A different horizon: higher education in South Africa

By Fathima Dada –

The latest available statistics from Higher Education South Africa (HESA) demonstrate that currently around 500,000 students are enrolled on a full-time basis at academic institutions across South Africa. This includes full universities, comprehensive universities and universities of technology. Statistics from 2001 and 2009 respectively show a cumulative increase in enrolment, across these institutions, of around 140,000 (35 per cent), from a figure of 401,000 in 2001 to 541,000 in 2009. This figure does not include the Further Education and Training Colleges (FET), where another c.125,000 students are currently enrolled across the country. The Department of Education in South Africa is aiming to increase this figure to a million by 2015.

Annually about 500,00 pupils leave the final year of schooling (‘Matric’), of which around 50 to 60 per cent may achieve university exemption, resulting in about 60,000 making it into Higher Institution’s of Learning. The remainder either enter the FET colleges, look for employment, become self-employed or join the long queue of the unemployed, of which there are estimated to be c.8m currently.

The Department of Education is now in the process of announcing a newly revised educational structure which includes an Adult Matric. This addition to the educational landscape is meant to capture those many adult individuals who never managed to obtain a final school leavers’ qualification.

South Africa’s academic institutions are under pressure to fulfil the economic requirements of a growing economy, helping to produce a labour force that will be able to meet the needs of South Africa, the African Nation and the wider global economy. Pressure in being put upon academic institutions to address the skills shortages experienced by both government and business, especially in the Sciences, Engineering and Mathematics. While there is an over-supply of business graduates leaving the universities, there is a shortfall in Nursing, Health Care and Medicine.

Bursary’s and scholarships are increasingly being made available to promising students, offering them entry into these fields, yet still the number of graduates does not meet the requirements of the economy. Furthermore, there is a paucity of graduates moving on into academia and research.

A few years ago, South African academic institutions were encouraged to cap their enrolment figures and focus on ensuring that students pass the course that they register for, within the minimum amount of time. This presents a huge cost issue for institutions. At FET colleges the pass-rate has been lower than 10 per cent in recent years, while some universities have an average pass rate of only 50%.

Some of the reasons behind these high failure rates are a lack of preparedness for academic life, a poor educational background, lack of support at academic institutions, financial pressures, and lack of knowledge about how to study.

At some institutions students require six years to pass a three year degree, costing the institution – and the country – a great deal of money. A variety of institutions offer measures to address these issues: support for students via extensive tutoring structures, flexible study programs, and different entry/exit levels for programs. Some institutions, notably the distance learning institutions, offer study guides to students that enable self-learning. Often these study guides are meant to be additional resources, on top of prescribed textbooks, but sometimes they replace textbooks altogether.

Few institutions make these textbooks compulsory however, as many fear to be seen adding additional costs to already costly fee-structures and financially burdened students. There is some proof, at some institutions such as the Mangusutho University of Technology in Durban, that adding the cost of a textbook to the study-fee of the student, thus making the book immediately available to the student, has dramatically increased pass-rates. However few institutions have decided to follow this example.

Curriculum reviews are currently happening in a variety of fields – namely Nursing, Teacher Education and the various Business/Commerce disciplines – in order to address national requirements better. For example the revised Nursing curriculum is meant to address the lack of nurses overall, but also issues like there being too few nurses who fulfil basic nursing duties, too few nurses who manage to move from a diploma to a degree course, and too few nurses who do research and become Doctoral students.

So, what does this complex web of data say about Higher Education in South Africa?

Firstly, it paints a dynamic picture of a sector that is very active and responsive to national needs. To accommodate these needs, a growing private HE and FE sector is merging. Also, the high cost of university education (compared to Europe) has encouraged parents and students to demand better quality and throughput of HE institutions. And finally, for the first time since democracy in 1994, the Rainbow Nation has started addressing the need to grow a cadre of young South Africans ready to be leaders in the national, continental and global economy.

Fathima Dada is the CEO of Pearson Southern Africa. She has worked on educational policies for the Ministry of Education for the past 11 years, and continues to do this and community development work, especially in rural areas of South Africa.

Pearson Southern Africa (PSA) can trace its roots back to 1893 when the company Maskew Miller was founded in South Africa. The company merged with Longman South Africa almost 100 years later to form Maskew Miller Longman and then with Heinemann South Africa in 2010. PSA today is the largest and most successful educational publisher in Africa and publishes in over 50 languages.

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