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Education analysts have cautioned South Africa on celebrating the Cinderella success story around 2013’s matric pass rate - saying that most pupils would still struggle at university.
The harsh reality is, however, that the country’s preferred universities are already over-subscribed for their popular courses.
The overall matric pass rate was 73.9 percent this year - the highest since the National Senior Certificate (NSC) system was introduced in 2008. But one of the areas of concern at the release of the results earlier this week was the low pass mark requirement, where pupils only need 30 percent in some subjects to get through.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga says the “hullabaloo” is unfounded.
To qualify for university, said Motshekga, pupils needed to pass four subjects at 50 percent, with 30 percent for their language of learning and the remaining two at 33.3 percent.
“Truth be told, pass requirements for NSC are not any lower than the old Senior Certificate. You claim lower standards only when you’re simply fishing for a very serious insult. Under the old system a candidate could pass with a converted mark of 25 percent (lower grade),” said Motshekga.
However, Michael Cosser, chief researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council, said even with pupils passing four of their seven subjects at 50 percent, they would not be able to cope when they went to mainstream universities.
“The results are heading in the right direction,” said Cosser, “but the quality of the passes will put a strain on universities.”
These inadequate passes mean that institutions would have to direct infrastructure to development programmes, which in turn put pressure on academic development, he said. “You can’t have people doing first year for two years - it is counter-productive,” he added.
Cosser criticised the 30 percent pass mark requirement, saying it needed more attention. Even though the department and quality assurance bodies said that they benchmarked it against other countries, this country must not settle for second best, he said.
“We need to be brave. It needs to be 50 percent (with all subjects), that’s the university pass mark. It must not be below that if we want them to succeed at university.”
Frans Cronje of the SA Institute of Race Relations said schools were merely passing their problems on to universities.
“They say ‘we don’t want these guys to fail, we are going to give them to you. Good luck,’” he said.
In turn, universities passed students to the labour market and that was where the quality of students became clear, he added.
The class of 2012 produced 136 047 pupils eligible to study at university.
According to the Department of Higher Education, there is space for about 180 000 new students at the country’s universities. These are for study in business management; science, engineering and technology; humanities and education.
However, some institutions told The Sunday Independent they had received more applications than they had space for. Carl Herman, director of admissions at the University of Cape Town, said the institution received more than 25 000 undergraduate applications, but had only 4 200 spaces available.
Stellenbosch University can provide for 5 000 first-year students. All places can be filled if 55 percent of candidates who were provisionally admitted, turn up for registration. And according to the deputy registrar at Stellenbosch University, all faculties in the university have received too many applications, with the exception of theology.
The University of Johannesburg received close to 89 000 applications, but only has 10 500 first-year undergraduate spaces for this year.
Wits received about 34 000 applications and has space for 5 500 first- year students.
According to the deputy registrar at Wits, Carol Crosley, very few faculties will be accepting late applications, as almost all degrees are over-subscribed.
For Professor Sarah Gravett, the dean of education at the University of Johannesburg, the added concern is that fewer pupils are taking up maths and science.
While the national pass was a good sign which showed that the system was maturing, most university courses required these subjects, she said.
Even though the increase was commendable, according to Gravett, space constraints at these institutions and affordability did not guarantee that pupils who qualified to study at university would be accepted at the institutions.
She said universities had their own specific requirements that the pupils might not possess.
There has been a decrease in the number of pupils taking up maths over the past four years. The number has gone down from 290 407 in 2009 to 225 874 last year.
And the number of pupils studying science has halved from 220 882 in 2009 to 109 918 last year.
The two subjects have seen drastic improvements in pass rates. In 2009, the national pass rate for physical science was 36.8 percent. This year it stood at 61.3 percent.
And in the past year, the maths pass rate went up from 46.3 percent to 54 percent.
Cronje poured cold water on the increases, saying that if fewer pupils wrote the subject it was obvious that the pass rate would go up.
He said 317 000 pupils wrote maths in 2008 and of those 135 000 passed.
“The manner in which the results were presented by the minister as a huge success conceals that. It’s crookery. There is not much to celebrate. This is not a simple story of success,” he said.
Cronje highlighted that technically, seven out of 10 of the “born- frees” did not make it to matric and that was a big problem.
In 2001, just over 1.1 million pupils started Grade 1. Last year, only 511 152 pupils wrote their matric exams. And of these, only 377 829 pupils passed.
“We’ve written off the future of seven out of 10 born-free kids. The mood to celebrate these results is inappropriate, because seven out of 10 pupils did not get matric. It’s pathetic,” he said. - Sunday Independent