University blues

David Bullard on the rapidly dwindling standards of higher education



One of the great challenges South Africa faces is reversing the apparent collapse of the education system which has taken place during 25 years of ANC social engineering. Now, I’m not an educationalist and I would be more than happy to be corrected by somebody far better qualified to speak on these matters but a conversation I had with an old friend over dinner the other day has been troubling me and I felt it warranted a public airing.

The old friend in question is a man of integrity, has no political axe to grind and has a strong academic background but gave up regular teaching years ago when he learned that exam papers were being “marked down” to ensure the right quota of examinees passed. I’ve heard similar stories from other friends, most worryingly those in the medical profession who were instructed from above that a certain percentage of “previously disadvantaged” students must be given pass marks even if the quality of their answers didn’t merit a pass.

As I said before, please feel free to tell me you’ve never heard such nonsense and that this is just another ploy on my behalf to discredit hard working students. For obvious reasons, those who have been asked in the past to “mark down” exam papers tend not to speak out for fear of reprisals. Those who find the practice objectionable simply stop marking exam papers and slip quietly into retirement. Those who still need the money grit their teeth and continue to mark exams with a quota pass rate in the forefront of their mind.

The example my friend gave me is of particular interest. The pupil concerned attended a very expensive private school in Johannesburg and regularly did well in subjects, particularly maths where she scored 98% in her matric exam. Her parents then decided to pay for her to attend university in England having, no doubt, despaired of the political shenanigans at our own universities. She was accepted by a very prestigious university but, to her parent’s horror, scored around 10% in her first exam.

My friend was then asked to give extra tuition and he has managed to improve her marks considerably. What this suggests is that what we now assume to be a good pass mark in South Africa is laughable by international standards. The World Economic Forum has ranked South African children bottom of the class when it comes to maths and science subjects, a finding which upset the Department of Basic Education and which Africa Check called flawed. But upsetting or flawed as it may be it does tend to suggest that, even if we aren’t rock bottom, we are still a nation of duffers when it comes to maths and science.

I don’t have any children so I don’t have any skin in this particular game. But I do have friends with young children and they are increasingly concerned that the money spent on their children’s education in this country may well be money wasted, particularly when it comes to university. I am reliably informed that a South African university degree is increasingly regarded as something of a joke by overseas academic institutions.

I’m sure this depends on the type of degree but I have no doubt that a bachelor’s degree in journalism or gender studies from one of our more “woke” tertiary education establishments would provoke howls of uncontrolled laughter at a more serious university. Even our medical graduates now have to convince overseas authorities that they are fit for purpose if they want to practice overseas. Ridiculous as it may sound, apparently being a qualified doctor in the country that performed the first heart transplant is no longer a guarantee of competence in the eyes of the world.

This can’t be much fun for those dedicated academics who haven’t joined the loony left on campus; the ones who believe that throwing poo with their students is a great way to bond. Or those who give in to demands to “decolonize” the syllabus, probably because they are incapable of teaching anything too complicated. But that is the way the wind has been blowing for some while now and in an equal society everybody should be able to get a degree, however meaningless.

The problem comes when that degree doesn’t become an automatic “open sesame” to the job market. Employers tend not to be quite so accommodating when they are expected to hand over money every month to someone who is simply not up to the job. If it isn’t happening already, academic qualifications on a CV will soon become irrelevant when it comes to picking the right person for a job.


Helen Zille and Prof Thuli Madonsela had their well-publicized “high tea” together last week after their little “spatette” on Twitter concerning the use of the phrase “black privilege” by the former Premier. I’m tempted to say it would have been fun to have been a fly on the wall but I expect I would have been swatted. One of the Prof’s tweets which prompted the tea party was the statement that “equal opportunity is an illusion without reparation of compound disadvantage”.

If you haven’t heard of compound disadvantage before then don’t worry, neither had I. But based on the principle of compound interest it suggests that for every year of subjugation for which reparation wasn’t paid then that reparation due is added to the next year of reparation and so on until reparation is finally paid plus the accumulated compound disadvantage penalty.

A very attractive proposition for anybody looking for a cash windfall; not so much for those expected to pay. No wonder emigration is on the rise.


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