Jansen: Employers dismayed by graduates’ lack of basic skills

Although the matric exam results are getting stronger, the preparedness of pupils for university is getting weaker — resulting in high dropout rates and a poor quality of graduates’ skills, says Jonathan Jansen.

Students are graduating from weaker universities with the same lack of basic skills such as reasoning, writing and computing that they left their public schools with, said Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS), in an opinion piece published in Beeld at the weekend.

This “huge gap between what the school or university diploma says, and what graduates can actually do in the real world” has a negative effect on the workplace, he said.

“We regularly talk to employers about ‘the graduateness’ of university students; I have not yet heard a positive comment about readiness for work.”

Nan Yeld, University of Cape Town’s (UCT) dean of higher education development, said new students “flounder and fail or scrape through with marginal passes” because of failures by their schools to adequately prepare them for university.

More than half of all pupils entering universities do not complete their degrees.

She warned, however that schools are not the only one to blame for the low quality of graduates’ skills, saying universities must to take a hard look at their quality of their graduates’ passes.

A member company in the employer federation Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa) said university graduates are not as prepared for the workplace as they were in previous years.

“They have a problem integrating data and can’t really apply the complex problem-solving skills that are required.”

The company, remaining anonymous, said graduates do not have report-writing skills or verbal communication skills.

“A greater emphasis is placed on these skills at university [but] this is a case of too little too late. These professional skills are learnt in basic education and not at higher education levels and thus, if lacking, are not learnt easily.”

Jansen said the UFS offers a model of “extended education” to struggling students, which means an additional year or two of university preparation. Through support in small classes and intensive tutoring, students enhance their chances of succeeding in the university’s mainstream programmes.

Yeld said many students are being accepted into the mainstream programme because of their seemingly good results.

“The high pass rates and large number of distinctions in matric make it difficult for institutions to determine who needs assistance and should be placed in, for example, an extended programme.”

But first prize would, she said, “undoubtedly be well-prepared students, as there is a limit to what can be done within [universities] to address severe schooling deficits”.

The Seifsa member company said poor quality graduates place an additional training burden on industry.

“Longer and more focused mentoring programmes are required to ensure that these graduates are put through a formal development programme to get them to the level required before appointing them,” the member said.

On the other hand, Loane Sharp, a labour market analyst at the human capital management group Adcorp, said he had not observed a major deterioration in the quality of graduates’ skills.

He was more concerned about the shortage of supply of graduates to business-oriented fields.

“There are nearly 600 000 unemployed university graduates in South Africa, mostly in the arts, humanities and social sciences, whereas the private sector has more than 800 000 vacancies in management, engineering, law, finance, accounting and medicine,” he said.

For universities to “push back against mediocrity” they should increase their admission standards, Jansen said, and combine these with with strong support programmes.

Yeld said universities needed to ask themselves what they are doing to ensure that their graduates can apply their knowledge.

“Universities around the world are more eager to assess their incoming students because of course fingers can be pointed at someone else than they are to submit themselves to such scrutiny.”

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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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