/ 23 August 2013

Editorial: Government must answer on education

School children.
School children.(Shelley Christians)

Two chilling developments in education this week might appear at first sight to be distinct from each other but, when you link them, they pose some of the most disturbing questions the government has had to face about its treatment of South Africa’s 12-million schoolchildren.

The first was the Council on Higher Education’s release of a 260-page report arguing that the crisis of university student dropouts and failures is so extreme that only urgent and radical tertiary reform can address it (“Damning CHE report on university performance”, Mail & Guardian website, August 20).

The second is that the government has currently allocated only about half the funding it needs to implement its own policy that every school pupil be supplied with textbooks for every subject he or she studies, according to official data we report on this week.

Failing to graduate
So what is the link? It lies in the reasons the CHE’s report gives for urging that undergraduate degrees be comprehensively reformed — essentially, by adding a year to them. “Under 5% of [black] African and coloured youth are succeeding in any form of higher education,” it grimly notes, and more than half of all those who enter university fail to graduate at all.

This dreadful picture has not changed significantly in the past 13 years — since, that is, sufficiently fine-grained data to reveal the picture started to become available. And this catastrophic picture depicts the very best of the school system’s matriculants — the top 25% or so.

Poor preparation at school level is “the dominant learning-related reason” (as distinct from financial ones) for this dismal university performance, the CHE report says. 

The report then delivers its judgment: although the “level of dysfunction in schooling must continue to be the primary focus of corrective effort … the overwhelming weight of evidence from current analyses of the school sector is that there is effectively no prospect that it will be able, in the foreseeable future, to produce the numbers of well-prepared matriculants that higher education requires”.

Fatal diagnosis
This fatal diagnosis is not the government’s, when, for instance, its annual celebratory matric-results extravaganza asks us to believe that the rising pass rate is a solid indicator of ever-increasing schooling quality.

But it is a diagnosis delivered with unusually authoritative weight: the high-powered team the CHE commissioned includes former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Njabulo Ndebele, distinguished scientist Wieland Gevers and former Unisa rector Barney Pityana.

We believe government is now compelled to respond. What is its diagnosis?