“Matric really does start in Gr1” – my M&G/Teacher article on TIMSS 2015


(The article below first appeared in The Teacher magazine in January, and in the Mail & Guardian on the 27th of January 2017)

The month of January is an interesting one in the South African calendar. It seems that this is the one time in the year when everyone cares about education, or more accurately, cares about matric. And in some senses there is a good reason for this; matric is the gateway to higher education. If we look at 25-35 year olds in the 2011 Census data we see that for those with less than a matric, 47% were unemployed (using the broad definition), compared to 33% among those whose highest qualification was a matric and only 8% for those with a bachelors degree. While matric used to be the big distinguisher between the haves and have-nots, increasingly the difference is between those with some kind of tertiary qualification and everyone else. And in 2016, as usual, mathematics proved to be a tough gateway subject for those who want to study further. Only one in three learners who wrote Mathematics in 2016 got 40% or more in the subject, with a recent study showing that only about 15,000 matrics achieved 70% or more in mathematics. That’s about 1,5% of students who start school in Grade 1.

As anyone familiar with maths will tell you, the subject is a hierarchical one that builds upon itself. You need to understand multiplication and division before you can understand fractions or rate and proportion. So where do the wheels come off? Is it just before matric, perhaps in Grade 9 or 10? Or even earlier in Grade 4 or 5? To shed some light on this question we can turn to some recent mathematics research published by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) at the end of last year. Every four years South Africa participates in an international study of mathematics achievement called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study or TIMSS. We test a nationally-representative sample of Grade 5 and Grade 9 learners on a standardised international test, which is the same test that is written by thousands of other students in other countries and allows us to compare ourselves to these other countries. (Although almost all the countries test their Grade 4 and Grade 8 students on these tests). The most recent round of tests was done in 2015.

The results showed that only 34% of our Grade 9 learners could do basic mathematics, i.e. could reach the lowest international benchmark. That is to say that 66% of our learners could not do basic computations or match tables to bar graphs or read a simple line graph. They had not acquired a basic understanding about whole numbers, decimals, operations or basic graphs. However there was one piece of encouraging information that emerged from the study and that was that the number of students that could do basic mathematics increased from 24% in 2011 to 34% in 2015 in South Africa, one of the fastest improvements seen internationally.

But if 66% of our Grade 9 learners can’t do basic maths, when did these gaps emerge? In 2015, for the first time in our history, South Africa also participated in the primary-school level of TIMSS that usually tests Grade 4 learners – we tested our Grade 5 learners. It showed that 61% of Grade 5 learners could not reach the Low International Benchmark. Learners who do not reach the low international benchmark at the primary level cannot add and subtract three or four digit whole numbers like 218 and 191. They do not recognise familiar geometric shapes or parallel and perpendicular lines. They cannot read and complete simple bar graphs and tables. For example, according to our curriculum, multiplying a 3-digit number by a 1-digit number is meant to be covered in Term 1 of Grade 4 yet only 41% of our Grade 5 learners could calculate “512 x 3 =____”, which was one of the questions in 2015. So almost 60% of our Grade 5 learners are already significantly behind the curriculum in 2015.

The conclusion that the root of our problems is not in high school but rather much earlier, in the lower grades of primary school is not a new finding – there are many studies showing this from at least 1999. In a report published nearly 10 years ago, one South African education researcher (Dr Eric Scholar) analysed the mathematics achievement in 154 schools across the country. He concluded that the low levels of achievement we see in the higher grades are rooted in weak foundations in primary school. To quote his exact conclusion:

‘‘The fundamental cause of poor learner performance across our education system is a failure to extend the ability of learners from counting to true calculating in their primary schooling. All more complex mathematics depends, in the first instance, on an instinctive understanding of place value within the base-10 number system, combined with an ability to readily perform basic calculations and see numeric relationships … Learners are routinely promoted from one Grade to the next without having mastered the content and foundational competences of preceding Grades, resulting in a large cognitive backlog that progressively inhibits the acquisition of more complex competencies. The consequence is that every class has become, in effect, a ‘multi-Grade’ class in which there is a very large range of learner abilities and this makes it very difficult, or even impossible, to consistently teach to the required assessment standards for any particular Grade. Mathematics, however, is a hierarchical subject in which the development of increasingly complex cognitive abilities at each succeeding level is dependent on the progressive and cumulative mastery of its conceptual frameworks, starting with the absolutely fundamental basics of place value (the base-10 number system) and the four operations (calculation)’’

