A gloomy future awaits most of the country’s matriculants

Forgotten amid the annual public relations, pomp and celebration of the country’s national senior certificate (NSC) examination results for the class of 2021 is the harsh reality that a bleak future awaits the majority of South Africa’s latest crop of matriculants.

Notwithstanding the fact that the class of 2021 has been unfairly disadvantaged because of the Covid-19 pandemic, several academics, education experts, and union leaders are united in the view that a matric certificate does not adequately equip learners for the 21st century. 

According to the department of basic education, 733 917 full-time candidates and about 162 793 part-timers registered for the NSC in November 2021, almost 900 000 in total. The bulk of these learners are expected to join the country’s unemployment queues, with only 127 000 university places available for new students at public universities. That said, there are more opportunities available at the country’s 50 technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges. 

University: For only a few

The former vice-chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand and current director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Adam Habib, points out that only a small proportion of matriculants, about 30%, make it to university.

“If you start at grade one, there is a layer of people that don’t get [matric]; something like 50% to 60% don’t make it. So you’re down to half of the original cohort. Of that, you are only getting a very small percentage of people with a 50% pass rate, which means they get a bachelor’s pass that gets access to university. You can be the best university with the best grades in the world, but you cannot do in two or three years what the schooling system has failed to do in 12 years.”

Another expert, however, notes that the percentage of students entering university could be as low as 17%. University of KwaZulu-Natal academic Professor Labby Ramrathan, who is the former president of the South African Education Research Association, says learners should be encouraged to enrol in TVET colleges, because this path could contribute to self-employment and job creation. 

“However, the challenge is that TVET colleges still have a negative image in terms of who accesses these colleges’ [qualifications] and the kind of teaching and learning experiences,” he says. 

Basil Manuel, the general secretary of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, says about 12% of school leavers access post-school studies annually, with about 6% going to public universities. For those forced to join the workforce, he predicts a tough environment, with many being paid “exploitation” salaries because of the low minimum wage, which makes it difficult to put food on the table. 

The question of comparison to other countries arises. “The stats for various European countries is about 30%, Australia as well,” Manuel says. 

But Manuel adds that although the TVET option should feature higher on the agenda given the skills shortage, the poor performance of these colleges makes them unattractive.

Technical choices lacking

According to the South African Public Colleges Organisation, the TVET colleges sector, which essentially provides for students from low-income families, is constrained, because the increased demand for access in the TVET sector is not reciprocated by increased funding. 

Habib argues that the TVET college system doesn’t work. Part of the problem is shifting resources from TVET colleges to the 21 Sector Education and Training Authorities (Setas), which Habib believes is a “honeypot for politicians and a patronage network”. 

Salim Vally, the University of Johannesburg’s director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation and chair in community, adult and worker education, says many see TVET as a solution, which is very important, together with new community colleges getting off the ground. Still, there is no guarantee that one can get a job after acquiring the necessary skills. 

“Creating jobs and then an economy that can sustain that is more complex,” Vally notes.

However, even when learners enter TVET colleges, the throughput rate is between 10% and 12%, according to University of Pretoria academic Professor Kobus Maree.  “Likewise, if one looks at universities, the statistics aren’t looking good. A lot of research must be done to see whether we can come up with a more appropriate system at this point.”

Inadequate schooling 

Vally’s point is that addressing the quality of education is not limited to the matric examination results. 

“A minority of schools in the country can compare with the best in the world, but the vast majority of people, because they go to schools where they don’t have enough resources, infrastructure or properly trained teachers, cannot,” he says. 

Inevitably, the focus falls on the razzmatazz of matric results, a legacy of former minister Kader Asmal. But Vally insists addressing the quality of education should begin earlier, not at the matric level.

“I’m afraid it’s just too late now. We need to start with early childhood development.”

There are no quick-fix solutions to the current education malaise, says Vally, but what’s needed is a long period of rebooting the system. Over the past three decades, the system has evolved without transformation and no moves on the curriculum. It reproduces inequality. Many seem to have forgotten that education is a fundamental human right. 

Professor Diane Grayson, a senior director of academic affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand, says the pandemic has significantly affected schooling, particularly for matriculants. 

“I’ve said for a long time that we are focusing on results and not on learning,” Grayson says. 

She argues it is unfortunate that the focus for several years has been to simply measure and improve matric results by drilling learners to pass the exams. Consequently, matriculants aren’t ready for the 21st century, the academic says.

“Now, in countries that have very successful education systems — by successful, I mean systems where the children, the learners, are well equipped to go out into the world and either study further or be contributing members of society — their focus is on excellent teacher education: both initial teacher education and continuous professional learning,” Grayson says.

Manuel, on the other hand, contends that the country is not producing matriculants fit for the 21st century because curriculums are outdated and have not kept pace with changes.

“We have largely an academic system, while more than 50% of children are not academic. We’ve spoken about a curriculum catering for the technical, the academic, the vocational and special needs for years but without real progress,” Manuel says. 

“Money is pumped into academics with obvious minimal returns because the children we are trying to turn into academics are more suited to skills-based learning. Testimony to this is the throughput rate at universities which is still under 20%,” the union leader adds. 

Habib contends that the paranoia around statistics is a big problem. “Get the substance right, rather than trying to look good. So what you’ve got is a whole series of people who are so focused on when they make the announcement at the SABC and how they get rewarded and applauded that they forget that the basics of the schooling system are not working,” he says. 

Unemployment beckons

Some of the experts the Mail & Guardian interviewed have noticed a growing number of matric graduates who are simply joining the unemployment queue with no skills.

According to Statistics South Africa, of the 7.2-million unemployed people in the first quarter of 2021, as many as 52.4% had education levels below matric, followed by those with matric at 37.7%. 

This equates to 2.6-million matriculants in the unemployment queue.

Ramrathan says youth unemployment is a global concern, and there are few solutions. The professor notes that although the country is channelling learners to higher education, 21st-century skills have not been clearly defined and urgent intervention is needed.  

The high unemployment rates for youth aged 18 to 34 is unsustainable, notes Mugwena Maluleke, the general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union.

“The South African basic education system is, by and large, academic, resulting in the extraordinary shortage of certain skills to boost the economy. The current ratio of the university to TVET college students in the country should be incrementally overturned such that there are more TVET college students. 

“This is consistent with other developing economies.”

Currently, there is a considerable gap between learners leaving the school system and the world they enter, where graduate attributes, skills, and psyche remain absent, argues Nuhraan Sambo, the director of private tertiary provider Mancosa.

Sambo notes that although rotational teaching may have negatively affected the matric results, the system was already performing poorly, with both teaching and learning compromised.

 “The education system for the majority of the less fortunate is not ensuring minimum literacy and numeracy rates, nor life skills required for a reasonable chance in the real, post-school world. This, together with a lack of emotional intelligence and low self-drive, paints a bleak picture for many,” she warns. 

But Sambo says the solution does not lie in a review of grade 12, but rather a review of the entire education system: its purpose, philosophy, educational management, and its alignment with the 21st world of work and life. 

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Edwin Naidu
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