Dropouts and passes: How far has education really come?

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)


Between government's release this week of its landmark white paper on post-school education and training, and its orgiastic celebration last week of the 2013 matric results, another document rather more modestly entered the public domain.

Released on Wednesday by the statutorily independent Council on Higher Education, it presented the latest audited data on universities. This showed that about half of all students who enter university drop out before they complete their degrees or diplomas.

This trend is not itself news. But the document's publication the day before Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande launched his white paper in Pretoria usefully reminded us of one lens through which to examine the paper.

This lens is that the patterns of university dropout, failure and graduation have remained essentially the same since data reliable enough to measure them first became available about 14 years ago.

This puts the white paper's subtitle – Building an Expanded, Effective and Integrated System – into especially sharp focus.

Losing 50% of university entrants along the path of their studies points to a system that is neither effective nor expanded (regarding both students' access to it and their success within it), and to one that is also very poorly integrated with the schooling that supplies universities with their students.

Fortunately, this week's white paper acknowledges these realities as unflinchingly as its January 2012 green paper predecessor did.

So, too, with perhaps the most socially dangerous post-school fact of all: that the numbers of 15- to 24-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training (the so-called "neets") soar annually.

Estimated at two million in 1996, Nzimande said on Thursday the current figure is 3.4-million.

This is why "we are not only interested in those who got seven As at school ... A strategy is required to pull [the "neets"] out of the doldrums of poverty and misery."

Fortunately also, therefore, the white paper centralises the 2012 green paper's most innovative proposal for rescuing these marginalised millions: the post-schooling terrain will now acquire "a new type of institution", Nzimande said.

These will be "community colleges" that will enrol youth and adults who either never attended school or dropped out of schooling without a formal qualification. They will be multi-campus institutions that group together different public adult learning centres.

Responding to the chronic lack of resources that has crippled these centres, the new community colleges will be fully equipped with full-time staff (itself an innovation) and "adequate infrastructure", Nzimande said.

Elephant in the room
So far, so good. But the elephant in the white paper's spacious room is basic education: we would not have anything like 3.4-million "neets" if schooling was any better, and nowhere near a 50% dropout rate from universities.

For very much straighter talking, one has to turn (again) to the Council on Higher Education. Its hard-hitting but evidence-based report in August last year concluded there is "no prospect" the schooling sector will be able to produce "in the foreseeable future" the numbers of adequately prepared matriculants that universities (and the country) require.

This alone puts the white paper's ambitious target of expanding university enrolment from 900 000 students now to 1.6-million by 2030 in question.

There is no point in increasing access without also seriously improving success. But how the white paper intends to do that remains as radically unclear as the green paper was.

David Macfarlane
Victoria John

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".  
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    • Victoria John

      Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.
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