.

Even if hopelessly over-ambitious, it is the first post-1994 government policy that directly addresses the ‘inverted pyramid’ of the South African education system.

But another urgent priority is to clarify this fog of post-school education and, particularly, the qualification levels and meanings of the FET college sector, for students, life skills teachers, the market and the media.

* Dr Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town. He is also extraordinary professor of higher education at the University of the Western Cape; visiting professor to the Erasmus Mundus masters programme in higher education at the University of Oslo; and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town. He has published widely in psychology, sociology and higher education policy.
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