The (Mis)Education of SA

Windhoek – South Africa’s education system still has its roots firmly in the racial apartheid system and the composition of the country’s institutions of higher education is racially skewed in favour of whites.

White students also fare better than their non-white counterparts.

A damning report by South Africa’s Council on Higher Education (CHE) paints a grim and startling picture of the Southern African economic powerhouse’s higher and tertiary education system.

Some of the findings in the report on the higher education system in South Africa mirror the same ineffectual education system in Namibia, which was also governed under the repressive apartheid system until 1990.

South Africa gained its independence four years later.


Shocking Results


The detailed CHE 260-page research says that the South African government has failed to transform the education system and that, just as it was prior to independence, blacks and coloureds bear the brunt of an education system designed to perpetuate a status quo that favoured a minority white population.

The report says that only one in 20 black South Africans succeed in higher education while more than half who enrol at university drop out before completing their degree studies.

The authors of the study highlight that graduate output has far been outpaced by the country’s skills needs; that performance in higher education is marked by “high levels of failure” and dropping out; and that the education system largely benefits whites.

“Access, success and completion rates continue to be racially skewed, with white completion rates being on average 50 percent higher than African rates.

“The net result of the disparities in access and success is that under five percent of African and coloured youth are succeeding in any form of higher education,” the CHE says.

The graduates’ performance is completely out of sync with South Africa’s overarching ambitions to develop intellectual talent in all its communities.

Without “decisive intervention” from authorities, there is little hope that the poor pattern in the country’s education system “is a temporary aberration”.

The findings are a wake-up call to the need for a radical overhaul of South Africa’s curricula and its entire education system.

“The ‘revolving door syndrome’, in which increased access is accompanied not by success but by high failure, repetition and dropout rates, continues to characterise the higher education system.

“While steady progress has been made since 1994 in addressing equity of access, equity of outcomes remains elusive.

“Thus a key strategic objective ‑ to produce increasing numbers of graduates with the skills and competences to meet the human resource and knowledge needs of the country ‑ remains unfulfilled,” the CHE said.




The disjuncture between access to education and success upon accessing it is attributed to the mismatch between the demands of higher education and the preparedness of school leavers for tertiary study.

Furthermore, graduates are not well-prepared for the changing demands of society and the economy and the CHE study questions the “educatedness” of university graduates.

The study found out that there is a low absolute number of graduates, and that many of those that do graduate rank poorly in terms of disciplinary and technical expertise and other attributes that the council deems necessary for professional competence.

Furthermore, “the distribution of graduates continues to be highly skewed along racial lines”.


Colonial Roots


The CHE blames what it calls the “role of dysfunctional schooling and socio-economic conditions” on an inherited education system that can be traced to South Africa’s colonial history.

“The origins of South Africa’s current higher education curriculum structures lie in the adoption, early in the 20th century, of the Scottish educational framework.

“This came about because of colonial ties and especially because, like Scotland, the South African school system ended a year below the English ‘A’ (Advanced) level.”

The study says that it’s because of this reason that South Africa adopted a separate Honours qualification designed to bring students up to the level of a three-year English Honours degree.

“It is timely now to review to what extent our embedded curriculum structures and assumptions are meeting contemporary needs.”

While acknowledging that total enrolment in higher education has grown by over 80 percent since 1994 to over 900 000, the number of graduates ‑ as a percentage of head counts ‑ enrolments in a given year has only grown marginally to 17 percent in 2010 from 15 percent in 1994.

The number of African and coloured graduates has also grown by 50 percent between 1995 and 2010 to 31 000.

“However, the growth has come from a low and racially skewed base, and the system continues to have major shortcomings in terms of the key goals of development, equity and enhancement.”

Redress of “racial inequalities are a continuing challenge” and any planned growth in enrolments would have to focus primarily on black and coloured students.

The study also found out that there are “generally poor performance patterns, and there nevertheless continues to be substantial racial disparities”.

“Very small proportions of African, coloured and Indian students graduate in regular time. By the end of regulation time … more students have been lost to failure and dropout than have graduated ‑ more than twice as many in the case of African and diploma students,” the CHE says.

Overall, the performance of South African students remains very poor, the study notes.

No racial group can be said to be performing very well, and more than a third of the best performing group – white students in “contact institutions” (mainly historically advantaged universities and colleges) – fail to graduate within five years.

Only 42 percent of African contact students graduate within five years while the performance of coloured students in contact institutions is only marginally better.

“The net effect of the performance patterns is that only five percent of African and coloured youth are succeeding in higher education. This represents an unacceptable failure to develop the talent in the groups where realisation of potential is most important.”






The CHE candidly admits that South Africa’s higher education system “is not producing sufficient graduates to meet national needs in respect of economic and social development”.

Its findings support another analysis done in 2006 which found out that only 35 percent students graduated within five years while an estimated 55 percent of the intake will never graduate.

One of the biggest concerns is the continuous inequitable distribution of the benefits of the education system with the sector only catering for only five percent of African and coloured age groups.

Unpreparedness (poor schooling) for studying at university level is also a major factor to the poor performance and outcomes. For instance, teaching in school often focuses on algorithms, standard forms and procedural knowledge aiming for examination success but without sufficiently inculcating reasoning, conceptual and theoretical knowledge – a basis for higher education learning.

This leads to a situation where university lecturers sometimes consider it necessary to assist students to “unlearn” material and/or approaches that brought them relative success at school.

The CHE recommends a structural curriculum reform, which takes into account students’ educational backgrounds.

There is also need for providing additional curriculum space by means of extending the standard duration of programmes.

“South Africa can and should determine the parameters of its curricula … and not be bound by a rigid inherited structure that has become counter-productive to developing the country’s talent … an enabling curriculum structure is an essential element of ensuring the achievement of good academic standards without failing large numbers of talented students.”

Njabulo Ndebele, who chaired the CHE task team which conducted the study, said: “This report highlights the resilience of both historical and systemic factors that have combined to put a brake on the momentum of the desire to craft an undergraduate system that delivers on a demanding constitutional mandate to achieve a successful post-apartheid society.”


 Namibia’s Crisis


The Bantu Education Act of 1953 is largely to blame for the situation that South Africa finds itself in today.

And elements of this segregationist policy found their way into Namibia around the same time following the institution of apartheid in South Africa in 1948 and its spread into what was then called South West Africa.

In Namibia today, school attendance rates meet standards set in the Millennium Development Goals, but as with South Africa, the challenge lies in the quality of education on offer.

Since independence in 1990, the government has notably invested as much as much as 25 percent of its budget in education.

But one estimate by European Union Commission researchers says 20 percent of pupils in Grade Five have to repeat and half of those in Grade 10 fail.

At the 2012 African Regional Seminar for Health and Education, Nathalie Houlou – the education programme officer at the EU Delegation to Namibia – presented a case study of the education system in the country.

She said, “Education should be approached from a holistic perspective and thus be viewed and tackled across sectors.

“When you look at over 20 years of huge financial investment in the sector and at the necessary ingredients for education to perform, such as the qualification of primary teachers – with Namibia being better endowed than other countries and the provision of textbooks being addressed – you would think that there would be better results.”








September 2013
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