What's wrong with our universities?

Rhoda Kadalie says poor schooling is not solely to blame for poor performance of black students in higher education

The Council for Higher Education (CHE) has yet again released a report on the shocking results emanating from our tertiary institutions in the country. The M&G's headline that "Less than 5% of black African and coloured youth succeed at university, and more than half of all first-year entrants never graduate at all" is nothing new. It reinforces once again the abysmal state of not only our schooling system but also the higher education sector.

The problem is not just the poor students; it is also about the quality of the teachers and teaching at schools, colleges and universities. In this, our universities mirror very much what is wrong with the public sector, reinforced by Auditor General's recent report on the state of our municipalities.

That only 11 out of some 278 municipalities receive clean audits is due, in a nutshell, to the chronic lack of engineering and technical expertise in municipalities and to the deleterious policy of cadre deployment. Of the 1300 applications made for engineering, about 400 minimally qualified in Mathematics and science for admission.

Unfortunately for this column I have not had time to study the report, but scrolling down the contents list alone, the focus seems to be very much on the structural problems within the education system leading to the poor results. The solutions, however, also seem to focus predominantly on structural interventions, like curriculum reform, increased duration of tuition, academic support, etc.

There seems to be no thorough account of what goes on in academia and the teaching process. What the report needs is a dedicated chapter on the state of teaching in our universities; the number of teaching hours students are exposed to; the connection between prescribed literature and the students' ability to analyse and comprehend the literature; and the mentoring and personal engagement with students?

Unlike American, British and some western European universities which provide incentives for students to do academic internships during their holidays, South African universities shut down during their long vacations providing students with minimal support and incentives to boost their academic experience. It is high time that CHE does dedicated surveys amongst students about their experience with teaching, interactions with lecturers, feedback about their grades, and the notorious ‘indrukspunte', which have no relation to the content of their assignments.

They need to investigate academics, who outsource their marking to tutors as a matter of routine and who never get to know their students unless the classes are small. In this, students are done incalculable wrongs because they are led to believe that they are worth distinctions when they are anything but. Academics, with a very few exceptions, suffer from a political correctness in theory that does not translate easily into commitment to the students.

Higher Education's obsession with race and its warped notion of ‘transformation', has had disastrous consequences for the throughput rates of black students. While the CHE report speaks at length about disadvantaged black students entering universities, it fails to explore the work of NGOs, which has excelled in bridging the divide between schools and tertiary education.

Models of excellence such as REAP, Go for Gold, Lawhill Maritime Academy, Sci Mathus, GADRA, Christel House, and many others prepare black and poor children successfully for the higher education sector. Their main success lies in offering life skills programmes that accompany rigorous teaching methods and discipline. Some stream students into professions like the construction and maritime industries by teaching Maths and science suited to those professions and within record time.

Just as politics is too important to leave to politicians, so it is with academia!

This article first appeared in Die Burger.

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