Increased access to education has been an outstanding theme of South Africa’s transformation since 1994, but the quality of education has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks to transformation.
Remarkably, in the 20 years since the dawn of democracy, adult literacy has improved from below 70% to 93%.
The matric pass rate was 75.8% in 2014, up markedly from 53.4% in 1994. Of the learners who passed, 79% were African, 8% Coloured, 4% Indian and 9% white, representing a significant shift in the number of successful black matriculants since 1994. While the figures point to a significant increase in the number of black people being educated, protests in the higher education sector highlight that the pace of change is not acceptable to many young South Africans.
But while the total number of learners passing has increased significantly, this might be due to lower pass requirements.
The most worrying number is the one that is not evident in the pass rate: the drop-out rate. Only 36.4% of those who started off schooling some 12 years before matriculated in 2014.
The researchers say the quality of education and teacher training in the public sector is “a major cause for concern”, and in the Global Competitiveness Report, SA is ranked fourth last in terms of the quality of maths and science education and eighth last in the quality of the education system.
One challenge is the number of unqualified teachers, with a recent report by Stellenbosch University showing only 32% of grade 6 students had access to maths teachers with a desirable level of subject knowledge. By comparison, countries like Kenya (90%) and Zimbabwe (76%) recorded much higher proportions.
In the 2016 matric exams, which saw 717 371 learners write, only 33 511 students scored more than 60% for maths, of which only 1 700 were African.
Action group Equal Education said closer attention needs to be paid to inequality and historical legacies and its impact on performance.
Higher education conundrum
Transformation in higher education was a burning issue in 2016. The numbers indicate fairly rapid transformation since 1994.
In 2012, 82% of enrolments in universities were black, comprising 70% African, 6% Coloured and 6% Indian – with 18% being white. In 1995, only 50% were African while 38% were white, 6% Coloured and 6% Indian.
Access to higher education has increased, with total university enrolments between 1995 and 2012 growing from 570 000 to 945 765 and enrolments of African students increasing markedly while white enrolment decreased.
Among graduates (in 2011), 63% were African (against 28% in 1995), 24% (66%) white, 7% (3%) Coloured and 6% (3%) Indian. However, the ratio of graduates to enrolment is extremely low, reflecting significant dropouts due to financial constraints and inability to cope with higher education due to poor school education and lower matric standards.
Looking at numbers rather than percentages, the number of Africans enrolled in universities in 2012 was 662 000, Coloureds 59 000, Indians 52 000 and whites 173 000.
The problem of black graduates relative to enrolments is clear in graduate numbers for 2011, which show that African graduates totalled 100 000, Coloureds 10 000, Indians 9 000 and whites 158 000.
At doctoral level, only 32% of enrolled students are black and while the number of African doctoral graduates has increased from 14 in 1990 to 325 (of a total 1 249) in 2012, the researchers say the low relative number “creates a challenge for transformation of academia, especially at senior and professorial level, since PhDs are the feeder for academia, specifically progression to professor”.
In terms of academic staff, transformation has been relatively slow. By 2012, only 46% of academic staff at universities were black and were largely junior lecturers, with only 16% of professors being black.
Among medical professionals, whites continue to dominate although there has been some change. In 2014, 51% were white compared with 62% in 2005. Ditto for chartered accountants (CAs), where blacks now account for 23% against 8% in 2002. In 1994 there were just 77 African CAs and by 2014 there were 3 332.
Access to higher education
The researchers point out that the funding crisis and disruptions will affect both the ratio and quality of graduates in the future. They say a significant number of South Africans are still excluded from access to higher education with almost 2.8m 18- to 24-year-olds not in education, employment or training.
Stats SA’s General Household Survey 2015 says just over a fifth of premature school leavers mentioned “a lack of money” as the reason, 20.3% dropped out due to poor academic performance and 9.4% due to family commitments.
In terms of access to funding, the percentage of learners who said they were exempted from paying tuition fees increased from 0.4% in 2002 to 64.6% in 2015.
Alternative Prosperity’s Fourie says that since 1994, there has been a notable catch-up in education with respect to numbers, “but we do not seem to have a handle on offering quality education to the broad base of South African pupils at primary and secondary school levels. Instead pockets of excellence exist amongst affluent groups that can afford to pay for schooling. This is evidenced by the rise of private schools that are frequented by both black and white families that can afford it.
“At a higher education level, we should also remember that quality at university level includes the ability to produce research outputs that drives South African competitiveness. Building a transformed and world-class academia over time should be a priority. Researchers’ contribution will help South Africa innovate to solve societal issues.”
Ajay Lalu, managing director of black lite consulting, says there is a need for a “committed response to the current challenges of youth unemployment and the education crisis”.
Lalu says society and government are to blame for creating the expectation that if one did well at school, one would end up in a tertiary institution. “We told them we need all sorts of professionals, then they borrow or get bursaries, and at the end there are significant levels of disappointment and disillusionment as there are not opportunities to start businesses or earn income in constructive economic activity.”
Economists.co.za’s Mike Schüssler says “SA is not getting the results for the money it spends [on education]. [...] It is a crime against humanity at the moment.”
Another problem is the expectation that everyone should get a university education. “We look down on artisans, hairdressers, cameramen, aircon technicians or people who lay cables, but that is what is missing in the economy. Education and training colleges, which are meant to facilitate this, have not taken off,” Schüssler says. “Education by its very nature is not an equal thing and a skill set by its nature cannot be because we all have different skills.
“It must be made clear that not everyone can get a degree.”
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This is a shortened version of the cover story that originally appeared in the 2 February edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.