UCT and Under-Prepared Matrics

When will the University of Cape Town (UCT) “ever learn” to educate ALL her students while promoting BOTH excellence and equity? Over the years, there have been many, many scholarly publications and public intellectual pieces on the negative implications of matriculation pass rate results on...

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When will the University of Cape Town (UCT) “ever learn” to educate ALL her students while promoting BOTH excellence and equity?

Over the years, there have been many, many scholarly publications and public intellectual pieces on the negative implications of matriculation pass rate results on South African university education. Among many respected researchers, South Africa’s eminent (pre-eminent?) educationalist Prof. Jonathan Jansen has, arguably, taken the lead in this research and has long ‘professed’ that the South African Basic Education System is in an “abysmal state” and a “crisis” cloaked by “smoke and mirrors”. Indeed, the quality of aspects of the current basic education is arguably inferior (and see here) to that of the disabling and despicable Bantu Education.

A key conclusion emanating from most of this research vis-à-vis universities is that massive increases in the admission of “under-prepared” matriculants is overwhelming an already oversubscribed public higher education system. Recently, Jansen’s colleague at Stellenbosch University, Dr Nic Spaull, has presented persuasive evidence relating to this crisis and has predicted that the “surge in bachelor passes compared to last year” [2017] means universities may be headed for a perfect storm”. By a ‘perfect storm’ he means (at best?) a “rough few years ahead”, emulating the highly contentious “Fallist Era” (2015-2017) that resulted in massive damage to South African higher education and institutional ‘structure”.

Do ‘Jansenism’ and ‘Faullism make sense?

The purpose of this piece is to critique suggestions and conclusions made by my UCT colleague Prof. Suellen Shay. Shay has spent three decades educating UCT-identified, under-prepared matriculants in “English for Academic Purposes” and conducting research “using sociological perspectives to critique assessment in higher education”. She ultimately acted as Dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED), a large and costly, faculty-like academic support/ development entity dedicated “to continual improvement in the quality of higher education through widening access, promoting excellence through equity”. Shay takes a markedly divergent tack on tertiary educational “transformation” and Fallism from that favoured by Jansen/Faull, describing Jansen’s views as “An irresponsible thesis”. Indeed, she calls for UCT to “learn to engage with [Fallist] chaos”.

Shay prefers to describe “under-prepared matriculants” admitted to UCT as “highly talented students“. If by “talented” she means “inherently, ‘God-given’-academically-gifted, without being taught”, that’s fine. If she means, well- or even better-prepared by Basic Education as indicated by their matric scores, this may be a gross misrepresentation. See also here.

Shay then asks: “So how is South Africa [UCT?] doing?” and uses as her evidence of progress in a single, key subject – mathematics – with which she has no demonstrable professional experience. Of the 11 top matric subjects, mathematics is consistently the lowest performing. In 2018, 37% of mathematics matric writers passed with 40% and above, only 2.6% with distinction (80% or above). How are these ‘top’ matriculant scorers doing in a first-rate, well-resourced entry level mathematics course at “one of South Africa’s selective universities” [UCT?]? Those who achieved a matric mathematics mark of 90% pass the course with an average mark of 64% – a third-class pass. Those who entered with a matric score below 90% failed. For a more in-depth summary of academic support in mathematics at UCT, see Prof. Chris Brink’s summary.

Who is responsible for this failure of higher education?

Shay’s concludes that “South Africa [UCT?] can draw two conclusions from this [sic] data.”

First, unsurprisingly, more effort is required at the primary and secondary levels. She offers no suggestions/conclusions on this score.  Also, and incongruously, “the [primary?] onus for growing the pool of qualified graduates lies with higher education”. Her evidence on this score is based on an “argument made in 2013 by the Council on Higher Education [CHE]” relating  to “systemic failure of universities because they were failing to graduate the ”strongest pool of students that the schooling system had to offer”. [My emphasis.] If by “strongest”, Shay and CHE mean that high-matric-scoring matriculants are adequately prepared to deal with the challenges of tertiary education at UCT or any other world-class university, they are sadly mistaken.