While as a country we continue to obsess about the matric pass rate, the research is really quite clear. The majority of our young people are acaquiring learning deficits early on in primary school and then carrying these with them as they move through school. As they are promoted into higher grades there is a decoupling between what learners know and can do and what the curriculum expects from them. We need to acknowledge that matric starts in Grade 1 (and even earlier), and that it really is possible to improve primary schooling if that is where we focus most of our time, energy and resources.

DBE needs you (2 vacancies)


My good friend and colleague Dr Stephen Taylor (who is the Director of Research in the National Department of Basic Education (DBE) in Pretoria) is looking for 2 people to join his team in the Research Monitoring and Evaluation unit. The full job advertisement is here and I’ve included screenshots of the relevant position below. I’ve done a Q&A with Stephen (and Martin Gustafsson who is also in DBE) to give you a flavour of the kind of people they are. I would whole-heartedly recommend Stephen as a boss and a person 🙂 they are creating a really impactful team (Janeli Kotze and Mpumi Mohohlwane have also recently been appointed there full-time). If you are looking for an excellent team, to have an impact in education and have good quantitative skills – apply! (Deadline 17 Feb).



PS I should totally get a finders fee for this kind of thing 🙂

Yale Young African Scholars Program 2017 (high-school students)


If you know of any outstanding high-school students across the continent, this looks like a great opportunity to help prepare them for the US university admission and financial aid processes. Please forward it on to them. Deadline is the 31st of January 2017.

See excerpt from the email below

In 2016 YYAS brought 300 of Africa’s most talented high school students to programs in Rwanda, Ghana and Zimbabwe where they engaged in the sorts of robust intellectual exchanges that are crucial to understanding Africa’s most pressing challenges and exciting opportunities. With participants from over 20 countries across the continent, the students also gained exposure to the ideas and perspectives of a very diverse group of peers and took part in leadership skills development activities. Critically, however, the main focus of the YYAS program is to introduce the participants to U.S. universities’ admission and financial aid processes. Workshops led by Yale students as well as university admission representatives equipped YYAS participants with a thorough understanding of these processes, and we also offered standardized test preparation sessions plus ongoing mentorship that will see each student through his or her university application cycle.

I am very proud to be joining this exciting program and for the opportunity to help YYAS further its reach and scale across the continent. And I’m thrilled to announce that the 2017 YYAS program application is open! I hope you will share our promotional materials (see attachments) with secondary school students or organizations that work with secondary school students in Africa. Moreover, we do anticipate that many of our program’s alumni will apply to your university or programs in the near future. Please watch out for YYAS on their applications! We are certain that the academic standing and caliber of our alumni will make them excellent members of your community and hope that you will see YYAS as a stepping stone to great success in their university studies.


My M&G article on Universities in 2017


(The above article was published in the Mail & Guardian on the 6th of January 2016 and is available in PDF here).

Students contest the status quo 

Over the last two years, universities in South Africa have become increasingly contested spaces. Student movements like RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall have categorically rejected the status quo as unacceptable and are working to reorder not only the principles that govern universities, but ultimately the principles that govern the country. Of course the first order of business is challenging our current assumptions about who should go to university, what it should look like, and who should pay for it. And on all three fronts they have been phenomenally successful. It is really quite remarkable that a loose group of students who lack a political mandate, who have not been elected by anyone, and have virtually no resources have managed to achieve so much so quickly. They have brought whole universities to their knees and prompted the creation of a Presidential Task Team. Most significantly they garnered enough support to essentially force the government to allocate an additional R17 billion to higher education in the Medium Term Budget.

