/ 22 August 2013

Khaya Dlanga: Poor non-white students still marginalised

Too many promising students drop out of university because of a lack of funding.
Too many promising students drop out of university because of a lack of funding.

Robert McNamara, former president of the World Bank, said after a visit to South Africa: "I have seen very few countries in the world that have such inadequate educational conditions. I was shocked at what I saw in some of the rural areas and homelands. Education is of fundamental importance. There is no social, political or economic problem you can solve without adequate education."

He said this in 1982. I suspect some among us may have thought this an indictment on the current government’s work in the field of education. Historically, non-white people in South Africa have been undereducated. But what have we done with this knowledge in the 19 years since freedom?

Some of us found the Council of Higher Education (CHE) report released on Tuesday shocking because it painted a bleak and disturbing picture about the state of education in South Africa. According to this report, less than 5% of black African and coloured youth succeed at university, and more than half of all first-year entrants never graduate. It is sad and heartbreaking to realise that those marginalised by apartheid continue to be marginalised post-1994. Opportunities have opened up, but what is opportunity without the ability to take advantage of it? 

The CHE report says "there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that many students either do not enter higher education, or drop out without completing their studies, because of a lack of access to finance". And this despite the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) receiving R5-billion to help students who cannot pay for their studies. I, too, am a dropout statistic owing to lack of funds. Sometimes, no matter how much a black child wants a good education, a lack of finances and information holds them back.

Perhaps I should give some anecdotal evidence. When I started going to a traditionally white school, I had to be up at 5am to catch public transport and get there by 7.30am. I lived in Mdanstane township and my school, which provided far better quality education, was in East London. In matric, I didn't bother applying to a tertiary institute, because I knew I had no way of paying the fees and neither did my single, unemployed mother. Instead, I lied my way into an advertising school, saying my mother could more than afford the fees (a story for another day). Obviously, she couldn't pay and I found myself homeless while trying to study further. Eventually, I had to drop out. But this is the story of many non-white students and some of us were lucky enough to get ahead despite life conspiring against us.  

Internal political squabbles often lead politicians to focus on the battles that will ultimately allow them to maintain their positions or propel them forward on the road to reaching their political ambitions. They are often more concerned about their political organisations and personal agendas than they are about what they are mandated to do. A prime example is Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, who is more involved in political mudslinging and belittling his opponents than in his department. As long as we are faced with this kind of behaviour, there will be no political will to solve the real issues that face black children. 

Government's National Development Plan clearly states that we have to work hard to achieve the goals it has laid out for 2030. The aims can be accomplished, if we have well-trained and skilled people to carry them out. If we don’t, the plans will remain nothing but a dream. The CHE study "confirms through multiyear undergraduate cohort tracking that, although South Africa has since 1994 witnessed a significant growth in enrolment in both the schooling and higher education sectors, graduate output has not kept pace with the country’s needs. High attrition and low graduation rates have largely neutralised important gains in access."

"It also highlights the resilience of both historical and systemic factors that have combined to put a brake on the momentum of the desire to craft an undergraduate system that delivers on a demanding constitutional mandate to achieve a successful post-apartheid society. People are always at the heart of such successes or failures. The option to desire success drives educational transformations," the report states.

South Africa is rich in resources and even richer in people. We just have to use both effectively. We have the ability to take the world by force and there is nothing that we are not capable of. Unfortunately, we seem to be focused on self-sabotage instead of education for the future – and there is no shortcut to prosperity.

South Africa needs to start focusing 100% on what is truly important. Not just an education for all, but a quality education for all. This starts with equipping teachers and schools, and providing information to communities and children so they know where to go for funding once they complete matric. We need to rethink the way National Student Financial Aid Scheme of South Africa provides funding, and move from a system of partial fee payment for a large number of students to full fee payment for fewer, more promising students. This way there will be fewer dropouts as a result of inadequate funding.

There is no point in providing funds to cover university fees if the student in question cannot afford food and accommodation on or near campus. Even brilliant students are at risk of failing if they are worrying about their next meal or where they will live while studying. And the problems non-white children face when it comes to higher education aren't always financial. Some students are expected to submit assignments online, but have never used a computer because they come from rural schools without computer departments.

Black children start out on the back foot, no wonder so many of them drop out. We seriously have to re-think the way we do things.