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  • Students protest over planned increases in tuition fees in Stellenbosch.

    Students protest over planned increases in tuition fees in Stellenbosch. | Photo: Reuters

Published 11 October 2016
To trace the source of the education crisis is to go back to the violent laws implemented under the apartheid system.

To write about the state of education in South Africa is a task that would take more than the limited number of words to which this article is constrained. To understand the situation in which students find themselves is to view it as the sequel to a traumatic history. To address the issues evident in institutions of learning is to unify the duality of education that tends to determine its quality and duration based on socio-economic status, which is often inextricable from race. This translates into a small pool of the population receiving the skills and knowledge that would enable them to acquire jobs in high positions, worsened by the fact that networking within these spaces tends to start in private school classrooms or university campuses, to which access has proven to be selective rather than inclusive.

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Furthermore, this divide is also evident even among those who have the financial privilege to attend model c or private schools, but are still subjected to a pedagogic environment entrenched in the white supremacist, patriarchal experience that seeks to marginalize their own. Whether it is due to the lack of representation or relatability to the educators, the condescending manner in which they are told to wear their hair, the eurocentric epistemological framework that constructs their curricula, or their African languages they are discouraged to speak; even when Black learners come from a high socio-economic position, they are repeatedly made to feel like they do not belong, which is ironic because the land is rightfully theirs.

These matters are some of the issues that have fuelled movements such as #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh, which have shed light on the plight of several youth across the nation. Therefore, to trace the source of the education crisis is to go back to the violent laws implemented under the apartheid system that ensured that the Black population remain in constant enslavement to whites.

Having said that, the focus of this article will be on how the quality of primary and secondary institutions of learning set the tone for tertiary education attendance and performance, as well as how the cost of public universities is in disaccord with the wage the average South African receives.

Duality of the South African education system

One of the most regressive apartheid laws was the Bantu education system that strove to stunt the development of the African person ensuring that they remain under the thumb of the white man. It belittled African history, culture and identity as well as enforced racial stereotypes and myths. Unfortunately, even more than two decades after 1994 many South African institutions of learning are haunted by the ghost of the former regime, where those from disadvantaged backgrounds have difficulty breaking the poverty cycle due to a system that does not grant them the same opportunities as their wealthier counterparts, thus contributing to the prevalence of social inequality in the country.

According to the article “South Africa’s Education Crisis: The Quality of Education from 1994-2011,” written by Nic Spaull, there is a direct correlation between the quality, duration and type of education and labor market prospects: “poor school performance reinforces social inequality and leads to children inheriting parents’ social position irrespective of motivation or ability.” This statement falsifies the common misguided perception that apartheid is over and that those who are still in poverty are “lazy.” The article pointed out that in 2014, 75-80 percent of learners received low quality primary and secondary education with high dropout rates, of whom, 35 percent were later unemployed, 18 percent had unskilled jobs and 32 percent were in semi-skilled ones, such as clerks and shop personnel. The minority, 20-25 percent, belonging to higher socio-economic positions received good quality education, were able to attend institutions of higher learning where they completed degrees and thus were able to secure high productivity jobs and incomes, making it about 15 percent of the total population to hold such privileged rankings.

Spaull further notes that by the third grade, children in the poorest 60 percent of schools are already three years worth of learning behind those in higher quality schools, which are mostly comprised of children of wealthier families. This means that the higher the grade, the further behind learners at disadvantaged schools will fall and the more likely they are to drop out. To illustrate this point, let us consider that there are about 1 million children in every grade until the ninth, when numbers start to decrease dramatically.

In 2014, there were 532 860 learners who wrote matric (South African final year of secondary school), of whom 403, 874 passed, out of a total of about 1, 085, 570 learners. In order to calculate the matric pass rate, one has to divide the number of students who passed by the number who wrote, multiplied by 100, which was calculated as: 403 874/532 869*100= 75, 8%. Whereas, in actual fact, the 403, 874 learners who passed should have been divided by the total number of students who wre supposed to or would have written matric exams which was approximately 1, 085, 570. This means that the actual pass rate was: 37.2 percent. A whole 62. 8 percent of young people who were supposed to have reached and completed their matric had not, and therefore did not stand the chance to enroll at many tertiary institutions.

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One alternative made available for such learners is Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, which offers more practical skills in a specific field that would enable to prepare students for employment. Minimum entry requirements are that learners have completed the ninth grade and are 16 years or older. Simultaneously, the critical flaw in this form of higher education is that it produces specific human capital which may stagnate professional mobility therefore granting less opportunities than more general human capital generated at universities. This then means that these young people are not able to progress or diversify their professional experiences as much as their counterparts in other institutions. Another issue highlighted in “A Skills beyond school Review of South Africa,” written by Simon et al. (2014), TVET colleges tend to have limited capacity and may mismatch skills taught to learners and those needed on the labor market, making employers reluctant to interact with the college sector, which in turn perpetuates the difficulty for these youth to find lucrative employment that would facilitate them and their families to climb the socio-economic ladder.

Financial barriers to higher education

Besides the issues facing the quality of basic education, another very prevalent problem that continuously rears its head is funding. In 2015, the first year tuition fee ranged between R28,140 (around US$2,035) and R64,500 (about US$4,664), depending on the degree and the institution, excluding accommodation. Taking note that these fees are only for the first year, it would mean that every year for the next two or three years, depending on the degree, students would be expected to pay that amount, plus the annual fee increment, as well as accommodation, where applicable. Thus, if fees cost that amount while the average monthly wage for 60 percent of workers the Congress of South African Trade Unions calculated to be below R5,000 (US$361) in 2014, how is the majority of this portion of South African society supposed to be able to afford to not only enroll their children in their first year but ensure that they are able to graduate?

Education is an accumulative process starting with a solid foundation that allows to build all the competencies and gather the experiences necessary for professional, personal and in turn social growth. Thus, it is up to government and various educative authorities to strengthen all institutions of primary and secondary education to give all learners the same chance to further their studies. Another focus is increasing access to tertiary institutions, making them a right and not a privilege. The more Black African learners flourish in academic spaces, the more diverse the environment would be and more representative knowledge produced.

A society that is well educated is more productive and therefore would be able to compete in this globalised world. It is crucial to ensure that the state of learning in the country offers the same opportunities to all those who seek to be educated, regardless of race or bank accounts.

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