Sub-par matric is a ticket to desperation

The desperation of matriculants to get into one of the country’s 23 public universities was tragically evident in the events at the University of Johannesburg on Tuesday when someone was killed in a stampede.

Several other institutions also had a flood of late applicants this week, indicating that the sense of urgency among matriculants to obtain a university place is widespread.

There are several causes of the desperation applicants feel and the pressures it puts on the system. We need to understand these causes and how they interrelate to create the scenes we saw this week.

In his message of congratulation to the 2011 matrics last week, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande referred to the 180?000 university places available to new entrants in 2012. But the real picture is more complex.

To begin with, it is important to be clear about what is meant by a “university place” and what makes students eligible for admission to specific places. The term “universities” now includes traditional universities (such as KwaZulu-Natal, Cape Town and the Western Cape), universities of technology (the old technikons) and comprehensive universities such as the University of Johannesburg and the Durban University of Technology. Although the traditional universities offer no undergraduate diploma or certificate programmes, the other two types of university do.

This blurring of the old binary divide between technical/vocational and traditional university study has undoubtedly contributed to the belief that getting into a university is the only useful and legitimate choice once one has passed matric and is the only sure guarantee of future prosperity.

Understanding the distinction
Making the situation more complex is that candidates obtaining a matric do so at one of three levels: bachelor, diploma or higher certificate. As their names imply, each of these indicates that a candidate is eligible to be considered for admission to a particular kind of qualification. But the distinction between these three levels is not generally well understood. Indeed, the process of setting the criteria for the definition was somewhat arbitrary, particularly in relation to the criteria differentiating between the diploma and higher-certificate levels.

From the point of view of most candidates, particularly those from schools that offer little guidance in relation to higher-education processes and expectations, the most important fact is whether they have passed or not, not the type of pass. But that is where the problem of raised — and unrealistic — expectations starts.

In the 2011 matric, 120?767 (24.3%) students obtained bachelor passes, 141?584 (28.5%) diploma passes and 85?296 (17.2%) passed at the higher-certificate level. In other words, the great majority of students who passed matric did so at a level that would not gain them admission to degree study. Because only a minority — 39% — of all undergraduate students in South Africa’s 23 public universities in 2010 were studying for diplomas and certificates and not degrees, the pressure on places is clearly at the diploma/certificate level.

Compounding this problem is the fact that many students who obtain a bachelor pass do so at a very low level and with subjects that rule out any hope of being admitted to professional degree programmes. Many of these join the throng trying to gain admission to diploma or certificate programmes, making admission even more desperately competitive.

To reduce the pressure on comprehensive universities and universities of technology in particular, the minister has repeatedly urged school leavers to consider further education and training (FET) colleges. But the scenes at several universities this week suggest that this call has not been heeded.

There are many reasons for the perceived unattractiveness of FET colleges.

First, the basic education department’s message, in its technical report last week on matric 2011, is very different to that of the higher education department’s. The report’s cover picture shows a group of child­ren, youngest to oldest, following their teacher up a flight of stairs. At the bottom of the stairs is a signpost saying “Grade R” and at the top of the stairs the teacher has his hand on a door handle in preparation for ushering his students into a building labelled “University”.

The message is clear: the aim of education is university admission, not FET, learnerships, apprenticeships and the like.

Progressing upwards or taking a step back?
Second, only a small proportion of qualifications offered at FET colleges are at a level above that of matric. The public perception is that going to an FET college does not mean progressing upwards educationally. In other words, it is not seen as an alternative to higher education but as something to consider only if you fail matric.

Making visible the full range of programmes offered at FET colleges, and dealing with the stigma currently attached to registering there, must be a high priority if the government wishes this sector to become a viable alternative. This needs to be accompanied by an improvement in the quality of offerings to counter negative employer perception regarding the workplace preparedness of FET college graduates.

Third, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme has only very recently been extended to include students in FET colleges and it is likely that this is not yet widely known by potential applicants and their parents.

Add to all these phenomena the numbers of school leavers that universities simply do not have the space to admit and it is little wonder that the admissions process is viewed as a kind of lottery where persistent effort might pay off.

Two further issues add to the generally low level of achievement of matric passes and the restriction on curriculum options facing students trying to enter higher education.

First is the curious role played by mathematics versus mathematical literacy. To pass matric, candidates have to take, and pass, one of these two subjects (and only one). The “pecking order” of overall pass rates by province is familiar: the Western Cape or Gauteng heads the list and the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Limpopo come at the tail end.

What is curious is that, with the exception of the Northern Cape, which is very much smaller than the other provinces, the ranking of the provinces according to overall pass rates is highly correlated with the percentage of learners taking maths, as opposed to maths literacy, in each province.

The maths dilemma
What does this mean? From an individual’s point of view, if you choose to take mathematics, which has a pass rate of 46.3%, your chances of passing matric are very much lower than if you choose maths literacy, where the pass rate is 85.9%. On the other hand, if you do take maths literacy, you will not be eligible to pursue many professional programmes in higher education that require maths.

This provides school principals and education officials, concerned above all with the pass rate, with a perverse incentive to shift pupils to maths literacy and must surely be the opposite of what the original curriculum planners intended.

Second, the rising matric pass rate comes against a backdrop of publicly acknowledged problems in the schooling system as a whole. For instance, last year, six million learners in primary schools were tested for their language and mathematics ability.

The percentage of learners reaching the “achieved” level of performance varied from 12% to 31%. This is but one indication that matric pass rates have risen dramatically (about 10%) in the past two years with little evidence of a real rise in schooling achievement overall.

In turn, the pressure has increased on universities that admit students with the lower level of matric passes, with this week’s tragic consequences.

Professor Nan Yeld is dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town.

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