Book Extract: A waste of potential

2017-07-16 06:35
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. Picture: Mlungisi Louw

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. Picture: Mlungisi Louw

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In this extract from his new book As by Fire, Jonathan Jansen examines the limitations of the university enrolment system.

As by Fire by Professor Jonathan Jansen

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.

The need for young people with artisanal skills

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 never have been admitted to university, given his matriculation certificate; or Sipho will never pass at a university level even if his original school certificate qualified him for tertiary studies.

Few university leaders understand that difficult transition from school to university better than Sizwe Mabizela, the vice-chancellor of Rhodes University. A kind-hearted man with boundless empathy for students, he once headed the quality assurance body that sets the standards for school-leaving certificates.

Says Mabizela: “What is actually happening, and has been happening for a long time, is that universities are receiving more and more students who are unprepared for higher education.

“And if you look at the performance of our public higher education system, the dropout rates are frightening. In fact, almost half of the young people who enrol at our public higher education institutions leave the system without a qualification of one kind or another.

“That, of course, is a colossal waste of human potential, and the reason why they’re in that predicament is that there aren’t any viable, attractive post-school education and training opportunities except university.

“I’ve argued on a number of occasions that this country does not need more people with university degrees. What this country desperately needs, at its level of development, are more young people with artisanal skills. One can pour in money to deal with the funding of higher education.

“But that, in and of itself, will not make the significant difference, because you have young people in a public higher education system who should not have been there in the first place, who would have benefited by going to a technical and vocational education and training (TVET) college.

“Unfortunately, those colleges are not institutions of choice at the moment. And so, as part of resolving the challenges of higher education, we need to pay greater attention to our TVET colleges. Make them institutions of choice.

Read more on:    education  |  fees must fall

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