Academics and economists did not celebrate the increase in the mathematics and science pass rates yesterday, saying it was not enough to get South Africa out of its scarce-skills shortage.

The Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, announced an improvement in the maths and science pass rates on Monday, but her department did not provide a breakdown. However, the Department of Higher Education released more detailed figures yesterday, saying that fewer than half the learners who passed maths scored 50 percent or more.

This comes only four months after the 2012/13 Global Competitiveness report by the World Economic Forum ranked South Africa as the worst performer out of 148 countries for the quality of its maths and science education.

For the quality of the education system, the country was ranked in 146th place – below Brics peers Brazil, Russia, India and China.

The maths pass rate for the class of 2013 improved to 59.1 percent from 54 percent the previous year. But the Department of Higher Education said less than half the class of 2013 chose to do maths as a subject.

A total of 142 666 learners passed maths and 282 270 passed maths literacy, compared with 254 611 in 2012.

The pass rate for physical science increased by 6.1 percentage points to 67.4 percent.

“Until the numbers of As and Bs improve, South Africa will not be able to produce all the scarce skills it needs,” said Professor Jill Adler from the Wits School of Education.

“The problem is not the level of passes but the distribution of those passes. Until we shift beyond passing maths with 30 percent, we are not out of the woods.”

In the past couple of years, the vast majority of pupils got passes below 50 percent in maths, with most getting between 30 percent and 40 percent.

Azar Jammine, the chief economist at Econometrix, said the bigger challenge was that scarce skills professions actually needed a 70 percent pass in maths for students to cope in their first year of training.

He said only about 51 000 of the class of 2013 got passes of more than 50 percent in maths.

“So what this means is that a large portion of people are excluded from participating on the sections of the economy that remunerate best… It also holds back development.

“We can’t get higher economic growth unless we import those skills,” he said.

Professor Servaas van den Berg, from Stellenbosch University’s school of economics, said change was needed in the accountability structures and in monitoring what went on in classrooms.

“What we see here [in the 2013 results] is not an indication that much has changed.

“And it’s not a question of resources. Kenya does much better than us in those areas but we spend about five to seven times more than them on education,” Van den Berg said.

According to UCT, only 10 percent of the 2013 matric learners who wrote the national benchmark tests were “proficient” in maths, meaning that they would be able to cope with the demands of the first-year mathematics curricula.

The university said that while 30.6 percent of matrics got university exemptions, it was not clear how many had the maths and science proficiency required to participate in scarce-skills programmes.

In August last year, the chief executive of the SA Institution of Civil Engineering (Saice), Manglin Pillay, was quoted as saying that the internationally accepted ratio of engineering professionals to the population was six per 100 000 inhabitants in a municipality. He said in South Africa, the ratio was three per 100 000 in major cities.

Saice president Peter Kleynhans said yesterday the question was not about whether South Africa trained enough engineering professionals but about the calibre of training.