Blog Archives

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


“Matric Cracks Starting to Show” – my ST article


(The article below first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 10th of January 2016)

Like so many things in South Africa, this year’s matric results are a paradox of good policies badly implemented. This time it was the Minister’s bold ‘promotion policy’ that led to an extra 21% more learners writing matric (644,536 this year compared to 532,860 last year). The policy limits the number of times learners can repeat a grade to once every three years and means fewer students drop out, being ‘promoted’ instead. While her decisive action has led to increased efficiency and improved access, it has also inadvertently caused a huge crack in the matric standardisation process, one that is only now starting to become apparent. The fact that the Department did not properly identify all progressed learners, and that Umalusi did not (and perhaps could not) take account of all progressed learners in their standardisation process calls into question the massive upward adjustments in marks that took place behind the scenes.

As usual, some commentators have myopically focussed on the drop in the matric pass rate, from 76% (2014) to 71% (2015) as if this, in and of itself, were a meaningful indication of anything. It isn’t. Or that it signalled a decline in quality, or harder exams. It doesn’t. Yes, the matric pass rate went down but the number of learners passing it went up. And in fact the real question might not be why the matric pass rate dropped, but why it didn’t drop further. In comparing the media statement from Umalusi and the technical report from the Department, the answer is quite clear. The decision was made to raise the raw marks across the board, from Maths and Physical Science to Life Science, Maths Literacy, History, Accounting, Geography and 24 other subjects. Umalusi themselves make a point of emphasizing that this was an “unprecedented set of adjustments”. When the Maths Literacy pass rate is adjusted from 38% to the final (and publicly reported) 71%, this is most certainly unprecedented, and I would argue, unwarranted. 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 learners who would’ve otherwise dropped out? If so, Umalusi shouldn’t have adjusted.

This is not to say that the Minister was wrong in introducing the promotion policy. Quite the opposite; she was heeding local and international research which shows that excessive repetition is costly, inefficient and has no educational benefit to the learner. Yes, we do need to find ways of preventing and remediating the problem, but rooting out wasteful repetition in the mean time is prudent and wise. A positive effect of this policy and the extra-large class of 2015 meant many more learners taking and passing key subjects, with about 52,000 extra matric passes, 9000 extra maths passes and 15,500 extra bachelor passes.

Both Umalusi and the Department claim that there were only 65,671 progressed learners. Yet there were an extra 111,676 matrics this year. So where did the other 46,005 extra learners come from? The clear answer is that there was a big policy change preventing schools failing learners multiple times and encouraging them to promote weak learners and push them into matric. Secondly, the way provinces record and report who is a progressed learner is highly dubious and varies by province and district. So, although we have approximately 66,000 ‘officially’ progressed learners, we also have 46,000 ‘quasi-progressed’ learners (what Umalusi calls ‘borderline candidates’).

The reason why all of this matters is because it influences the decision of whether to adjust the matric results and by how much. Umalusi is only ever meant to adjust the marks up or down if they believe the exam was harder or easier than previous years. The core assumption in this standardisation process is that the different matric cohorts (2013, 2014 or 2015 matrics) are of equal ability. Thus, any differences between the years can only be because the paper was easier or harder. And this is where the crack emerges. There is simply no way that the 2015 distribution of 645,000 matrics (including progressed and quasi-progressed learners) are as strong as the distribution of 533,000 learners in 2014. Thus the reason the 2015 cohort did so much worse on the raw scores was because of the extra 112,000 weaker learners, not because the tests were harder. We know that Umalusi did not take this into account because there is no way of identifying the 46,000 quasi-progressed learners. In Umalusi’s defence they couldn’t have excluded them even if they had wanted to because provinces didn’t record them. But it doesn’t seem Umalusi excluded these 112,000 (or even the 66,000) learners when they standardised the 2014 and 2015 distributions. This is illogical.

In an unusual change from previous media statements, this year Umalusi included the raw failure rates of subjects (i.e. before any adjustments). This can be compared to the marks in the technical report issued by the Department. The only difference between the two figures are the Umalusi adjustment, a small change due to school based assessments and a small language compensation for second language learners (extra 4 percentage points). When I refer to ‘raw’ and ‘final-adjusted’ pass rates I mean before and after these are accounted for. The three subjects I will focus on here are Maths Literacy, Geography and Business Studies since they all have big increases in enrolments which suggests these were the subjects taken by the progressed and quasi-progressed learners. The differences between the raw pass rate and the final-adjusted pass rate are large for Geography (increased from 66% to 77%), for Business Studies (increased from 54% to 76%) and especially for Maths Literacy (from a shockingly low 38% to 71% after adjustments!). For a national assessment these are incredibly large adjustments.

This could only be justified if the 2015 exams were extraordinarily more difficult in 2015 than in 2014. I simply do not buy it. The internal and external moderators all agreed that these exams were set at the appropriate level. To warrant adjustments of this magnitude they would have had to have been way out in their judgements. Why are we looking for alternative explanations for the big drop in raw marks when this one is staring us in the face? The most logical and obvious reason for the drop is the inclusion of an extra 112,000 weaker learners in 2015. Paper difficulty is marginal by comparison. In maths literacy alone there were 76,791 extra candidates in 2015. Where did these learners come from? It is clear that these are the weaker progressed and borderline candidates and that they are the main reason why the raw marks dropped so much. If so then we cannot just adjust the raw marks upwards, as was done this year.

The Umalusi standardisation process is necessary and probably the best we can do when different papers are written year-on-year, but Umalusi needs to clarify what happened here and in future be more transparent in their standardisation process. Unfortunately, no amount of standardisation can solve the biggest problem in our education system which is the fact that most children attending the poorest 75% of schools do not learn to read for meaning by the end of grade three and are forever behind. Indeed, matric starts in grade 1.

Dr Nic Spaull is an education economist at Stellenbosch University. He can be found on Twitter @NicSpaull and his work can be found at