Mediocrity does not rule, okay?

The standards set for education in South Africa have never been high or equal, according to rector of the University of the Free State Jonathan Jansen. (John McCann, MG)

The standards set for education in South Africa have never been high or equal, according to rector of the University of the Free State Jonathan Jansen. (John McCann, MG)

The standards set for education in South Africa have never been high and they have never been equal. I want to propose an elevated way of thinking about the signals of what we value and count worthy in our schools and universities — about our standards, in other words.

Among the many definitions of the word “standards”, the one I like most is the reference to flags bearing the distinctive insignia of a nation.
That is, the banner we wave proudly in public as a sign to other nations, our competitors in battle, of what we stand for.

The flag is, moreover, the rallying cry for the citizens of a kingdom going to battle, a declarative statement of what we stand for and what we do not.

Although the administrative standards set and achieved for school education have improved significantly — we no longer hear many horror stories of stolen examination papers traded on the street corners — the academic standards remain low despite valiant efforts to set and adjudicate respectable and formal standards for achievement in school subjects.

The moderation of examination papers seems also to have been done against reasonable standards, but it does not appear that the actual marking of examination papers (I refer here to both markers and marking) is done against uniform standards of excellence.

Let me say on this point that all provinces should follow the example of the Western Cape education department and, above the protests of the unions, test the examiners to determine whether they, in fact, have the prerequisite knowledge, both in scope and depth of knowledge, to be trusted with the marking of grade 12 scripts in this high-stakes examination. The apocryphal stories of examiners writing and failing mathematics papers while waiting for the scripts to arrive at an assessment centre are no doubt familiar to many.

Determining capacity
It is highly irresponsible not to determine such professional capacity before allowing teacher-examiners to proceed with these assessments. Bowing to populist and union pressures at this crucial point will further erode an already fragile profession, let alone risk the delicate life chances of the majority of young people in South Africa.

It is not, however, one set of actions or one policy criterion that in itself damns South African schools to the lowest performer in relation to investment in education as a percentage of gross domestic product, or in relation to comparative indices of achievement in either primary schools (literacy and numeracy) or junior secondary schools (mathematics and science). It is the combination of signals that low standards are normative that undermine our efforts at transformation of schools and universities.

A key charge centres on the pass rates required in certain subjects of 30% and 40%. It sends the wrong message to our pupils, our teachers, our parents, our universities and our employers. In the understanding of ordinary citizens, what it means is that you need not master 70% or 60% of the exacting content of the subject in question.

No matter how exacting the internal standard required for achieving that 30%, in common understanding it signals the acceptance of less, rather than more, in how we regard the capacities of our young people.

As an ordinary schoolteacher from the Cape Flats I was lucky to obtain a scholarship to study towards a master’s degree at Cornell University, New York. It is difficult to describe the level of fear and anxiety I experienced as I walked into the education building of this Ivy League university. As I approached the small office of Professor Joseph Novak, I was ready to pass out; I had read in advance the books of this great education thinker so that I would not come across as a complete idiot in his classes.

He came out of his office and said this: “Are you the man from Africa?” I shook my head, too scared to engage him on some minor details about African geography. “I want to give you something,” he said. “This manuscript was due with the publishers last week already, but I was waiting for you to come so that I could have your comments on it.”

That was the first and only time that I wet myself in public. I am sure I wrote a load of nonsense in the panic that beset me over the next few days.

A profound change
It was only years later that I understood what Novak was really saying. Of course I think he wanted my comments; he was too honest not to mean that too. But what he was really communicating was another message: “I believe in you and I trust you to rise to the challenge set for you in this university.” This simple act changed me profoundly.

It is the wrong message to children that we expect so little of them because, as we know from behavioural psychology, most humans will simply perform at the minimal level required. And it is this message of low expectations that students bring with them into university and, in fact, insist on being treated as they were in school. 

It is common knowledge that the number one item on the agenda of university leadership is the issue of failing students and the impact on the finances of a subsidised institution. Because the subsidy is still weighted in favour of “teaching inputs”, as it is called, struggling universities are only too eager to take in larger numbers of poorly qualifying high school graduates, even though the same subsidy increasingly penalises low throughput rates.

Many, though not all, universities then extend the mediocrity of the school system into what we so glibly call “higher” learning.

It is because of their socialisation into low expectations as normative that my own students at the University of the Free State struggle to accept simple new policies such as a 40% “prelim” to qualify for an examination, compulsory class attendance, the withdrawal of mathematical literacy for mainstream degree studies and intellectually demanding pedagogies and assessment in their university education.

It is not that they cannot rise to these higher expectations of achievement, it is that they have become so accustomed to getting away with the minimum over 12 or more years of schooling that universities struggle to restore the faith of students in their own capacity for learning.

The flipside
There is the flipside of this problem too — the situation in which  academics themselves begin to become part of this extension of mediocrity, either as a result of a misguided “help-the-native” liberalism or outright racism. After a workshop I led for all my first-year lecturers on how to teach in higher education, including samples of Michael Sandel’s YouTube lectures, one of my colleagues threw his hands in the air with these words: “It will not work here. This is the developing world.”

There is, of course another consequence for universities struggling to cope with the so-called grade creep from the schools. University administrators and academics know that these marks do not signify success, and so the more serious among these institutions raise their admissions scores even higher. But at what point does this game become untenable?

No serious university accepts the school results without adding another stress test, if you will, to the applications process and decisions on admission — the “national benchmark tests”. A number of programmes, such as medicine, would rely more heavily on a one-time performance in these tests rather than the evidence available on the national senior certificate (matric) certificate alone. This is difficult for high school graduates to understand, but I know of no other alternative, at the moment, to ensure that the students who enter university stand a fair chance of success.

As public trust in the meaning of school examination results remains sceptical, the better universities will find other ways of assessing the potential of school leavers for success in higher learning, making the applications process even more demanding and stressful for the pupils.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is -rector of the University of the Free State. This is an edited version of his keynote address at last week’s conference Standards in Education and Training: The Challenge, convened in Gauteng by Umalusi, the state’s quality-assurance organisation

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