How could I have failed varsity?

South Africa’s secondary education system must find better ways to prepare matriculants for tertiary education. (Delwyn Verasamy, MG)

South Africa’s secondary education system must find better ways to prepare matriculants for tertiary education. (Delwyn Verasamy, MG)

 I am an outcomes-based education (OBE) "guinea pig", in that I was part of the matric class of 2008 — the first set of matrics to matriculate under the then new system. I am also private-school educated and matriculated with four distinctions, one of them in physical science, in my Independent Examinations Board finals.

Yet my expected university graduation date is now two years later than I thought it would be when I enrolled as a first-year student for a BSc in industrial engineering. This is not because of financial problems, or because I dislike what I am studying, or because of any health, personal or family reasons. It is because of good, old-fashioned poor academic performance.

I had never heard the term "academic exclusion" until I got to university. Perhaps it was mentioned in one of my school's life orientation classes, when I usually did my mathematics homework, or was a footnote in one of the rare notes we received about university education and anything related to it. Perhaps my life orientation teacher did not think that any of the girls sitting in front of her, who were receiving top-quality education from one of the best schools in the country, would ever have to read that dreaded word "exclusion" in any formal correspondence from a university that 98 out of 100 of us were qualified to get into.

I only heard the word "exclusion" at the end of my first year, when some of my friends in my class had to appeal for readmission after being excluded. I myself had failed three courses that were a prerequisite for most or all of my second-year courses, so I had to repeat them before I could move on to my next year of study.

I was devastated. I could not understand how I could have failed. I was not a disadvantaged student who was a product of under-resourced and oversized classes. I had constant access to the internet and had the privilege of spending my afternoons drowning in the new books with which the school librarian stocked our beautiful library. When I was not having piano lessons or playing on our lush green Astroturf, I was spending time with my friends in our lavish common room at my boarding house.

As someone who had never seen less than 70% on my school reports and had received a premium education since grade one, I was gobsmacked by my poor first-year academic results. If there was anyone more dumbfounded than me it was my father — dumbfounded and disappointed. A parent does not expect failure from a usually highly performing academic student whose school fees ranged from R80 000 to R120 000 a year.

Although private schools sell themselves as institutions that foster independent thought and that are more demanding and challenging cognitively, we still were inundated with subject outlines that teachers had to follow without fail, and with never-ending reports and assessments that had to be filled in by both pupils and teachers alike. The result was that the administration of teaching and being taught that OBE demanded clouded the feeling of being genuinely taught something.

Secondly, private schools are businesses whose livelihoods depend not only on 100% matric pass rates but also on how high the average pass rate is. So preparation for our final exams was thorough with no stone left unturned. Despite this, we were never taught using the "drill and practise" method: we were encouraged to think for ourselves.

This was in an environment where there were fewer than 15 of us in a class, our teachers knew our names and cared about our development and we were surrounded by superb lab and sports facilities. It is an environment for which I will be forever grateful — and one I wish every child could be educated in: one where a bright but not very industrious pupil like myself could still thrive and be successful academically.

However, university is a completely different ballgame — a game whose rules we were never adequately taught. Perhaps if the life orientation classes that are mandatory in the OBE system had as much focus on university life as they do on sex and HIV/Aids, we would not see such high failure and dropout rates in tertiary institutions.

We were not prepared for the culture shock that hit us when we stepped on to campus for the first time. I soon realised that my school methods of studying were not sufficient to meet the demands of a university workload and its type of thinking. I made the mistake of believing that, even with my partying and missing of lectures, my privileged education would guarantee me a pass.

It did not. Even when I made the commitment to work harder and longer and to stop living a wild lifestyle, I found it hard to adjust to the type of learning university demanded of me. When looking for help I became frustrated with some lecturers' callous "sink-or-swim" attitude and an irregular academic support service.

At the same time, though, I stopped taking my privilege for granted and appreciated it all the more when I realised that my struggle was a molehill compared to some of my classmates' mountains of adversity. These included those who were studying engineering to get themselves and their families out of poverty. Some were the first in their family to go to university and so had no idea at all what the university experience would be like.

There were — and are — some whose struggle with tertiary education is compounded by the fact that they had never set foot in a laboratory or had access to a computer. Whereas I had the advantage of being able to grasp important points in a lecture and read my textbooks with ease because of my privileged education, some of my classmates not only have difficulty understanding the terminology and concepts in our textbooks, but also cannot make impersonal, objective and analytical arguments. They lack basic grammar because they were not taught English sufficiently in high school and were never reprimanded for reproducing work verbatim.

Some have to travel long distances every day to get to and from university and still try to find time for their homework, and some have to work two jobs to pay their university fees. While I have the privilege of being able to drive home and cry in my dad's arms in our Sandton home after seeing my marks on the noticeboard, some of my classmates have to try to explain to their families —whose hopes lay in them to get them out abject poverty — why they lost their bursaries and cannot go back to university the following year.

Private- and state-schooled pupils all struggle when entering tertiary education. Some struggles may be bigger than others but we are all in the same boat. Our secondary education system needs to find better ways of preparing matriculants for university life, including ensuring they are emotionally mature enough for tertiary education.

To conclude, a few words to the matric class of 2012. Congratulations. Your journey has just begun. The road ahead will be a long and hard one. You will face many challenges and obstacles, financially and/or emotionally.

Most probably, your secondary education will have prepared you inadequately for what lies ahead in your tertiary endeavours, whether that is because your private school sheltered you or your state school abandoned you. But do not give up hope. Do not become despondent. Whether you finish in record time or take double the time to get your degree, your struggle will make you stronger, wiser and more prepared for the next stage of your life.

Nomusa Mthethwa is an industrial engineering student at one of the country's top universities and co-founder of the Suited For Success initiative, which provides support to disadvantaged youth preparing for job interviews

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