SOUTH AFRICA: University students can't read?

The recent publication in South Africa of the results of pilots of the new National Benchmark Tests - tests which measure the performance of school-leavers in three key areas and aim to predict whether or not they will have difficulty as they enter university - has brought a flurry of outrage from academics and politicians. They are reported as claiming that standards are dropping and students can't read or write. While this sort of knee-jerk reaction to tests conducted at a national level is largely predictable, especially in a country where the school system still experiences huge problems, it is also questionable given research produced in the field of academic development - an area which has long concerned itself with the issue of student 'under-preparedness' at universities.

Entrance to South Africa's 23 public universities has long been problematic because of the history of apartheid. Before the shift to democracy, the education system was segregated along racial lines. This not only meant that black students were allowed entrance only to certain universities but also that the demographic profile of the student population was far from representative of the general population.

Following the 1994 democratic election, the challenge has been to provide access to higher education to the black majority. Since this has had to be done in the context of a school system which continues to serve different sectors of the population in unequal ways, universities have not only needed to identify those students with the potential to succeed but also to identify those who can succeed if some additional support is provided.

Current thinking in academic development argues that it's not just the 'plain old reading and writing' much lauded by 'back to basics' advocates that universities require but rather much more specific kinds of literacy.

Universities require students to make inferences and draw conclusions from what they read, and to use reading of other texts and their knowledge of the world to question what they are reading. This kind of reading is very different to the sort of reading involved in, say, following a set of instructions, finding a plumber in the Yellow Pages or doing the types of comprehension passage taught at school level.

It's not simply that reading at university is more difficult than other sorts of reading but rather that it involves the reader taking up a different position in relationship to what she reads - a position which is ultimately derived from values and attitudes related to what can count as knowledge and how that knowledge can be known. This makes reading in university disciplines and fields qualitatively different to many other kinds of reading. So, there's reading and there's reading.

What the National Benchmark Tests show is not that the South African school-leavers who took the tests can't read and write per se, but rather that many can't read and write in ways specific to the university.

Only about 16% of South African 18 to 24 year olds are at universities and the pilots tested only a small sample of this 16%. The new tests tell us nothing about how the other 84% of young people can read and write yet strident pronouncements about 'falling standards' and the need to go 'back to basics' are made on the basis of them.

As for teaching the students who can't yet read and write in the specific ways required by universities, that's a responsibility which has long fallen to those of us working in academic development programmes. We have come to realise, this isn't as easy or as obvious a task as it might appear.

I have a PhD in applied linguistics and years of experience working in language development yet I can't teach students to understand a natural scientific article or write a lab report as I can't do either of those things myself.

What I can do is teach my own students to read and write in ways my own field of study expects. As I teach my students to make knowledge in the field, so I teach them to read and write in ways demanded by the field. This means that I teach my students how to read and write right up to doctoral level, as demands at postgraduate level are very different to those of an undergraduate assignment.

What I can also do is what the research of Cecilia Jacobs of Cape Peninsula University of Technology has shown that people like me can do - I can help academics in other disciplines understand the ways of reading and writing which underpin knowledge production in their own fields of study in order to open them up to their own students.

Sadly, the lure of an easy solution is hard to resist. So pundits make claims about falling standards, call for outcomes-based education to be abandoned in favour of a return to more traditional approaches, and demand that people like me 'fix' the students. Yet, contemporary theories of language question the assumptions about language on which these traditional models are based.

In South African higher education, moreover, a wealth of research shows that attempts to develop language and literacy in special classes outside mainstream learning have not had the effect anticipated. Despite this research, commonsense and unexamined experience rule - even though, as many thinkers have argued, commonsense and unexamined experience can be very dangerous things.

Rather than knee-jerk reactions to the results of the National Benchmark Tests, we owe it to the learners of South Africa to think much more carefully and ask more probing questions before we pronounce on what should be done in the name of language and literacy development. We also need to explore the theoretical and ideological basis of the pronouncements we make.

If we don't do this, the young people who will learn to read and write in powerful ways are those who pick up those ways of reading and writing outside the formal learning environment - young people who are already privileged because of the educational and social background of their parents and what that exposes them to - while commonsense is left to disserve the masses.

* Professor Chrissie Boughey is Dean of Teaching and Learning, and the previous director of the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. She is also President of the South African Association for Research and Development in Higher Education.