One door of learning opens, others remain shut

Raising a red flag on the continuing education crisis in South Africa


Post #Feesmustfall, does it matter that the doors of tertiary learning are open, if the roads leading to those doors are obstructed for the majority of students? The potential of higher education institutions to nurture future generations of leaders and change makers are being foiled at primary and secondary education level in South Africa. It is clear that access to equal and quality education remains a major concern. Canon Collins Trust asks why, 25 years into democracy, is this still the case?


Even though, it’s an insufficient indicator in and of itself, we often look to the matric pass rate to see how well the education system is doing. According to the Minister of Education, 78.2% of learners passed matric. However, that figure does not take into account the 489,000 learners who dropped out of school on the way to matric. If we consider these disregarded learners, then only 40% of those who started Grade 1 in 2007, passed matric in 2018. Of these, only 17% obtained bachelor passes.


By the Department of Education’s own admission, the reason for this appalling state of affairs is due to the “inability of many schools to get teaching and learning right, and the burden of home background disadvantage.” Statistics bear this out – both students and teachers rank bottom in comparative international benchmarking tests. Yet research shows that South Africa’s spending at the basic education level is comparable to OECD countries. So it seems, budget is not the problem so much as the poor and wasteful nature of our spending. Add to this situation, a weak and unaccountable teaching force. SA’s teachers rank bottom in comparison with peer countries, and score even lower than teachers from some poorer African countries. Rates of absenteeism are high, with teachers in rural areas and townships spending an average of 3.5 hours a day in class, compared to the 6.5 hours spent by teachers in former Model C schools. And if we look at Early Childhood Development, arguably the root of our educational crisis, we see another layer of dysfunction. At this early point. children are being set up to fail through inadequate preparation for entry into the foundational learning phase. ECD is where the grounding for tertiary education lies, and where greater expenditure would make most economic sense.


Education is one of South Africa’s largest structural constraints to economic growth, influencing our performance in innovation, entrepreneurship, human capital and productivity. There is a direct correlation between low levels of education and high levels of unemployment. Stats SA’s 2018 figures show that only 7.9% of graduates are unemployed, compared to 28.2% of matriculants, and 31.9% of those without matric. The more education you have, the better your chances of finding a job.


But is it all roses for those who do make it through the eye of the needle, and enter the tertiary education system? What kind of success scenario awaits them?


Anson Willemse from the Western Cape is coming 3rd in his Matric 2019 class. He has achieved this position while sharing a ‘wendy house’ with ten others. Anson, like many in his generation, faces enormous challenges, and does so with almost complete invisibility. With all his potential, if Anson makes it to university, he will find that this is where South Africa’s two realities collide – the South Africa with a failing primary and secondary schooling education system that serves our townships and rural areas, and the South Africa that boasts some of the best tertiary institutions in the world. For those coming from private and former Model C schools, the transition is relatively easy, but for Anson and his classmates it may be financially, emotionally and intellectually brutal.

According to the Council for Higher Education, only 50% of bachelor scholars graduate in the expected time, with 20% of students taking an additional 2 years to complete. An even smaller proportion of students proceed to postgraduate study – which is where scholarship opportunities become more easily accessible. The poor throughput rate at university level impacts negatively on both the limited financial means and self-confidence of students struggling to stay afloat in the tertiary context, particularly at undergraduate level. Learners enter universities carrying with them deficiencies in reading and comprehension, and analytical skills – deficiencies all accumulated in the early grades. A huge strain is placed on available resources, and students, burdened by a system that has failed to prepare them, take longer to graduate; occupying places that should be available to new entrants. The system becomes clogged and overloaded.


It is important to acknowledge that the origins of our current unfolding education crisis lie in the harrowing history of our previously segregated and oppressive education system. That history continues to poison our present, adding a bitter ingredient to the stew of new challenges emerging in the ongoing crisis. However, we cannot afford to continue to fail our youth who have been, and still remain, sabotaged by a broken schooling system. We have to build the road that leads to the (now partially open) door of higher education.


Southern Africa’s development depends on strong leadership in key fields. Without knowledgeable, innovative, creative and independent thinkers and researchers, our ability as a society to effect change is limited. As the 4th industrial revolution continues to exacerbate inequality globally – postgraduate education is going to become even more important.


Post elections, Canon Collins Trust calls on President Ramaphosa and the Minister of Basic Education to implement urgent reforms and collaborate meaningfully with all stakeholders to address the constraints exacerbating the disconnect between basic and tertiary level education. We cannot wait another 25 years.


About the Author

Gillian Attwood manages the South African office of Canon Collins Trust. She has 25 years’ experience working in education in southern Africa, and holds a PhD in Education from University of the Witwatersrand.