Time to stop blaming schools

The Council on Higher Education’s recently released report, "A Proposal for Undergraduate Curriculum Reform in South Africa: The Case for a Flexible Curriculum Structure", is both well researched and challenging. 

Basing its argument on the low throughputs and graduation rates in higher education, the report argues for the introduction of an extended curriculum – the so-called extended degree proposal. 

In summary, what is envisaged is the addition of one year to the minimum time for degree and diploma programmes. As the report points out, this is the de facto situation for the majority of students in higher education anyway. If one excludes Unisa, which as a distance education provider has different performance patterns because many students register for single courses or to pick up missing credits, only 27% of students graduate in regulation time. That is, 29% do so for three-year degrees, 36% for four-year degrees and 38% for three-year diplomas. 

What the proposal does is articulate what could happen if an extra year was the normal expectation. This would turn the present taken-for-granted pattern on its head. Students would "test out" of the extended curriculum, not "fail into" it. In other words, it would be assumed that students would be on the extended curriculum unless they could demonstrate that they had already covered the initial work, probably through some form of test. 

The report makes it very clear that extending the curriculum should not result in further courses being added, but rather that the extra time should allow for more sustained learning and enrichment opportunities within existing curricula, with particular focus on entry-level courses, "points of transition" and known complexity in the curriculum – the so-called killer courses.

Predictably, the release of the report, showing the problematic performance patterns within higher education, galvanised public opinion once again into anger and dismay. Much of this has been directed at the school sector. It is undisputed that there is genuine alarm and despondence felt and expressed by many people about how schooling is failing the country and especially its youth. But its resurrection in this debate has several unfortunate consequences. 

Most importantly, it deflects attention from processes within higher education itself, shifting blame on to the sector below. The time-honoured response of higher education to concerns about high failure and dropout rates is that fixing the problem of underpreparedness is the responsibility of schools: that it is not the duty of higher education to do the work of schools, and that the increasing recognition of the need for this – expressed for example in the substantial resources being put by the department of higher education and training into foundation courses – is indicative at best of a misguided dilution of what should be higher education’s focus, and at worst an indication of falling standards. 

However, this nostalgic notion of a halcyon time when all students who enrolled in public higher education institutions were adequately prepared, all courses "university-level" and students smoothly made the transition from school to university is not supported by historical data, here or elsewhere. 

Second, the outrage feeds into a naive view of education phases as existing in separate boxes, rather than being interlocked. This is neither helpful nor sensible: in any country or system, public higher education needs to start where schooling leaves off.

The first and most basic question raised in response to the extended degree proposal is whether the kind of far-reaching structural proposal represents the only way forward. If the problem is that we don’t produce enough graduates, why don’t we just take in more students? 

The trouble is that at present a very high proportion of "qualified" applicants are admitted. In 2013, about 120 000 students entered degree programmes, against the national senior certificate ("matric") candidate pool of 136 047 students who obtained so-called bachelor matric certificates at the end of 2012. In other words, 88% of the pool was admitted. 

The problem of numbers is therefore not one of undue selectivity – this is a good yield rate by any standards, and it’s difficult to see how greatly increased numbers would be achieved through this route. The situation for so-called diploma matric pass students is somewhat different. Only 53% of those eligible were admitted (including the bachelor's pass students who did not enter degree study). However, the pass rate within higher education for this group is very low, and only half ever graduate with a diploma.

Given the high admissions yield and evidence that the higher education system is not meeting the needs of the top school-leavers at present, it does not seem likely that growth will come from the school system in the short to medium term at least, and the report strongly makes this point.

The second question is: Could we avoid fundamental structural change by improving the teaching and learning environment? In other words, should the way forward not be through pedagogy – through improving "epistemological access" for all?

