Academics failing students

2008-01-15 00:00

Access without a fair chance of success is not access at all. In fact, South African children are being cheated by the way they are readily admitted to tertiary institutions, but not given sufficient support to pass.

In a hard-hitting address at the opening of the National Tertiary Education Staff Union in Durban yesterday, Education Minister Naledi Pandor said recent studies of 2000 and 2001 first-time students show that too few have graduated after five years — two years after the minimum time.

She laid the blame for the poor pass rate squarely at the feet of both academics and higher-learning institutions and challenged both to work for the national good of transforming education meaningfully, rather than focusing on employment issues.

She said academics have a duty to address issues like outdated structures and inappropriate teaching methods and to overturn the negative image of higher education.

“It is rare to meet an ordinary South African with a positive opinion about our universities,” she said, pointing out that many feel academics behave inappropriately and “cost more than they were worth”.

There was a great deal of opposition to structures put in place by the Higher Education Act of 1997 that were intended to break down the “ivory tower” structure of decision making, said Pandor.

“Over the last 10 years, higher-education institutions have struggled with these structures. Some councils have assumed the role of management and some students have assumed that management. Councils cannot take decisions without their consent,” she said, adding that academics need to review how they deal with student leadership as students can participate, but not assume responsibility for managing institutions.

She said she is “puzzled that the finances of some universities remain a mystery” and said that she has no “qualms about being harsh” as she would not “send good money after bad” to buttress overdrafts and bad policies at institutions that have failed to stabilise finances.

Instead, she said she is quite happy to run the finances of some institutions herself.

She also raised the issue of quality, pointing out that the differences in accreditation and processing systems between universities are “so stark” that it is hard to understand how they operate in a single education system. “I have been a lecturer and I have children at University … ,” she said, questioning a university calendar year that sees students enter the system in mid-February, but only be introduced to faculties and lecturers by late March when they go on holiday for Easter.

She said that lecturers need to interrogate teaching methods. Many hand out photocopies, but neglect to teach students to read. She pointed out that students today are different from those of 20 years ago. Universities cannot assume that methods used then are still appropriate.

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