Second, because the problem of an educational “articulation gap” between schooling completion and university preparedness is “not new”, “there is a great deal of work to be done at university level to grow and strengthen the pool from the existing talented school leavers”. Shay also admits that “South Africa has 30 years of interventions aimed at addressing this problem”. [The value is close to 40 years for UCT.] However, “a critical look at the high failure rates in these gateway courses  …  despite a wide range of interventions would suggest that the sector is not doing as well as it should”.

In 1980, the UCT Executive chose to close this ‘gap’ by initiating an Academic Support Programme (ASP) funded primarily by US charitable foundations and multinational corporations and staffed by ‘outsourced’ academics. Core departments and academics generally avoided participating in academic support, fearing the erosion of international comparability of academic “standards”. In short, “Teaching students with little chance of success [did] not make economic or educational sense.” The central aim of the ASP was, with some initial support, to enable talented-but-disadvantaged students would be able to meet the demands of excellence as embodied in UCT’s traditional ethos and ‘come up to speed’ in a short time. While there certainly were, and have continued to be, students that meet this definition, despite the efforts of dedicated ASP-academics, this ideal model was to prove inadequate. Particularly in the natural and economic sciences, it was evident that the ASP, even when the students’ standard course workload was reduced, was not sufficient to provide equal opportunities for students from such disparate backgrounds. Once academic support ceased, many under-prepared students failed in droves or obtained third-class degrees.

But, during the early 1990s, instead of calling upon the Core departments and academics to take the opportunity to drive academic transformation and educate and mentor under-prepared students to form a significant component of post-Apartheid academia, the Executive chose to further invest in the ASP. It shed its purely ‘gap-educational’ role and evolved into the Academic Development Programme (ADP) and, ultimately (in 1999), the socio-academic-engineering CHED, becoming responsible for four inter-related areas of ‘development’: student, staff, curriculum and institutional. Thereafter, the Executive also massively increased the intake of under-prepared students, without a concomitant increase in educators.  Despite a massive investment of funds and human resources, CHED still fails to deliver, and bitter ‘CHED-kids’ filled Fallist ranks.

Shay’s solution

After 30 years at UCT and five as CHED Dean, Prof. Shay recommends: ”Perhaps the higher education sector needs to shift its resources from interventions … to focus on … structural changes and the core business of teaching and learning itself –- curriculum that is flexible to accommodate diversity, teaching that actively engages students, assessment that not only tests but promotes learning.” “These systemic changes will profoundly raise the quality of teaching for all.” She offers no evidence how this will happen.

Some alternative immediate constructive suggestions

Contrary to Shay, I and many others I have interviewed who lecture(d) at UCT are adamant that the success of ALL UCT undergrads cannot improve, even in the medium term, without a massive improvement in school-teacher training and skills development, including principal-level leadership. From a curriculum transformation perspective, at UCT this could involve introducing undergraduate educational streams within Core UCT’s academic departments that produce bachelors graduates with a well-rounded knowledge of the disciplines. This could be followed by a high-quality Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in UCT’s School of Education. This process could be fast-tracked by offering scholarships (or paid leave) to already-employed-teachers to participate in the School’s Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE). Departmental curriculum changes should take cognizance of Basic Education Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements and involve grass-roots liaison with schools and successful teachers, especially UCT graduates.

This educational pathway could allow undergrads to acquire strong qualifications for a career in teaching should they not wish to pursue postgraduate study. Currently, some (many?) departments gear their curricula to suit students aspiring to post-grad study/research. This strategy may have been optimal when there was a significant demand for PhD graduates. This is no longer a given, and perennial-specialized-postdocs often end up choosing teaching as a ‘Plan B’ career. Moreover, some ‘under-prepared’ undergrads may see teaching as a viable career option that will allow them to ‘pay it back’ and resuscitate Basic Education.

Alternative ‘systemic changes’ that address Shay’s “Challenge”

Given the low likelihood of massive new funding and (according to Shay) UCT “has no choice but to work with the pool of talent it receives”, the new UCT Executive should emulate the unpopular ‘size-and-shape’ strategy of VC Mamphela Ramphele and admit fewer even more highly talented, under-prepared students to levels that can be comprehensively supported, challenged and nurtured by existing progressive staff. One way to achieve this would be to disestablish CHED and reallocate its current resources strategically.


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