Fix the schools don't blame the universities - Helen Zille

The DA leader says Minister Blade Nzimande has misdirected his criticism

Blame schools, not universities, for educational failures

There is probably no greater threat to our South African future than the failure of our education system. It is not producing the skilled people our economy desperately needs. Without them, we shall fail as a nation. Without them, mass poverty will grow, and more and more of our young people will be unemployed and unemployable. Without skills, we shall fall further and further behind nations such as South Korea, China and India, all once poorer than us. We produce about 1,400 engineering graduates a year. South Korea, with a population about the same as ours, produces 30,000 a year, over twenty times more. We need about 21,000 new teachers a year. We produce only 5,000 a year. Only 15% of our maths teachers are suitably qualified. We have massive shortages of doctors, nurses, accountants, artisans and every other professional and technical grade.

It is deeply alarming to see that the new ANC government, instead of facing up squarely to the reasons for this national disaster, is avoiding them and resorting to its usual tactics of racial blaming; of elevating ideology above reality.

Prof Jonathan Jansen, the new Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, is an educationalist. Controversial and abrasive, yes. But prepared to call a spade a spade in the interests of dealing with our country's core problem. Recently, besides making telling observations about our education system, he described the new Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshetga, as a "lazy and incompetent minister, if one takes into account her record as MEC in Gauteng". He might have been referring to the fact that she had attended Jacob Zuma's court trial when she should have been in an education meeting; that she had taken no action against a union member who had beaten up a teacher in Eldorado Park for refusing to take part in the union's political campaign; and that she had done nothing to stop the union taking teachers out of the classroom.

In a furious public rebuttal, Jessie Duarte, the ANC National Spokesperson, demanded a public apology from Prof Jansen (see here). She compared him with "Apartheid ideologues" and suggested he was a racist. She said Mrs Motshekga had "committed herself to the transformation of our education system". In other words, as usual, her theme was racial blaming, and the elevation of race above the requirements of improving the quality of education. She ignored Prof Jansen's arguments about the failures in our schools. She warned him that the University of the Free State was "subsidised by the ANC-led Government". This was clearly a threat that the University had better do as the ANC says.

One of Mrs Motshekga's first actions upon becoming Minister of Basic Education was to use taxpayers' money to buy herself two new cars, a BMW 730D and a Range Rover Sport TDV8, at a combined cost of R1.7 million. Both are fully imported. Neither was made in South Africa. Her new cars cost the taxpayer ten times as much as a teacher's annual salary. This is presumably the kind of "transformation" to which Jessie Duarte was referring? When we came into office in the Western Cape, the Cabinet took the decision to not buy any new vehicles, and to use only those vehicles already available.

The Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, has also been blaming the universities for our educational failures, especially in their lack of "transformation". Responding to the Crain Soudien Report on the universities, he said it was necessary to make "transformation" policies work. Noting that only 18% of last year's matriculants gained university passes, he hinted that universities should admit more students "with potential" even if they had not done well in their school exams. He is trying to deal with the symptoms, not the causes of failure in the education system.

No doubt there is some real racism at our universities, and where it exists, the DA wholly condemns it. But actually they have been "transforming" rather well, even by the ANC's definition of racial head-counting. From 1995 to 2006, "African" university enrolments increased from 50% to 61%, and "white" decreased from 38% to 25%.  In fact the universities have managed to increase black enrolments despite the failures of the school system. They have managed to do this, in part, because they have done pioneering work in testing prospective students for "potential" to succeed at university, rather than merely measuring their school performance. Once again the universities have had to step into the breach for a failing school system and a final school examination that fails to identify all those students who should proceed to university education.

Ironically, the universities' determination to serve South Africa well by finding students with the potential to succeed, has enabled the ANC to continue ignoring the elephant in the room. The problem with our educational system is not the universities, who are doing well, even if they are overloaded. The problem is our collapsing school system, which is not enabling pupils to gain access, nor preparing them for further learning. This is the reason for the ruinously high failure rate in the first year of university. This year, the first year pass rate for maths at the University of Witwatersrand dropped by 37%, and other universities report a similarly trend. They say the reason is declining standards at our schools.

The proportion of school senior certificate candidates who qualified for university entrance dropped from 31% in 1980 to 15% in 2007. The proportion of the candidates who passed higher grade mathematics was 2,4%.

In 2008, the proportion of pupils who got more than 40% in their final exam was 30% for mathematics, 31% for accounting and 29% for physical science.

At lower levels, the problem is worse. In 1995, our Grade 1 enrolment was 1,7 million. By 2007, the number of candidates for the Senior Certificate Examination was 0,56 million. Two thirds of our pupils had dropped out by Grade 12.

We spend more per capita on education in South Africa compared with countries of comparable economic development -- and we get far worse results. There is no relation between inputs and outcomes. That is the problem. And it is the Minister's job to deal with it, not blame others.

Our public primary and secondary schools, with some very honourable exceptions, are performing dismally. In fifteen years of rule, the ANC has done nothing to remedy this. Most of the highly functional schools are the ex-Model-C schools and the private schools. There are too few functional schools to accommodate every pupil who wishes to gain access to them. The vast majority of schools that serve the vast majority of pupils, are failing. ANC leaders ignore the real reasons and prattle about "transformation" and "affirmative action" and "demographic representivity" but when they choose schools for their own children, they show they don't believe a word of it. They send their own children to Model-C schools and private schools. For their own children, reality. For everybody else's children, ideology.  

The universities would love to have more black students but the school system does not provide suitable candidates. This is the problem rather than racism in university admissions. We need students who will succeed at university and become engineers, doctors and accountants. (And of course we also need students in the humanities and arts, who will enrich our civilisation.) It is very difficult for the universities to meet the challenge of hopelessly unprepared students. They cannot replicate the work of the school system. Forcing already over-crowded universities to take more under prepared students can only lead to the kind of decline in our university system that will mirror the decline, under the ANC, of the school system. The real solution is to improve the quality of the school system, not undermine the capacity of universities to maintain quality.

The DA supports bridging programmes and bursaries for disadvantaged students. But, much more, we want their schooling to become adequate. We want the public schools to function properly. We want to see teachers and pupils spending the required time in the classroom. We want accountability, throughout the school system, for results. We want to see the ANC encouraging the brightest and the best among their own ranks to become teachers and help transform the quality of the system, not merely seek to enrich themselves through BEE deals that redistribute existing wealth instead of creating new wealth or enriching society.

We wish the universities themselves, who are doing a good job, would be much bolder in standing up to ANC bullying. Under apartheid, the universities were as brave as lions in defying apartheid, and resisting racial quotas. Under ANC rule, they are as meek as lambs, feebly submitting to the racial prescriptions of the Employment Equity Act. They must stand up for the kind of transformation that will improve quality education for all, and ensure that a new generation of South Africans have the opportunities that only excellent education provides. Only this will break the shackles of the apartheid past and create the skills base that can grow our economy (not merely redistribute existing wealth).

The universities must not be complicit in the ANC's denial of the real problem. They must maintain and build the quality in tertiary education, and continue their pioneering work in searching for potential students who have been failed by the school system. Like Professor Jonathan Jansen, we must not hesitate to keep the politicians focused on the real problem, and their responsibilities in resolving it rather than blaming others.

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance, July 24 2009

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