Many matriculants will be celebrating this weekend over qualifying for entry to study at a higher education institution, following the release of the 2019 National Senior Certificate (NSC) results.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced this week that there had been a 3.3% improvement in the number of bachelors passes and a 1.1% improvement in those qualifying for access to diploma studies.
But qualifying is only the start, say experts, as reality is likely to hit when they are confronted with challenges around access, finances, competition and culture.
“Every year we see a stampede because learners are competing over who is going to get access to university and colleges,” Equal Education researcher Malin Steinsland says.
Dr Mlamuli Hlatshwayo, a Curriculum and Education Studies lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), adds that the “system is pumping lots of matric students” but a lot of them will be extremely disappointed as there simply aren’t enough spaces.
As an example, UKZN received 106 270 applications for 2020 but only has 9 043 spaces for first-time applicants in undergraduate programmes.
Hlatshwayo points out that having a bachelors pass does not mean automatic entry as many universities and specific programmes require a higher number of points.
“Saying you have a bachelors pass is almost setting up students to fail because they say I should be accepted. It creates another frustration.”
Even if a student is accepted, the reality is that university studies and associated costs – residence, transport, food and textbooks – are unaffordable for the average household.
Poor and vulnerable students prioritised
The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) indicated this week that it received a record number of first-time ever applications by November 2019. There were 543 268 applications compared to 428 929 the previous year.
NSFAS administrator Dr Randall Carolissen says just under half the applications came from social grant beneficiaries and they have prioritised poor and vulnerable students.
At this stage, 346 364 of the 473 911 valid and completed applications have been declared eligible for funding.
When university is not an option, a lot of students turn to TVET colleges.
Steinsland questions whether these students will receive a quality education at college because not all have qualified staff with adequate teaching and technical skills.
“If students haven’t had a proper education, that is also going to be an obstacle when they go through to TVET colleges and university,” she says.
“In TVET colleges, there are lots of learners who spend more time than they are supposed to on a course because they have to repeat years. Some of them drop out. They struggle to gain the knowledge they are supposed to because they didn’t have a chance to lay a proper foundation.”
A student will struggle if their high school only prepared them to pass matric but did not focus on problem solving and critical thinking skills, she adds.
Hlatshwayo questions the extent to which basic education equips children to prepare for the demands of higher education.
“Can they cope with how intensive the reading requirements are?” he asks.
In terms of decolonisation and transformation, many institutions have been paying lip service to the way programmes are taught and curriculum is structured, he says.
“They are not teaching in a way that someone from Umlazi, KwaMashu or Soweto, will understand our curriculum content and want to critically engage with it.
“It’s also quite a rude awakening for a lot of students who will be confronted with the institutional culture at historically white universities.”
Private tertiary institutions, which have popped up around the country, are another alternative – but not for everyone.
“When it comes to education and privatisation, we need to look at whether it is filling the gap or is it increasing socio-economic differences,” Steinsland says.
She says an increase in institutions is good but quality and accessibility should be interrogated.
Hlatshwayo agrees and says that while “the more the merrier”, the reality is that millions of students cannot access private tertiary institutions.
Students are gearing up to register for their studies and some institutions are only doing online applications and will not accept walk-ins or late applications.
The EFF Student Command (EFFSC) has warned its members will embark on a “harsh” programme at universities which do not allow walk-ins and late registrations for deserving students.