CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

Pub­lished by Tafel­berg R280 pages 352

As stu­dent num­bers have grown, pass rates have de­clined. In terms of sub­sidy in­come, these trends rep­re­sented a mixed bless­ing. On the one hand, the more stu­dents en­rolled, the higher the ‘teach­ing in­puts’; hence the sub­sidy in­creases. On the other hand, the fewer stu­dents who grad­u­ate, or who grad­u­ate on time, the lower the ‘teach­ing out­puts’; thus the sub­sidy de­creases. In other words, what uni­ver­si­ties may make on the in­puts, they lose again on the out­puts.

So what do in­sti­tu­tions tend to do? They ex­ploit this for­mula by in­creas­ing en­rol­ments as much as pos­si­ble and put pres­sure on their sys­tems (aca­demic de­part­ments, tu­to­rial sys­tems, cen­tres for teach­ing and learn­ing, etc.) to en­hance pass rates. The de­part­ment of higher ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing, in or­der to demon­strate that it has ful­filled its po­lit­i­cal man­date to open up ac­cess to more and more stu­dents, sets some­times very high tar­gets for en­rol­ment, which some in­sti­tu­tions agree to but can­not meet. So, to pre­vent ex­ploita­tion, gov­ern­ment sets ‘caps’ on those en­rol­ments.

Through­put rates – a mea­sure of the time it takes stu­dents to grad­u­ate – are more dif­fi­cult to con­trol. Un­scrupu­lous in­sti­tu­tions might ar­ti­fi­cially en­hance the pass rates or en­gage in du­bi­ous prac­tices – such as one uni­ver­sity that al­lowed stu­dents to write their ex­am­i­na­tions at home and with­out mon­i­tor­ing. There is just one lim­i­ta­tion on these at­tempts to game the sys­tem: the over­all fund­ing pie re­mains con­stant.

This means that to gain more out of the sub­sidy, an in­sti­tu­tion must not only do bet­ter on its own terms, but also do much bet­ter than the other 25 pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties. It is a messy busi­ness, but money is in short sup­ply for all of them.

It is, how­ever, very dif­fi­cult to ar­ti­fi­cially raise a stu­dent’s re­sults, and most uni­ver­si­ties play by the rules – in large part, be­cause of the con­science of the aca­demic lec­tur­ers. Most pride them­selves on their dis­ci­plines and the qual­ity of their qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

Some dis­ci­plines, such as ac­coun­tancy and medicine, are gov­erned by ex­ter­nal ex­am­i­na­tion bod­ies, and there is the real threat of loss of ac­cred­i­ta­tion if such scams be­came known.

And so, with grow­ing num­bers of aca­dem­i­cally weak stu­dents from the school sys­tem en­rolled at uni­ver­si­ties, more and more stu­dents strug­gle to master the course­work and the fail­ure rate con­tin­ues to in­crease.

Con­sider the case of Sipho (not his real name), who has vis­ited my of­fice at the Uni­ver­sity of the Free State (UFS) many times. Some­times he changes his name in the registry so that he will have an­other op­por­tu­nity to plead for one more chance.

It is a prac­tice in my of­fice that no stu­dent comes through the door un­less I see his or her aca­demic record first. This al­lows for stu­dents to be re­ferred to the more ap­pro­pri­ate of­fice for as­sis­tance, or to pre­vent re­peat calls to the same desk. Sipho’s record in­di­cates that he has failed nearly all his mod­ules two or three times. A rule was cre­ated in which a stu­dent can­not fail a mo­d­ule more than twice. There are grounds for ap­peal, and most stu­dents are given a third op­por­tu­nity. If they fail again, they are ad­vised to do the out­stand­ing mo­d­ule through the Uni­ver­sity of SA.

But no mat­ter what Sipho is told, he re­fuses to ac­cept the ver­dict of the var­i­ous of­fices of ap­peal. He is des­per­ate, and no amount of tu­tor­ing and spe­cial as­sis­tance and mul­ti­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties can help him. But he will not take no for an an­swer. I have seen hun­dreds of Siphos in my seven years at the helm of UFS. Ev­ery time, my ad­min­is­tra­tor’s heart breaks. A care­ful read­ing of an aca­demic record as a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment will sug­gest one of two things: ei­ther Sipho should


PRO­TEST­ERS Stu­dents from Free State Uni­ver­sity and that prov­ince’s Cen­tral Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy march to Fidel Cas­tro Build­ing in Bloem­fontein as part of the 2016 #FeesMustFall cam­paign

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