SOUTH AFRICA: Poor school results threaten HE expansion

South African universities are expected to expand rapidly in the next few years, boosting the participation of young people in tertiary education to more than 18%. But the institutions will battle to fill seats with students after yet another year of disastrous school-leaving examination results. Only 85,000 of 565,000 pupils, or a mere 15%, who wrote the final exams scored well enough to qualify automatically for university.

The national pass rate in 2007 dropped for the fourth year in a row, to 65% of students who sat the final examinations, called ‘matric’. So while 565,000 sat the test and 368,000 passed – nearly 200,000 failed. The statistic looks worse when it is known that only about half of youngsters who begin secondary school actually make it to the final exams at the end of grade 12: the rest drop out along the way.

While there are pockets of excellence in state and independent schools in South Africa, most state schools deliver sub-standard education because of unmotivated teachers and dysfunctional circumstances.

As a result, there is a perennial problem of not enough well-qualified school leavers entering higher education, forcing universities to accept many under-prepared students. The vast majority of these are from severely disadvantaged backgrounds, so universities have to make up for years of bad schooling by running costly foundation and support programmes.

Universities are able to admit under-qualified students at the discretion of their senates. A decade ago, ‘discretionary’ students numbered only a few hundred but the number is believed to have been as high as 6,000 last year and, with student expansion on the cards, this figure is likely to rise further.

“Universities blame schools for the student problem and employers blame universities. There is a perpetual passing of the buck,” says Patrick Fish, spokesman for Higher Education South Africa, the vice-chancellors’ association. “We are coming to a crunch. If South Africa is going to accelerate economic growth we will need more students, more institutions and more funding.”

Concerned at the funding demands of an expanding higher education system on scarce state resources, the government last year placed a cap on student growth. But at the end of 2007, Minister of Education Naledi Pandor reversed this decision.

It was calculated that if South Africa was to achieve an 18% participation rate of 18 to 24-year-olds in post-school education, which is needed to plug an ever-growing skills shortage, more students would be needed. The goal is now 825,000 higher education students by 2010, or an extra 85,000 students over and above the 740,000 currently in the system.

“This is quite a challenge, even if the students were divided evenly between South Africa’s 23 universities,” says Fish. But this is not possible because of the different capacities and locations of the institutions.

There was some good news to report about the 2007 results. While the pass rate has declined since 2004 to 65%, it has increased significantly since 1998 when it was only 49%. Also, the number of students who passed has risen from around 272,000 to 368,000 in 2007 because of increasing numbers coming through the school system.

And although the proportion of pupils who qualified for university declined from 18% in 2004 to 15% in 2007, their numbers have remained consistently above 85,000. In two fields of critical skills shortage, maths and science, the number of higher grade passes declined but standard grade passes rose significantly.