Universities headed for a perfect storm (#Matric2018)

perfect storm

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.

3 responses to “Universities headed for a perfect storm (#Matric2018)

  1. A well argued article and provides the real picture. The results show we have hardly scratched the surface. Nonetheless the minister and department have successfully stabilized the ecosystem which is an important condition. It is now for society to rally behind the students and teachers then possibly we may get out of the rut that dogged our system for years.

  2. Hi Nic

    Why do you say that there is “free” education at certain universities? I am curious since funding is selective to certain professional streams. Which universities are you referencing in this article?

    I am just curious to know if this applies to undergraduate studies.

    Thank you for insightful articles. It is always a pleasure reading it.


  3. Dear Dr Spaull,

    Thank you for your note on the designated list and “matric”.

    The “abolition” of the designated list (the previous HE&T Minister’s notice in March this year) was followed by Minister Pandor’s December 2018 Gazette setting out the new minimum admissions requirements for entry into HE programmes at public and private HEIs. The March notice was n fact incomprehensible, though its intent was clear, and it caused considerable confusion in universities, the DBE and in Umalusi. I don’t think it flew under the radar though.

    Minister Pandor’s notice attracted some attention for the wrong reasons – among those who went public on the perceived lowering of standards – all concentrating on the unchanged LOLT 30% requirement – were three former VCs, Flip Smit (UP), Theuns Eloff(NWU) and Jonathan Jansen (UFS)). Die Burger followed up with a cartoon and an editorial But none of the commentators noticed the designated list change, so your note is welcome.

    The change did affect the number and proportion who got what is now popularly termed a “bachelors pass”. A very, very small number of those who got a “bachelors pass” as a result of the change are likely to have got a place in a degree programme in a public university in 2019; few would have met subject requirements and/or APS (or equivalent) admission requirements, and the few who might have done would probably have taken the new subject Technical Mathematics (not part of the former designated list) or subjects such as Design and Computer Applications Technology.

    But everyone who got a “bachelors pass” as a result of the change would by definition have previously got a “‘diploma pass” and would therefore have qualified for a diploma place: such students would primarily enrol at comprehensive universities or private HEIs, for diploma or higher certificate programmes .

    The change has thus NOT resulted in an increase in the number of NSC candidates meeting the gazetted minimum admissions requirements for entry into public or private HEIs.

    The short term result is likely to be greater attention in public universities to subject requirements for degree programmes; for selective programmes these are already in place.

    The medium term result is likely to be a shift in school enrolment patterns; there is no doubt that schools offered designated list subjects in preference to subjects not on the designated list, despite the fact that the designated list was out of date (it did not accommodate new subjects nor was it reviewed as had been promised after three years, nor did it take account of the profound changes in curricula introduced by CAPS.) (The saga has underlined the problem of two central government departments DBE and DHET; the 2008 regulations were made when there was 1 department, and the fact that the list was not updated and was eventually abolished was I think because of this lack of co-ordination.) It is also likely to see more rational decisions by Schools as to what subjects to offer.

    The change that DID fly under the radar (yours as well?) was the late December 2018 change to the minimum admissions requirements for holders of the NCV, set out in a notice by Minister Pandor, substantially lowering the percentage pass requirements that NCV candidates must meet to be admitted to degree study; universities have been reluctant to admit holders of the NCV to degree programmes so this change is not likely to have added many to the pool.(The NCV is generally ignored; in 2018 an exam question paper for an NCV exam was leaked; had this been an NSC paper it would have attracted much media interest, but I saw none.)

    The most important result of the abolition of the designated list and the changes to minimum gazetted admissions requirements (for NSC and NCV holders) will I think be a renewed look at what school results are good predictors of success in university (especially degree) study. Very few of the universities look at LO results in determining admissions decisions but there is (from NMU) some evidence that this is a good predictor. There is an urgent need to review APS score methodology, to implement the policy on a central applications system, to replace the Matriculation Board (envisaged in the 1997 H E Act, but ignored for over 20 years) and to bring some rationality into the admissions process. My hope for 2019 is that we will see a single education department after the elections, and a Minister who will tackle these issues (and see to it that the roll-out of Grade R that was delayed because of the need to fund Zuma’s free HE for the poor and working class is put back on track).

    Hugh Amoore

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s