Last week the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, announced the matric pass rate of 78% to the usual fanfare and political theatre to which we have all grown accustom. To her credit she emphasized the importance of early learning and ensuring that all children learn to read for meaning by the age of 10 and the need for improving Early Childhood Development. Since the release most commentators have chosen to focus on (1) inter-provincial results (Gauteng came out on top), (2) questions about the “true” matric pass-rate (of 100 children that started Grade 1 in 2007, only 51 made it to matric, 40 passed and 17 got bachelor’s passes. So, the pass mark of 78% is probably more like 40% if you take into account the 400,000 kids that drop out the system before matric). And a few people focused on (3) gender; for every 100 girls in matric there are only 82 boys, mainly because boys do worse than girls at school and dropout in higher numbers.
But not many people have focused on the surge in bachelor passes compared to last year. In 2017 there were 153,610 bachelor passes which increased to 172,043 in 2018, a massive 12% increase year on year. And this wasn’t because 2018 happened to be a bigger cohort than 2017, in fact it was slightly smaller than last year with 4,422 fewer matrics. So why was there such a big increase? I think the leading explanation is a change in policy in March last year (Government Gazette 41473-No.165:213) which changed the criteria for getting a bachelor’s pass by abolishing the “designated list” of subjects. This went largely under the radar at the time. To get a bachelor pass before the change in policy you needed to get (1) 40% in your home-language, (2) at least 50% in four other subjects from the “designated list”, and 30% for one other subject. The “designated list” was a list of 18 subjects and includes the usual suspects like Accounting, Business Studies, Economics, Geography, Mathematics, Mathematics Literacy, History, Consumer Studies etc. Now that the list has been abolished, you can get 50% in any subject offered in matric. For example, now you can get 50% in Tourism, Computer Applications Technology, Dance and Hospitality (among others) and still qualify. Some of these subjects have very high enrolment. A total of 130,000 odd learners took Tourism in 2018 and 98% of them passed. About 32,000 learners took Computer Applications Technology and 92% passed. (The pass rates in Dance and Hospitality are 100% and 99% respectively). So, if you got 40% for your home-language (which almost everyone does), 50% in Dance, Tourism, Hospitality and Consumer Studies, and 30% in Mathematics Literacy you get a bachelor’s pass and qualify to go to university. This is the first year that this has been the case.
In my view, this is quite clearly the leading explanation for the increase in bachelor passes in 2018. If you look at the largest nine ‘traditional’ subjects (Mathematics, Mathematics Literacy, Physical Science, Accounting, Business Studies, Economics, Geography, History, Life Science) there was actually a decrease of 2% in the total number of students getting 40%+ in these subjects (the Department doesn’t report 50%+ but we can assume similar trends). So, it’s clearly not because there were more students doing better in ‘traditional’ subjects.
As an aside, in 2014 Higher Education South Africa (HESA) commissioned a study titled “The Value of Designated Subjects in Terms of the Likely Student Success in Higher Education” and concluded that “Adding additional subjects to this [designated] list may flood an already over-subscribed public higher education system with more under-prepared students.” (HESA, 2014: p10). Go figure.
So why a perfect storm? Well there are basically three reasons: (1) We now have “free” higher education, which the overwhelming majority of students qualify for. This is one reason to think that enrolments would have increased this year anyway, (2) It’s an election year which means that any student-pressure in February will be politically difficult to ignore, and (3) there is now a large wave of additional students (18,433 more than last year) that qualify for university entrance and many of whom won’t be able to be accommodated. We know these are weaker students on average and therefore not as academically equipped to succeed at university in the coming years. Enrolment increases of weaker students coupled with funding pressure and an election means higher education is probably headed for a rough few years ahead.