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Durban - The heads of South Africa’s universities have defended the value of the matric certificate after reaction from politicians and education analysts who questioned its “usefulness” following the release of last year’s results.

Higher Education South Africa (Hesa), the body which represents the country’s 23 vice-chancellors, says the National Senior Certificate is still the single most important predictor of success in higher education and is a measure – albeit an imperfect one – of how well schools are performing.

The release of the matric results earlier this week was met with reactions ranging from cautious optimism to blatant scepticism by a number of academics.

There is also the perception that universities are increasingly using their own means of assessment, as a more reliable tool to gauge the competency of prospective students.

In a statement, Hesa argued to the contrary, saying the matric certificate was an important qualification, based on curricula which had been significantly improved upon since the 1990s.

“It is important for universities because despite what some critics are saying, success in the National Senior Certificate remains a very important measure, even if an imperfect one, of how well our schools are performing.”

The body said in response to criticism of the “usefulness” of the matric certificate, that it wished to make it clear that no university had done away with the use of matric results for determining university admission.

Most places at university were won solely on the basis of the school leaver’s National Senior Certificate results, while National Benchmark Tests (university admission tests) were designed to play a complementary role.

The gap between high school and university has increasingly been in the spotlight, with high undergraduate drop-out rates and a proposal by a higher education task team that all degree programmes be extended by a year to deal with student “underpreparedness”.

More than half of South African students drop out of university and just one in four graduates in the minimum time.

When quizzed about the high drop-out rates at universities, the head of the provincial Education Department, Nkosinathi Sishi, took a swipe at the higher education sector.

“The purpose of the schooling system is not to prepare young people for universities, but to prepare them for life.

“To place the responsibility of the performance of young people at university on schools is unfair. But the gap is wider than it should be, we want to acknowledge that,” Sishi said.

In its statement, Hesa conceded that while the national matric pass rate showed welcome signs of improvement, it had to be seen within a certain “context”: fewer than half of the class of 2013 took maths (as opposed to maths literacy) and fewer than 50 percent of matric pupils who took maths as a subject passed it with 50 percent or higher.

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The Mercury