Opinion Piece

ILYAYAMBWA MWANAWINA: Basic education system pivotal to realisation of the potential of free higher education


The performance of the basic education system will be pivotal in ensuring a maximum return on investment of R57-billion towards fee-free higher education and training. It is therefore pertinent that policy makers fully understand the synergy between these two education sectors in order to safeguard the billions in tax revenue that will be channelled into the higher education environment in the next couple of years.

The average drop-out rate for learners between Grade 10 and 12 in South Africa stood at 44.6%, with some provinces reaching as high as 54.4% in 2014. More negative indicators of the South African basic education system were highlighted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which ranked South Africa 75th out of 76 in 2015, and shortly after the International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report that ranked South Africa very close to the bottom position globally.

The inefficiency of the South African basic education system can be attributed to various factors, ranging from inadequate infrastructure to tension between labour unions and government. Be that as it may, it is time that South Africans own up and admit that the basic education system is in a dire crisis and needs urgent attention. Until we, as a country, reach this point it will remain unfair to continue to expect the youth to survive the gauntlet that excludes 44.6% of learners between Grade 10 and 12.

Many of those who manage to complete Grade 12 still carry the burden of having gone through a basic education system that is embedded with low literary rates and are therefore, to some extent, inadequately prepared to tackle the challenges of higher education. The transition from basic education to higher education deserves as much political and policy attention as what was given to the #FeesMustFall movement. It must be confronted with diligence and level headed scrutiny if South Africa is to succeed in improving the number of competent graduates that are produced by the higher education system.

The transition that learners undergo from the basic education system to higher education institutions is critical as it determines whether the conditions within which we are directing the envisioned R57-billion in tax revenue is actually sufficient in ensuring that students who receive funding actually complete their studies. Unfortunately, the weaknesses in our basic education system leads to student under preparedness and this remains one of the persistent factors that will negatively impact the fee-free policy in higher education.

As far back as 2013, the Council for Higher Education (CHE) observed that only 35% of the total intake, and 48% of contact students, graduate within five years. The report further highlighted that student under preparedness was the dominant learning-related cause of the poor performance patterns in higher education. The inference that can be drawn from these statistics is that a very large number of learners who will tap into the R57-billion to access higher education will not graduate.

One may formulate a counter argument against this inference and suggest that the Higher Education sector must create support mechanisms to reduce the number of drop-outs. This is a valid argument, and in fact universities have been doing this for a number of years by introducing extended programmes and academic aid interventions. However, it should be noted that extended programmes can only be offered to a small proportion of the intake, so the large numbers of under-prepared mainstream students – who are currently struggling and failing, are not able to benefit from extended programmes.

There is no doubt that the cumulative effect of the challenges facing the basic education system has a negative spill-over impact on the preparedness of Grade 12s entering the higher education sector. The observation by the CHE in light of this glaring reality is that the basic education system will not be able to produce the numbers of well-prepared Grade 12s that higher education requires.

Essentially then, the obligation to rectify student under preparedness falls upon the higher education sector. This is a R57-billion gamble that South Africa simply cannot afford.

The higher education sector has been and will continue to undergo a series of changes with regards to governance, finance, language and pedagogical approaches to better serve the needs of the nation. The basic education sector should equally be responsive in addressing the overwhelming evidence of under-preparedness, otherwise half or even more of the beneficiaries of the R57-billion injection into the higher education environment will still not be able to complete their studies. If a two-prong response, coming from both basic and higher education departments is not forthcoming, this will be a typical case of throwing tax money at a brewing national crisis and hoping the challenge will disappear. DM

Prof Ilyayambwa Mwanawina is an Associate Professor at the North West University’s (NWU’s) Faculty of Law

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