Interestingly, the Council on Higher Education’s "quality enhancement project", motivated on the basis of the same data showing poor performance, and building on the experience of the first cycle of institutional quality audits that revealed serious challenges in the teaching and learning area, has chosen this route rather than the structural one. Both this project and the extended degree proposals aim to enhance the number and quality of graduates – that is, the focus is on student success, defined as students who will "graduate with attributes that are personally, professionally and socially valuable". They propose different strategies, however. 

The quality enhancement project, which aims to start work in 2014, after the comprehensive consultative process that is under way is concluded, envisages a process whereby universities will work collaboratively to "identify good practices and solve shared problems", and that the quality of teaching (and thus of learning) will thereby be improved. In other words, the project sees "teacher effectiveness" as the key. 

In contrast, the extended degree proposal views curriculum structure as the"enabling condition" that will bring about more effective educational processes. Of course, the extended degree proposers

recognise the importance of improved teaching, but they see the need for an enabling curriculum framework as a necessary condition for the effective deployment of comprehensive teaching and learning.

What both proposals have been criticised for is underestimating the time and extent of the effort that changing teaching and learning will make. The notion the quality enhancement project espouses – that is, that higher education institutions will work together and share experiences – runs counter to the increasingly competitive and complex nature of the sector and will require enormous effort and goodwill to bring about. And the sheer size of the curriculum reform effort needed to bring about the kinds of change the extended degree proposal envisages makes its feasibility questionable in the eyes of many. 

Questions have been raised about whether the existing foundation programmes could serve as the model for more effective graduate production. The extended degree report points out, however, that they were designed for a minority of students (10% to 15% of the intake) and that it makes no sense to have an "add-on" system for more than two-thirds of the students.

One of the most fundamental sets of questions is about the "test out" notion on which the vaunted flexibility – that is, placement on to the accelerated version of the curriculum – depends. The report acknow-ledges that much work needs to be done to achieve this, but argues that instruments such as the National Benchmark Tests and/or institutional assessments on entry, singly or in combination, could provide a beginning. 

In the United States, widespread use is made of the College Board's "advanced placement" tests, which exempt students from first-year courses in many subject areas and institutions, including the most prestigious. In South Africa, the Independent Examinations Board’s "advanced programmes" in mathematics and English could possibly be investigated and modified where necessary to serve this purpose. 

What is clear is that simply achieving high marks in matric should not be considered as an exemption mechanism – that is, it merely certifies successful completion of a programme of study at a certain level (four, in this case) on the National Qualifications Framework, and signifies (by design if not always in practice) that a pupil is prepared for the next level of study – first-year university study – not that they have already studied at this level. 

A related question is whether the "flexible" structure might create first- and second-class higher education citizens, and whether this might reinforce racial stereotypes. A look at the figures presented in the report, however, suggests that this would not be the case. Assuming that the proportions of students who ­graduate in regulation time – 20% for black and 44% for white students – will be similar in those of the accelerated version, then because there are approximately three times the number of black students in the system than white students, the number of black students in the accelerated version will greatly outnumber white students.

Finally, important questions have been raised about the affordability of the proposal. The detailed work on this shows that – if the efficiency gains are realised – the extended degree proposal is indeed affordable, in terms of money at least. But the big questions remain: Is there the will in the higher education system to do the hard and time-consuming work required? And – if there is the will – is there the capacity? 

Various options are being raised on how to proceed. One possibility is to conduct a national extended degree pilot in one area, in all institutions. A strong contender in this regard could be the BSc: professional programmes such as engineering or health sciences do not provide a clear basis from which to extrapolate findings because of their specialised nature, and there are very high failure rates in the BSc, indicating an urgent need for intervention. 

At the same time, efforts to build and incentivise good teaching and good teaching practices need to be intensified. The contribution of such important initiatives as the quality enhancement project and the teaching development grants administered by the higher education and training department would be complementary although essential in this effort across the system, and could work both in combination with and independently of the extended degree pilot.

Professor Nan Yeld recently completed a 10-year term as dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town

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