About 200 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte famously quipped that a revolution is simply an idea which has found its bayonets. In the context of the various student movements I think it’s worthwhile to try and identify the underlying idea, its animating principle. As the student movements assemble and reassemble under different names (seemingly quite effortlessly), I think there is a leitmotif running through all of them; the unfinished business of 1994. There is a generation of young Black South Africans who feel that the terms of the negotiated settlement were unjust and let White South Africans off the hook. Dr Amos Wilson. a theoretical psychologist and social theorist, makes the logic behind this position explicit in the following quote:

“Justice requires not only the ceasing and desisting of injustice but also requires either punishment or reparation for injuries and damages inflicted for prior wrongdoing. The essence of justice is the redistribution of gains earned through the perpetration of injustice. If restitution is not made and reparations not instituted to compensate for prior injustices, those injustices are in effect rewarded. And the benefits such rewards conferred on the perpetrators of injustice will continue to “draw interest,” to be reinvested, and to be passed on to their children, who will use their inherited advantages to continue to exploit the children of the victims of the injustice of their ancestors. Consequently, injustice and inequality will be maintained across generations as will their deleterious social, economic, and political outcomes.”

Thinking that the various incarnations of the student movements are primarily about universities is a mistake. RhodesMustfall was not about a statue; it was about reclamation and power and history. Similarly, the challenge today is not only about who should pay fees, but who should own the land. The discontent and anger about the ‘pay-to-play’ market system that we have – where only those who can pay for quality get it – is as much about private hospitals and Model-C schools as it is about universities. The true contested space at our universities at the moment is really about the principles that currently order our society and reimagining different ones.

Fighting for a different future

There are students in South Africa today who look at our country and refuse to accept that the way we are currently doing things is the only way they can be done. How is it that in a country with considerable wealth and resources that we still have 10 million people living on less than R10 a day? Whenever I land at Cape Town International Airport and get an aerial view of Khayelitsha, I think to myself “How the heck can we, as a country, not find a dignified solution to housing for the poor?” In Cape Town we have 400,000 people living in shacks a mere 40-minute drive from the house that sold for R290-million in Bantry Bay. We have decadent opulence living next to extreme poverty. It’s not right.

And so we come back to the contested space at universities where people have different ideas about how we get from where we are to a better future. Students associated with Black-First-Land-First argue for land expropriation without compensation. The Nobel Laureate Thomas Piketty motivates for much steeper wealth and inheritance taxes to level the playing field. The Wits SRC has proposed a once-off ‘apartheid windfall’ tax on “companies that benefited unfairly by abusing state resources” under apartheid.

But since the current discussions at universities are still centred on fees and access to university, let’s start there and think about what 2017 might hold for universities, and put some numbers on the table. Personally I think we will actually find a sustainable solution to student financing at universities, possibly even in 2017. Sizwe Nxasana – the head of the Presidential Task Team – has developed a highly sophisticated and workable model of student funding called the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP) that is being trialled at seven universities this year, focussing on students studying medicine, engineering and accounting. This is essentially a public-private partnership which aims to “significantly increase the funding and resources which are made available to support students from working class families to graduate and find employment by leveraging private sector funding.” One can think of it as a three-tier model with the poorest students being fully funded with grants and the missing-middle with a combination of grants and income-contingent loans (to be repaid only if the recipient does graduate and earns above a certain amount). Then finally, those at the top that can pay fees do pay fees. While it isn’t free education for everyone – and the vanguard may therefore not accept it – if implemented properly it has a good shot at ensuring that no student is excluded from university on financial grounds. That would be a significant achievement.

Thankfully, many in the sector are now realising that needs-blind allocations to higher education – where all students are equally subsidised – are socially regressive and anti-poor. This is largely because the children of the wealthy attend fee-charging schools that give them a much better shot at qualifying for university than the children of the poor. We know that less than 1 in 10 children from the poorest 70% of households qualify to go to university compared to 1 in 2 or 3 children (40%) among the wealthiest 10% of households. And because of this, if one allocated an additional R10bn to higher-education in a blanket fashion, then about R6,8bn (68%) will end up benefitting the wealthiest 20% of South African households because it is their children who are disproportionately at university (according to two fiscal incidence studies). A recent study showed that 60% of students that qualified for university came from the 30% of high schools that charged fees. What is the point of raising revenue by additional taxes on the richest 20% only to give two thirds of that money straight back to them in the form of indirect subsidies to their children?

