Only 4% of students that start grade 1 in South Africa end up with degrees: minister

 ·9 Jun 2022

Higher Education, Science And Innovation minister Blade Nzimande says the country needs to produce more graduate students if it is to meet its workforce needs.

Speaking at a fuel meeting on Thursday (9 June), Nzimande cited the country’s current graduate statistics and how few students ultimately make it through SouthAfrica’s school system.

“One of the challenges that we need to confront head-on, is the number of students who enter our university system, as a proportion of those who started Grade 1. Out of 100 students, only 12 access our university system, and only six complete – four with a degree.

“This clearly indicates that there are many young people who are lost through the system. We, therefore, need to cater for these students for us to expand our post-school opportunities.”

Nzimande added that the government has made a significant effort to open the education system to more students, with the majority of current university students receiving some form of fiduciary support.

“I must indicate that through government funding, we are already funding a substantial number of learners in our institutions.  Out of 1,110,361 university enrolments, 76.6% and out of 508,445 TVET college enrolments, 98% are funded through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).”

Growing problem 

South Africa’s education outcome could be further exacerbated in the coming years a new study by Stellenbosch University shows.

The study shows most learners in South African schools missed at least three-quarters of a school year over the course of 2020 and 2021, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdowns, school closures and rotational timetables that were introduced to maintain social distancing in classrooms.

These lost school days are known to have affected learning, but lack of data has thus far limited attempts at measuring learning losses. The only two studies measuring learning loss thus far were limited to fairly small samples of learners in relatively poor schools, to reading and only to the lower grades.

The Stellenbosch University study considers a much larger sample, virtually all public schools in the Western Cape, across Grades 3, 6 and 9 in both Language and Mathematics, comparing 2021 performance with that in 2019.

By investigating performance in the Western Cape Systemic Tests that are written in Grades 3, 6, and 9 in both Language and Mathematics, the study was also able to compare the performance of the same schools on the same questions in 2021 to performance in 2019.

Some of the key findings of the study include:

  • Low average marks were evident already in 2019 for Grade 3 Language (42.7%) and Grade 9 Maths (37.7%), despite many multiple-choice questions.
  • Conservatively estimated, learners have fallen 40% to 70% of a school year behind earlier cohorts in Language and much more, 95% to 106% of a school year in Mathematics.
  • In most tests, girls significantly outperform boys. In Grade 9, boys experienced greater learning losses, wiping out the pro-boy advantage in Mathematics.

“The findings are indeed extremely concerning – losses in mathematics tend to be the largest, even when using a relatively conservative measure (assuming that a year’s learning is as much as 40% of a standard deviation in primary and 30% in secondary schools, the losses indicate that learners in 2021 had fallen more than a year of learning behind learners in the same grade in 2019,” the researchers said.

“In language, losses are smaller, around three-quarters of a year equivalent in terms of learning.”

The researchers added that two policy areas require special attention:

  • The first is to find more time for Mathematics, to overcome the deficit that has accumulated during the Covid years. For instance, Grade 9 learners in 2021 are performing more than a year behind Grade 9 learners two years earlier, so they must catch up a full year before they write matric. This requires that they progress more than four years in the three years before they write matric.
  • In Language, the big challenge is to ensure that reading has been mastered in the Foundation Phase, while at the same time giving urgent attention to ease the language transition. Weak reading skills and English vocabulary can inhibit all further learning for the majority of learners who have to make this language transition.

Read: Ramaphosa talks up government interventions for rising prices in South Africa

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