/ 13 October 2017

No quick fix for university crisis

It is essential to examine what can be done within higher education itself.
It is essential to examine what can be done within higher education itself.


In last week’s Mail & Guardian, I outlined the view that the student protest movement is not homogeneous, but comprises different groups with various primary interests and motivations.

I argued, however, that the persistently high and racially skewed failure rate in higher education is a significant — though at present not overtly acknowledged — contributor to many students’ experience of frustration and alienation, and hence to the intensity of the anger that has characterised recent protests.

Insofar as this is the case, there is a vicious cycle in operation. Alienation leads to a breakdown in positive engagement between student and institution, and this in turn further obstructs learning and success.

Although the call for decolonising the curriculum points to dissatisfaction with the learning process, the dominant student demand thus far has been for removing financial barriers to education. Given the money needed to fund the expansion of the financial aid system, there is a danger that government will be pressured to provide for this at the expense of post-school institutional operating budgets and systemic development.

This would mean the concentration of recurrent funding (which could probably never be reduced) on an immediate, but certainly not sufficient, means of redressing the inequalities in higher education.

Therefore, improvement and equity of outcomes need urgently to be reconfirmed as a central goal of undergraduate education, and decisive steps must be taken towards achieving this goal — that is, creating conditions in which all students have a chance to succeed.

This is critical not only to avoid future student discontent but also to ensure that higher education plays its full role in individual and national advancement, and so justify investment in it.

What transformation means

Perhaps the most controversial demand of higher education is that of “transformation”, because it as yet has no fixed meaning.

A common but narrow view of transformation involves demographic representation in university leadership, staffing and institutional culture. But the essence of transformation must surely be the effective and equitable distribution of the benefits of higher education across the population.

In this broad understanding, transformation is essential for economic development and social cohesion, because both depend on fully recognising and use the talent that exists in the country.

It is thus essential to analyse what stands in the way of improving higher education performance overall and, in terms of equity, to apply whatever corrective action possible.

Causes of poor performance

There is abundant evidence that student underperformance can be attributed to a variety of factors — material, psychosocial and academic — that have different effects on different groups, largely because of social and educational inequalities. It is a special problem for higher education that some of the strongest influences on it come from factors external to the sector, which it has little or no control over.

Thus, in the interests of analysing what might be done by whom to improve the status quo, it is important to consider the external and internal factors separately.

External influences

A 2006  article by David Macfarlane, titled “Shock varsity dropout stats”, described the most widely perceived causes of poor performance in higher education as “money and poor schooling”.

Few would dispute that poverty and pretertiary education have a profound effect on access to and success in university. When the major causes of poor university performance originate earlier on in students’ lives, it is fair to ask why higher education should be expected to take responsibility for the consequences of these factors.

The pragmatic answer must hinge on two issues:

• The real prospects of change in the key external factors; and

• Whether it is possible for higher education to do things differently — to facilitate more inclusive learning — without defeating its own purpose.

These issues are critical in determining realistic measures to substantially improve university output and which educational sectors can best undertake them.

Thus the first major consideration is — as a report by the Council of Higher Education puts it — whether “the external influences [are] likely to change to the extent that substantial improvement in higher education performance will result and, if so, in what time scale”.


There is no doubting the destructive influences of poverty on children’s formative years, and there is compelling evidence of how their capacity to learn can be stunted by harsh conditions, especially in “the first thousand days” and in preschool education.

South Africa is among the most unequal societies in the world, and the resources and political will required to uplift the material conditions of the majority of the population, to the extent needed to provide for equal education, appear unattainable in the foreseeable future.

There is nevertheless a need to make a start with building resources for early childhood development — highlighting the importance of resisting pressure to disproportionately fund higher education.

‘Fixing the schools’

Socioeconomic status is clearly also the main determinant of the quality of schooling a child has access to.

It is estimated that 80% of public schools offer education that is below any reasonable standard. So, for most of the population, the failure of the school system to prepare pupils for further study is the second major obstacle to success in higher education. This is almost universally recognised, as is the need to make the regeneration of the school system a top priority.

But seeing “fixing the schools” as the only viable way of rectifying higher education performance is flawed and misleading.

This is mainly because improving schooling to the extent that higher education — with its current enrolment and approaches — will be able to achieve a more acceptable completion rate (say 70%) will require a major change in school quality that is likely to take decades to achieve.

It is estimated that, to achieve this level of performance, the universities would require an additional 133% of well-prepared entrants a year. Using 2013 enrolment figures, this would mean finding about 50 000 additional well-prepared entrants, over and above the approximately 37  000 such students who enrolled that year.

There are few indications that the school system is improving. Much analysis is available to support this:

• Although she acknowledged shortcomings in the national senior certificate (NSC) results, the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, has said the system is “doing its best”. This sentiment has been echoed by a range of basic education officials in relation to the 2016 NSC results — with pass-rate improvements of a fewpercentage points being lauded as acceptable progress.

But improvements can be at least partly attributed to factors other than improved learning, and education experts have critiqued the official presentations of NSC performance as failing to acknowledge the deep flaws in the school system;

• The 2015 round of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) — which assesses maths and science know-ledge of mainly grade four and grade eight pupils around the world — saw South Africa placed second-last in these fields. Motshekga celebrated the gradual increase in average scores for the older group since 2003 — moving from a “very low” to a “low’” categorisation;

• South Africa’s schooling system has consistently appeared near the bottom in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness survey; and

• In 2016 the department of basic education announced that, in grades seven to nine, final maths marks as low as 20% will be “condoned” for pupils who have passed their other subjects, to avoid holding them back.

These events suggest that the minister and the department have low expectations of the school system.

More importantly, wider analysis indicates that the pace of systematic improvement is painfully slow. For example, assuming the increase in the secondary-school TIMSS scores can be maintained, the international “centre-point” benchmark for maths and science will be reached only in about 2035. Even if new, more effective educational approaches could be introduced in grade one in 2020, the effects would be felt in the first year of university only in 2032.

South Africa cannot wait so long for growth in competent graduates.

It is incumbent on those who insist that higher education should not have to compensate for the schooling problem — particularly education analysts, senior academics and politicians — to take action to devise a credible plan for enabling the school system to meet key national targets.

Targets need to include the number of “well-prepared” matriculants to operate efficiently within university approaches.

Given current indicators, and in the absence of a credible plan, advocating school-system renewal towards achieving better outcomes is tantamount to indefinite acceptance of the status quo.

Internal factors

In view of the poor prospects for reducing poverty and fixing schools, it is evident that universities cannot depend on improvement in external conditions. It is essential to examine what can be done within higher education itself.

The second major consideration, according to the aforementioned report, is: “Are there factors within the higher education sector’s control that can substantially affect student success and hence graduate output?”

Irrespective of where solutions should lie, the reality is that, unless conditions are created in higher education to make its approach more effective for all students — without compromising standards and outcomes — the status quo of low and skewed completion rates will persist.

The possibilities of effective change in higher education will be discussed in my next article.

Emeritus professor Ian Scott is the former director of the University of Cape Town’s academic development programme