So if we agree that the rich should not be subsidised (usually defined as those in households with annual income of more than R600,000), how many students would need funding? Professor Servaas van der Berg’s analysis of household surveys has shown that about 60% of the current university-going population would be eligible for funding. (This assumes that income is under-captured in surveys by about 30% . Importantly, this would cover 73% of Black African university students and 30% of White university students.

While ending financial exclusion at university won’t solve the thornier issues in South Africa – about land, inequality, restitution, primary education, unemployment – it would serve as a powerful and invigorating example that things really can be different to what they are now. It would be poetic if the start of a successful campaign for a different South Africa could trace its origins to the toppling of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes.

Dr Nic Spaull is an education researcher at the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group at Stellenbosch University. He is on Twitter @NicSpaull


My take on Matric 2016…



Every year there is a big song and dance about the matric exams and if the pass rate went up or down, which province came out on top etc. etc. Thankfully some organisations like Equal Education are directing our attention to where the root issue is: the weak foundations students get in primary schooling. There is ample evidence of this in maths and reading as the foundational bell-weather subjects that pretty much everything else is built on.

Throughput pass rates

As I’ve mentioned before we need to move beyond our myopic obsession with the matric pass rate and start seeing the results in light of other statistics, notably the throughput pass rate. Rather than calculating the number of students passing matric divided by the number of students writing matric (the traditional matric pass rate) we should also be calculating the number of students who pass matric relative to the number of students in grade 10 two years earlier and those in grade 2 ten years earlier (throughput pass rates). This gives us an idea of how many kids are dropping out along the way and if this is increasing or decreasing over time. (Note that this is also affected by the changing number of students repeating Grade 10. Because we don’t know the number of non-repeating students we have to use the total number of students enrolled in Grade 10).

From the above graph and table we can see the following:

  • The throughput pass rate and the traditional matric pass rate do not always move in tandem. For example, between 2014 and 2015 the traditional matric pass rate went down while the throughput pass rate went up, indicative of the much larger cohort of students who did worse on average but because there were so many more students this meant a higher throughput pass rate (as I ‘ve discussed here and Nick Taylor has made the same argument in 2011).
  • The throughput pass rate has been steadily increasing over time, which is a good thing.
  • Less than half of the cohort (whether Grade 2 or Grade 10) actually pass matric. In our system about 60% of South African youth leave the schooling system without any proof of their educational status.

Standardisation and grade inflation

Secondly there is the issue of standardisation and adjustment. The quality-assurance body Umalusi is tasked with standardising the matric results so that no one year is disadvantaged relative to another. If the exams are more difficult/easy then Umalusi is allowed to adjust the marks upwards/downwards (by a maximum of 10 percentage points). As I discussed last year the presence of an extra 120,000 matrics in 2015 made the process of standardisation much more complicated than it had been in the past. We know these are weaker students and thus would have dragged down average performance, yet the decline in average performance in 2015 was attributed to more difficult papers.

“Was the test really so much more difficult than previous years? (This is the only reason why one is allowed to adjust the marks at all.) Why did the internal and external moderators not pick up the huge increase in difficulty? Is it not more plausible that the massive drop in pre-adjusted performance was actually due to the additional 112,000 weaker pupils who would have otherwise dropped out? If so, Umalusi shouldn’t have adjusted. (from here)”

In my view the standardisation of raw marks should be done without progressed learners included and then applied to progressed learners after the fact. You cannot compare the 2015 and 2016 cohorts (and to some extent the 2014 cohort) with earlier cohorts because they did not have progressed learners. I think this remains an open question and I am quite anxious about the very large adjustments that Umalusi is making, assuming that the tests are getting much more difficult when the most plausible explanation is the inclusion of many more weaker students that typically would have dropped out in the past. (In 2015 the number of students passing maths literacy increased from 38% to 71% and there were similarly large adjustments in 2016).  If I am right about this, and there is essentially a lot of grade-inflation going on, then we are likely to see universities increasing their NSC points entrance criteria and – something which we have already seen over the last 6 years – the use of other criteria like the National Benchmarking Tests.

