Only one in 20 black South Africans succeeds in higher education, and more than half who enroll at university drop out before completing their degree, according to research published this week.
“Access, success and completion rates continue to be racially skewed, with white completion rates being on average 50 percent higher than African [black] rates,” a damning report by the country’s Council on Higher Education (CHE) says.
The body calls for a radical overhaul of curriculum structures still rooted in the colonial education of a century ago, most importantly by extending undergraduate courses from three years to four.
The 260-page document paints a gloomy picture of South Africa’s education system nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid.
The country’s needs are not being met “largely because much of the country’s intellectual talent is not being developed,” it says, leaving a shortage of skilled graduates in the labor market.
The report uses the term “African” to refer to black students and “colored” to refer to those of mixed race ancestry.
“No group is performing well,” it says, adding that more than a third of white students, the best performing group — who mainly study at historically advantaged universities — fail to graduate within five years.
“However, African and colored student performance remains the biggest cause for concern,” the report says. “The net effect of the performance patterns is that only 5 percent of African and colored youth are succeeding in higher education. This represents an unacceptable failure to develop the talent in the groups where realization of potential is most important.”
South Africa’s higher education system has grown by more than 80 percent since the dawn of democracy in 1994; total enrollment now stands at more than 900,000. This has helped redress inequalities in admissions, with black enrollments reaching 79 percent and female enrollments 57 percent of the total by 2010. However, of the best-performing cohort analyzed to date (that from 2006), only 35 percent of students graduated within five years, and it is estimated that 55 percent will never graduate — a loss of about 70,000 students.
The CHE, a statutory body that advises the higher education minister, acknowledges that universities do not exist in a bubble. The governing African National Congress is accused by critics of failing to bridge the gap between rich and poor, with its persistent racial dimension, and has also been charged with presiding over woefully inadequate schools that deny millions the chance to realize their potential.
“Access to and success in higher education is strongly influenced by the socio-economic background of individuals,” the report says. “This is especially so in the South African context where the large majority of black students come from low-income families that do not have the financial resources to support the pursuit of higher education.”
Increasing access and completion rates depends largely on addressing the apartheid legacy, it continues. “It is clear, however, that whatever the merits or otherwise of policy interventions that have been put in place thus far, there has been limited success post-1994 in addressing these challenges.”
This year’s World Economic Forum Global Information Technology report ranks South Africa 140th out of 144 countries in terms of the “quality of the educational system,” below all other African countries surveyed except Burundi and Libya.
The CHE says starkly: “It is common cause that the shortcomings and inequalities in South Africa’s public school system are a major contributor to the generally poor and racially skewed performance in higher education.”
However, with little prospect of an improvement in schools in the short term, universities must come up with their own remedies, the CHE says. Funding students alone is not the answer, since many who fail to complete their studies are not indigent. “Equally important is addressing the affective or psychological and social factors that are also a barrier to success in higher education.”
The University of Cape Town (UCT), ranked the best in Africa, has a controversial policy of admitting black students who have substantially lower test scores than whites.
However, the CHE’s task team, chaired by former UCT vice-chancellor Njabulo Ndebele, stops short of recommending positive discrimination.
Instead, it urges an overhaul of a curriculum structure that evolved from the adoption, early in the 20th century, of the Scottish educational framework. This lineage is explained by colonial ties and, specifically, the fact that the South African school system — like Scotland’s — ended a year below the English A-level.
The CHE calls for an additional year as the norm for core undergraduate degrees and diplomas, within a flexible structure that allows for high-achieving students to finish more quickly.
“The projections presented indicate that the flexible curriculum structure would produce 28 percent [about 15,000] more graduates than the status quo from the same intake cohort, at an additional subsidy cost of only 16 percent, reflecting a significant increase in efficiency,” it says.