We are failing our children
“CRIME WILL NOT DESTROY this country. Corruption will not destroy this country. What will destroy this country is a school system that doesn’t work for the majority of children,” Jonathan Jansen, rector and vicechancellor of the University of the Free State, told a packed auditorium at the Gordon Institute of Business Science on the eve of Africa Day.
Jansen raised the cry for the perpetuation of quality standards in education. “As a university vice-chancellor, I’m under huge pressure, on a daily basis, to – in the name of equity – lower the bar. I won’t. Why? Because I’ve seen this movie before.”
Employing his favoured approach of applying historical lessons to contemporary problems, Jansen pondered the fate of Africa’s great universities of old. “ When I was a teenager you’d do anything to be able to study at Makerere University in Uganda with the young Mahmood Mamdani, you’d have given your eye teeth to go to Port Harcourt in Nigeria and be a student of Ali Mazrui, or to the University of Dar es Salaam to be in Issa Shivzji’s political science class.” What happened?
“ The political leadership, in the name of equity and anti-colonialism, started to dumb down those institutions so no serious scholar … is found at those universities. They’re now found at Columbia, New York, Oxford in England,” explained Jansen.
South Africa, said Jansen, already has a number of universities that are not universities. “Did you know Medunsa (the Medical University of Southern Africa) has had less than three weeks of classes this year?” Jansen asked delegates. “ These are the guys who’ll be doing your open heart surgery. The University of Zululand now has an administrator … one reason being because people simply mass-produced graduation certificates and handed them out all over Richards Bay and Empangeni.”
Why aren’t we railing against the erosion of educational standards, asked Jansen. We should be worried about moves by Umalusi (the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training), to change the ratio of easy questions to difficult questions in mathematics papers. “So instead of getting our teaching right – because we’re embarrassed every year by the results – let’s lower the bar; in the name of equity?” South Africa is no different to any other African country, we have the same stresses and strains, said Jansen. But we can still fix the system. “ We should insist on a few basics to get our schools right. Teachers should do the things they know intuitively make for good teaching and good learning, not the distractions of immature people in government departments who want to impress. Do the basic things right, like attend classes.”
If we achieve this, said Jansen, the children will respond. “ We are failing our children in a massive way … I don’t think (people) realise how serious this problem is. We need to get this right.”
Making the change will, however, take leadership and not the sort of self-serving grasping that currently blights South Africa. “ We have a crisis of leadership and not only a crisis of political leadership. It’s also a crisis of religious leadership, corporate leadership, domestic leadership and educational leadership. We have a serious crisis when five or six teachers a day don’t show up and SADTU (the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union) is actually applying for doubling the