Provincial performance and sample selection

Every year the media likes to highlight which province has done the best in the matric exams. The competition is usually between our two wealthiest provinces (surprise surprise!), which are Gauteng and the Western Cape. In 2016 the Free State had the highest matric pass rate of 88% and so MEC’s and bureaucrats were all commending the Free State for their achievement. But if we dig a little deeper there are a few thorny questions here…

In 2011 Nick Taylor argued that changes in the matric pass rate can be driven by many things, including the difficulty of the exams, subject combinations and the number of students that actually make it to matric. This later point is the one I want to highlight here – the practice of not letting weaker students get to matric, sometimes referred to as gate-keeping or — and I hate this term — ‘culling’).

When I heard that the Free State and the Northern Cape had increased their matric pass rates significantly (7 and 9 percentage points respectively), my first question was “But did they hold back more students than last year?” So let’s see what the numbers say. Does there seem to be a relationship between the number of Grade 12s writing matric between 2015 and 2016 and a change in the pass rate over the two years? Let’s see…


So, the three provinces with the largest increases in their matric pass rate also had the biggest declines in the percentage of students writing matric. That’s pretty strange. So if we do a similar analysis to the throughput pass rate above but at a provincial level what do we see? The Free State is no longer first but 4th of the provinces with the Western Cape and Gauteng at the top. And the Northern Cape and KZN are now only marginally better than Limpopo – the second worst performing province.



There may well be a legitimate explanation for this but our first port of call when seeing a big change like this is a change in the underlying sample. Before we start asking what interventions the Free State implemented we should be asking if the ‘increase’ is legitimate. At least at face value there seems to be a lot more sample selection in the provinces with the highest increases in matric pass rates. And judging from the Grade 10 (2014) and Grade 11 (2015) cohorts it doesn’t look like there was a population decline in these provinces.

So to sum up the above I’d say the following:

  1. We shouldn’t be obsessing about the matric pass rate in isolation or as much as we do.
  2. The biggest problems that should occupy our time, energy and resources are getting the foundations right in primary school.
  3. At least part of the reason why the Free State, the Northern Cape and KZN did better in 2016 than in 2015 is that they held back a higher proportion of their Grade 10 and Grade 11 students than the other provinces.
  4. I think there are still big question marks about the way Umalusi is treating progressed learners in the standardisation process and we may be witnessing quite significant grade inflation.
  5. Universities are likely to feel the brunt of this when their first years are not as well-equipped to succeed as their grades seem to indicate.

So now, I need to get back to Foundation Phase reading research 🙂

The excel file with the above tables/graphs/figures is here in case anyone wants to do their own calculations/graphs. 

“Higher education: Free for the poor not free for all” (my ST article)


(The article below first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 16th of October 2016)

Across the country student protests have shut down universities with demands for “free higher education for all” prompting a Fees Commission and more recently a Presidential Task Team of Ministers to help solve the crisis. At the root of the issue is the righteous indignation about the fact that academically deserving students are excluded from university (either initially or subsequently) because they cannot pay their fees or living expenses. After overcoming countless barriers to simply get to university, these resilient students are then excluded simply because they are poor. This is unacceptable. I whole-heartedly agree with the underlying principle that no student should be excluded from university on financial grounds, which is unfortunately the status quo. Note that this is not the same as saying I think we should have “free higher education for all.” I think that subsidizing the richest 10% of South African households is unconscionable and unjustifiable, and “free education for everyone” is exactly that: a subsidy for the rich. Let me explain why.

Firstly we have to ask who makes it to university? A recent study published last month by my colleagues Dr Hendrik van Broekhuizen and Professor Servaas van der Berg shows that of 100 children that started school, only 14 will qualify for university, 12 will actually enrol and only 6 will get some kind of undergraduate qualification within 6 years. So when we speak about university we are really speaking about the 12% of students that actually make it to university. And who are the students that qualify? In a recent matric cohort, about 60% of those that qualified came from the wealthiest 30% of high schools (quintile 4 and 5), most of which charged fees. And who attends fee-charging schools? Largely those wealthier students whose parents can afford the fees. We can also look at this by race; about half (47%) of white matriculants go to university compared to less than a fifth of Black (17%) and Coloured (20%) matriculants.

