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New Beginnings
March 4, 2012 - 9:48pm

Today is the end of the first week of teaching in the South African academic year. It’s been an experience that any academic at any university around the world would recognise: the chaos of finding timetables and new lecture venues, the inevitable problems with IT and parking spaces, the long queues at university bookshops, and in the midst of all this, a new group of anxious, happy, first year students.

They are like first year students anywhere. But in South African terms, they are deeply unusual. In January, Angie Motshekga, the Minister for Basic Education, announced with some fanfare that 70.2% of the pupils who wrote the examinations for the National Senior Certificate – usually referred to as matric – passed. In a country with such high levels of deprivation and poor resource allocation, this appears to be a magnificent achievement.

Unfortunately, the celebrations around the pass rate hid a few worrying facts: that in 2011, there was an 8% drop in the number of pupils writing the exam, and that of the 923,463 pupils who began Grade 1 in 2000, only 496,090 wrote matric in 2011. Nearly half dropped out during their school career. When measured against all those who began school in 2000, the real matric pass rate falls to 38%.

Moreover, of the 70.2% who did pass, only slightly less than a quarter of these achieved marks high enough to qualify for university entrance. The tragedy is that even though such a tiny proportion of school leavers have the marks to enter university, there are not enough places to go around. Last month, a stampede at the University of Johannesburg killed the mother of a potential student, and injured several other people. Thousands of parents and prospective students had turned up to register – in all, around 85,000 students applied for only 11,000 places.

The government has announced measures further to open up access to higher education: in his state of the nation address, President Jacob Zuma announced the building of two new universities, and Minister for Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, has committed to expanding the whole further and higher education sector.

I’m lucky to work at a university which attracts the best students in South Africa, but, even so, many of the first years here aren’t properly prepared for university. Here and at other universities, academics have to make up for students’ poor preparation for tertiary education at school. I feel very strongly that a lot of students shouldn’t be at university in the first place – that they should have proceeded to Further Education and Training (FET) colleges where they would receive an education more narrowly focused on preparing them for the job market.

This is the crux of the issue: despite the fact there are about 600,000 unemployed graduates in South Africa, university education is seen as the only pathway to employment. I would rather the Department of Higher Education and Training invested in FET colleges – expanding access to their campuses, improving the quality of their diplomas, and providing scholarships to those who can’t afford tuition fees.

As an academic, I am torn between wanting to help my students do well, and pursuing my own research. I can only earn research funds by publishing, and I can’t publish with a heavy teaching load. I can’t teach students how to study independently, use a library, do research, and write essays without sacrificing my own research time. This dilemma becomes even more fraught as universities are placed under even greater pressure from the Department of Higher Education to produce more graduates – to ensure that as many students as possible complete their degrees. Getting students to pass requires more input from me, even though my research-oriented university rewards me for doing research.

So do we continue failing students who don’t make the grade? Or do we drop our standards and allow as many to pass as possible? Given that seventy percent of South Africa’s youth is unemployed, I don’t think we even be arguing about university entrance at the moment. We should be fixing our education system, and making affordable, good quality vocational training – which could conceivably lead to university education – more easily available.

Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Her research project, ‘Imperial Babies: Mothercraft and the Politics of Childhood in the British Empire’, considers the global impact of the Mothercraft Movement between the two World Wars. She is interested in histories of age, the body, food, and consumerism, and writes a blog,, on food history. Sarah also volunteers for Right2Know, a freedom of information campaign. She can be contacted at


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