No quick fix for univer­sity cri­sis

Money and bet­ter school­ing are un­likely to ef­fect sub­stan­tial change in near fu­ture

Mail & Guardian - - Education - Ian Scott

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 aca- demic — 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 M&G 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 knowl­edge 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.

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

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