This explains why blanket fee-free education is considered to be highly regressive or anti-poor. In contrast to a free-for-the-poor system which is pro-poor. The fact that the children from the wealthiest households are many times more likely to get in to university means that they would benefit disproportionately from a blanket fee-free system. It should thus come as no surprise that the World Bank (2014) and Van der Berg (2016) both estimate that as much as half (48%) of the university funding in South Africa accrues to the richest 10% of households. And two thirds (68%) accrues to the wealthiest 20% of households. As Van der Berg notes, this constitutes an “extreme bias towards spending on the rich if all students are equally subsidised.”

What is the point of raising revenue by additional taxes on the richest 20% only to give two thirds of that money straight back to them in the form of indirect subsidies to their children? No, instead we should use all the revenue raised from the additional taxes – however much that might be – to properly fund the poorest 80% of students who manage to qualify against all odds and who really need the funding.

The next question then becomes what the best modality is for ensuring that no student is excluded from university on financial grounds. While ideologically students may be demanding ‘free-education for all’, the existing economic environment of depressed economic growth and fiscal consolidation means that it is not easy to find an additional R60bn of recurrent expenditure. It is not a cop-out when Treasury says that it cannot simply ‘find’ an additional R60bn every year. To put this in perspective, the entire government budget of the Western Cape is R55bn. Health, housing, education, everything. We also need to grapple with the issue that additional money allocated to higher education is likely to crowd out other budget items like the progressive realisation of other constitutional imperatives such as universal health care (National Health Insurance) or universal housing.

Personally I am in favour of raising taxes (the skills tax and the capital gains tax) to fund poor and working class students who are currently financially excluded from university. Yet we need to go further than that to cover the “missing middle.” I think that a hybrid system of grants, subsidized loans and fees would lead to the largest reduction in financial exclusion, irrespective of how much is raised. The poorest students would receive ‘free’ education in the form of adequate grants that cover both fees and living expenses. The missing middle would qualify for government backed loans whose repayment was contingent on graduating and earning above a certain threshold (income-contingent loans), and the wealthy would pay fees, as they are currently doing. Those students who get government-backed loans would carry little financial risk, receive subsidized interest rates and capped loan repayments that would only revert in the event that they earn above a certain threshold. The leveraging effect of using the existing financial markets and banks means that, for example, R15bn of additional revenue could stand surety for loans of up to R60bn. So while it might only be possible to raise an additional R15bn – through a 1% rise in the Skills Levy for example -, one could ensure that no students are excluded on financial grounds. This is not politically sexy or glamorous, and doesn’t have a catchy hashtag (yet) but it does grapple with the budgetary realities we face as a country.

It is not at all clear to me why the different student movements are insisting on free education for everyone (including the rich) in spite of all the evidence that this would be fiscally irresponsible and socially regressive. Subsidizing the rich wastes precious tax income that could otherwise have supported more poor and working class students. Furthermore, if we can shift the conversation from an ideological (but unworkable) “Free Education For All” to a pragmatic “Funding For All” we will be taking a big step in the right direction.

Important research inputs on #FeesMustFall


I have been meaning to blog about some new research on access to higher education that was published earlier this week: “Higher Education Access and Outcomes for the 2008 Matric Cohort” (Van Broekhuizen, Van der Berg & Hofmeyr, 2016). I will only highlight some of the key points from the 122-page Working Paper which is really worth reading in its entirety. Essentially the researchers used the matric data from 2008 and followed these students (using their ID numbers) into the higher education system using data from the Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS). Perhaps the most striking feature is that of the 100 students that started school, only 12 ever access university (9 immediately after matric and 3 later), 6 get some kind of qualification within 6 years and only 4 get a degree within 6 years.

Screen Shot 2016-09-28 at 3.10.39 PM.png

Secondly, that matrics that attend quintile 5 schools (almost all of which charge fees) are four times as likely to access university than those from the poorest 60% of schools (quintiles 1-3), all of which are no-fee schools. However, it’s encouraging to note that of those quintile 1-3 student that do qualify with a bachelor’s pass, more than 63-68% do actually access university, compared to 70% among quintile 5 students.


Much of the paper points to that fact that unequal access to university is rooted in a highly unequal schooling system where access to high-quality schooling largely depends on a family’s ability to pay school fees. If one looks at the cumulative matric average achievement by race one still finds enormous differentials. While 60% of White matric students achieved 60% or more in matric, only 5% of Black African matrics score at or above 60%. And this is only among the students that actually made it to matric which is only slightly more than half the cohort (see this paper).


