The disgrace of a country that lies to its children


We say we educate our children, but what chance does a child have with a mud hut for a school and no teachers? In the photograph, a child walks to school in June 2013 in a village outside the town of Mthatha in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Photo: AFP/Jennifer Bruce

THE CHILDREN of South Africa have been betrayed by the education system. And the clamour to enter universities has given them a false sense of a passport to a better life. But it isn’t, given the declining state of our universities, and the abysmal matric system which sent them there.

Now, in an unbelievable move, the minister of Higher Education and Training, Naledi Pandor, has lowered the minimum admission requirement for a Bachelor’s degree at a university to a matric which includes attaining only 30% in the language of learning and teaching of the university they’re applying for – which is mostly English – among other very low requirements. Yes, 30% for matric English is now enough to get a university-entrance matric! The implications are heartbreaking.

The overwhelming feeling among academics at South African universities is despair about the direction in which they are going, including the formerly best, such as Wits. A huge percentage of students coming in today have little adequacy in intellectual and analytic abilities. In addition, lecturers report that it is established practice by many universities to artificially boost their numbers by condoning passes. Remember the era when to get a university degree was a prized, difficult achievement? Wits also once brimmed with Jewish students and faculty, who worked hard to get their degrees, but came from a rigorous basic education, not only from the private schools. Now it has few Jewish students.

With such low competence levels because of appalling basic education, students simply cannot cope with a university environment. Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor in the Education Faculty at Stellenbosch University, calls the 2017 matric results, which government touts as an improvement, a “disgraceful freak show”.

To believe that the 2017 matric pass rate is 75.1%, about 2.5% higher than in 2016, is asking, says Jansen, “that you forego common sense”. Some 78% of children in Grade 4 cannot read with understanding, a finding Jansen cites that placed SA last among 50 countries with which it was compared; 9% of Grade 6 teachers cannot pass a Grade 6 maths test. Actually, the rot has set in from Grade 1.

“It is not as if the few who passed and even those who graduated with a so-called Bachelor’s pass have a solid academic education to see them through tertiary studies” he says. The quality of the matric examination is “so weak in the intellectual demands made of pupils that any fool can scale the 30% passing hurdle.” Most will drop out.

Flip Smit, former vice chancellor of the University of Pretoria, says the move by Pandor to lower university entrance requirements is reckless. Universities already receive between five and nine times more applications than they can accommodate. The new rules will make it far easier to get a matric Bachelor’s pass, and open flood gates for additional applications. And the ease of achieving a matric pass misleads learners into thinking they can complete a degree course.

Jansen says this government and its basic education department “are a disgrace to the nation. They have failed our children, mainly black and poor learners stuck in dysfunctional schools.”

You, who are reading this column, might be an alumnus of a South African university. But what does this mean for your children and those of other middle class South Africans, white and black, including the Jewish community, who were able to send their children to quality private schools where they received a good education? Less and less will send their youngsters to SA universities, rather they will send them overseas. And when you have studied overseas, you are unlikely to come back.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 


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