Varsities must open their books

Angie Motshekga, the minister of education, during a breakfast meeting with some of the top matric achievers from the class of 2018. Picture: Tebogo Letsie
Angie Motshekga, the minister of education, during a breakfast meeting with some of the top matric achievers from the class of 2018. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

Each year, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, supported by her nine MECs and other bureaucrats, and watched by millions, unleashes a public spectacle about how a cohort of pupils performed at the end of their matric year. To the extent that our primary concern as a nation is that we churn out a citizenry that achieves a Grade 12 pass, the fanfare is justified.

But the main challenge, I posit, is that our higher education sector is ill-equipped to accommodate the number of those who pass matric and, almost equally importantly, the nation pays little attention to how our higher education system is aligned to the needs of our changing, but also struggling, economy. I revert to the latter later.

Once the basic education minister is done with her annual matric results fanfare, I suggest it is followed up by an event hosted by Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor, at which she tables the performance of various universities, and thus gives us a sense of our national performance.

We are told that the universities of Witwatersrand, Pretoria and Cape Town are some of the best we have. But what constitutes the “best”? Do average South Africans know what is being measured against what and to what end?

Over the past two weeks, parents and prospective students faced disappointment as they stood in soul-crushing queues, some sleeping at university entrances, hoping for admission to institutions of higher learning.

Sadly, universities can only accommodate a fraction of those who get bachelor passes in matric. And the more the pass rate improves, as it ought to, the more young people there will be who must deal with this frustration and disappointment.

It would therefore make sense for the higher education minister to face the nation, supported by various vice-chancellors, and table the performance data for the sector over the previous academic year.

Pandor ought to say how many of those pupils who received bachelor passes have been admitted to our universities. What courses are being pursued? How does the pass rate in mathematics and physical science affect admissions in the engineering, computer science or information technology fields, for example? What is the likely impact of these to the economy? What needs to be done at high school level to ensure the challenges are obviated?

In the end, there has to be alignment between university intake and what our economy requires.

We also need to know how many honours and master’s students graduated in the previous academic year, for example. What are the predominant fields? How are we correcting the imbalances of the past?

If corporate South Africa complained 10 years ago that the country had few black chartered accountants, how is the picture changing as each academic year passes? Which universities are not coming to the party and what is being done to ensure they do?

Collectively, how many doctorate graduates did universities churn out this past academic year? Are they in social or technical subjects? If Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi is talking hi-tech education and President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks about the fourth industrial revolution, how are these supported by the number of graduates at our universities? The answers to these pertinent questions exist, hopefully, but are not easily available to ordinary tax payers impatient for change.

How has our knowledge production morphed over the past 10 years? This knowledge and our sustained attention to the performance of higher education is what will create sustained job-creating growth.

The importance of matric must not be understated, but, comparatively, matric is at a lower level given the demands of our economy on our education system.

Mutations brought about by rapid technological advancement have led to a jobs blood bath in newspapers, mining and myriad other sectors, including the demise of companies such as Kodak, while generating new jobs in firms including Apple, Google and Facebook. South Africa, therefore, must pay attention to jobs of the future – and the performance of universities is, in this regard, critical.

Let’s be clear: This is a call for university principals to account publicly and deal with their pressure points in front of media cameras. It will not be easy, but it is necessary. It is a call that is unlikely to be acceded to without pressure, yet one they can’t easily brush off.

If universities are to make their case for more funding, if they are to help us transition our economy to one that encourages innovation-fuelled competitive growth, they must account publicly each year about the quality and racial mix of their graduates, and about what they are doing to infuse change and transformation in their institutions.

A system that churns out kids who pass matric in good numbers is, to the extent that matric is our end goal, great. But we know better. These kids who just passed matric are hardly ready for university, much less for work. This is why, sadly, some will join the swelling ranks of the unemployed.

South Africa must indeed move beyond the rhetoric of the fourth industrial revolution and see what, in practice, is being done by universities to ensure our economy can compete among the best in the world.

The discourse between our universities (knowledge generators), government (policymakers) and industry (job creators) needs improvement. The interaction between the three spheres, known in innovation circles as the triple helix, is credited with helping some middle-income countries improve their economic performance.

There’s nothing worse than assuming the fourth industrial revolution rhetoric is accompanied by concrete action only to discover, decades later, that our universities have only scratched the surface. This is why we need a new spectacle, a useful spectacle, a spectacle that will concretely catapult us into the fourth industrial revolution by applying pressure every year on the minister of higher education and the vice-chancellors of universities.

Our success as a nation must be intentional. Our national discourse must be purposefully focused on what will help us produce graduates who will steer our economy in our chosen direction.

Sefara is a former newspaper editor, runs innovation and reputation management consultancy Unscripted Communication, and studies innovation and media at Wits

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