The last piece of their research that I want to highlight is that the student intake at different universities is vastly different. If one looks at the matric marks of the typical student entering UCT, Stellenbosch, UP or Wits one can see below that they scored 70% or above on average. This is in stark contrast to those students entering TUT, Fort Hare, Uni-Zulu, Walter Sisulu, UWC etc., all of whom have incoming students whose average matric mark is less than 60%. At the Central University of Technology (CUT, in Free State) the average entrant scored 50% in matric.


At the beginning of last year Professor Servaas van der Berg gave a Brown-Bag Lunch Seminar at Stellenbosch University  on “The Distributional Implications of Student Fees.” I include some notable excerpts and graphs below:

“Education has a number of properties which make the analysis of the demand for it both interesting and complex. … (Education is) …a consumption good and a capital good, i.e., although much of the expenditure is justified in terms of the effects on the individual’s income in the future, many of the activities of educational institutions are primarily justifiable in terms of their immediate consumption benefits. Moreover, education affects individuals’ future incomes.” – (Stiglitz 1974: 349)


Perhaps most striking are Van der Berg’s estimates of who actually makes it to university and where they come from in the income distribution. According to these estimates, there are more students attending university from the richest 10% of the income distribution (Decile 10) than from the poorest 80% of the income distribution (Deciles 1-8 combined).



Last month Nico Cloete (from CHET) gave a lecture at SALDRU (UCT) titled: “University Fees in SA: A Story from Evidence.” I include some relevant slides from his presentation:




Anyone who wants to contribute to the debate about university fees needs to grapple with the realities presented by these three papers/presentations. At the end of the day we need to be able to answer the question of where the money will come from. A Graduate tax? Debt? The Education or Health budgets?

The most reasonable (and probably workable) solution that I have heard is that proposed by Prof Van der Berg who suggests that we should use the existing financial services infrastructure (banks) who could provide government-backed grant-loans (my terminology not SVDB’s) to students that qualify for university. It would be a grant that converts into a loan if a student successfully completes their degree and starts earning a decent income. It would still require a huge amount of government finance to provide the surety to banks for students who come from households that earn less than R500,000 (or some threshold). But, unlike with totally ‘free’ education, the students that do successfully complete their degrees would ‘pay-it-forward’ and contribute to the fund used to finance future students. boom

Also, as a side-issue, the Fees Commission needs to get a fast-tracked timetable and told to release at least a preliminary report and recommendations before the end of the year. We cannot wait until June next year. The political hot-potato would have been passed along one too many times from VCs to DHET to Treasury and eventually it will just explode. A stitch in time saves nine.

(If you have any additional research suggestions please send me an email and I’ll include them in this post)

Additional inputs from readers: 

Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea? The Financing of Higher Education” 3×3 article by Philippe Burger – Sept 2016 (Thanks Marisa!).

Abstract: “Higher-than-inflation increases in student fees since 2009 often are blamed on declining government subsidies to universities. This is not entirely correct, if one considers real per-student subsidies. Fee increases resulted mainly from cost pressures faced by universities due to growing student numbers and a weakening rand. These pressures will not disappear. Eliminating government wastage is not a durable solution and difficult choices cannot be avoided. So, who should pay for increasing costs, students or government – or which combination of these?”

Kagisano Number 10 – Student Funding” – CHE (April 2016)

Description: The tenth issue of the CHE’s journal, Kagisano, brings together a number of papers that were presented at a CHE colloquium on student funding that was held in December 2013. The colloquium took as its point of departure the Funding chapter of South African Higher Education Reviewed, and the various papers, presented by experts who responded to a call for papers, all address in different ways the student funding crisis that reached a head with the #feesmustfall campaign in late 2015, and that continues to underlie student unrest in higher education. Different ideas on how to restructure student funding are presented, and the solutions range from the philosophical to the practical. This issue aims to contribute to the ongoing conversations, negotiations and policy-making aimed at ameliorating the intractable challenge of how to fund increasing access to higher education while ensuring that students receive a quality higher education experience.