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What South Africa’s matric pass rate means for universities

Data suggests that the pool of matriculants who wrote mathematics, specifically, is small.

South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education announced a 2018 matric pass rate of 78.2% in the first week of January as well as a number of other significant achievements. These are academic results of students in their final year of high school. The results are used to gauge the state of the country’s education system. Based on this performance, the argument is that South Africa’s education system is on the right track and making steady, if slow, progress.

Whether the country accepts this or not, the question that needs to be asked is what these matric results mean for higher education, and more importantly, for the future professions that top matriculants aspire to.

One of the purposes of the National Senior Certificate – South Africa’s main school-leaving certificate – is to identify students who are sufficiently prepared for tertiary study. While tertiary education is not for everyone, the country needs a pool of talented matriculants to provide the high level skills it needs for its economy and broader society.

So how is South Africa doing? I illustrate the progress by looking at the subject of mathematics. Mathematics develops logical reasoning and problem-solving and hence a “gateway” subject for many of the professions such as engineering, commerce and health sciences.

What do the final exam results say about the size and quality of the pool of matriculants who passed mathematics? What does their performance at tertiary level demonstrate about the pool of graduates ready to enter a workforce affected by changing work environments, particularly the rise of technology?

Small pool 

The data suggest that the pool of matriculants who wrote mathematics is small and not strong. Over the past five years significantly less than 50% of the matric final exam writers wrote mathematics as a subject. Of the 11 top subjects, mathematics is consistently the lowest performing. In 2018, out of a total of 270 516 mathematics writers, 37% passed with 40% and above. The percentage pass has been consistently between 30 and 35%.

From the point of view of selective universities who require 80% and above for programmes in commerce, engineering, science, health sciences and quantitative social sciences, the pool is extremely small. Out of the total mathematics writers, 5 828 passed with distinction (80% or above) which is only 2.6% of mathematics writers.

From this very small pool universities then compete to attract and retain this highly talented students. How well are they doing? Data collected on the past three years performance (2015-2017) of an entry level mathematics course in one of South Africa’s selective universities shows a sobering reality: those who come in with a National Senior Certificate mathematics mark of 90% and above pass the course (with an average mean of 64%). Those who entered with a score below 90%, fail the course.

This is a course convened and taught by award-winning, highly committed teaching staff, where significant resources have been allocated to provide additional support for students, including an extended degree taught by highly experienced teaching staff.

Failure of higher education

South Africa can draw two conclusions from this data: firstly, although growing and strengthening this pool will require efforts at primary and secondary level, the onus for growing the pool of qualified graduates lies with higher education. This underscores the argument made in 2013 by the Council on Higher Education which pointed to systemic failure of universities because they were failing to graduate the strongest pool of students that the schooling system had to offer.

Even if the schooling system is able to enlarge the pool of matriculates passing mathematics, the data suggests that this will not inevitably result in a larger pool of students who succeed in mathematics as a gateway to their chosen field of study. 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.

Secondly, the problem of the “gap” between schooling completion and university preparedness is not new. Nor are solutions: South Africa has 30 years of interventions aimed at addressing this problem. However, a critical look at the high failure rates in these gateway courses (such as mathematics, physics, statistics, economics) despite a wide range of interventions would suggest that the sector is not doing as well as it should.

Perhaps some of the persistent educational problems, in part due to gross educational inequalities, require a different way of thinking. Perhaps the higher education sector needs to shift its resources from interventions for those deemed “at risk” (thereby leaving the rest unchanged) and to focus on systemic change. This means focusing 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.

Contrary to the perception that this constitutes a “lowering of standards”, these systemic changes will profoundly raise the quality of teaching for all.

Higher education has no choice but to work with the pool of talent it receives. The challenge is how.

Suellen Shay is a Professor at the University of Cape Town. 

This article was published with the permission of The Conversation, the original publication can be viewed here

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As a small business and an occasional employer I have no idea what the ” matric certificate” actually means these days. I have my doubts it means what I expect it to mean. In fact, I know it does NOT mean what I expect it to mean. A couple of bad experiences have led me to believe it that for all intents and purposes it can be ignored where you are providing a job in financial services. The kick off point needs to be B.Comm from a particular university.

“failing to graduate the strongest pool of students that the schooling system had to offer.”

They are failing to graduate because they are failing the subject, the obvious reasons for that would be either they received a poor primary/secondary education or they are not that interested during tertiary.

I highly doubt you need 80% in maths to get into the bulk of university courses unless things have changed significantly.

To get into a course that puts you on the road to get a profesional qualification in science or commerce you will need 80%. Think accounting, engineering or medcine.

So yes you will still be able to get into a humanities course, which is where the bulk of our students ends up in, but then what? What exactly are you going to do with your BA?

Dismal stats … small percentage qualify for university…most of them will not complete their degree…+- 500 000 learners from grade 10 disappear and never complete matric…every year we produce more and more low skill workers in the middle of the 4th industrial revolution = more populism = more pressure on those who work to fund the demands = more debt for SA = future disaster for SA

VERY true. most varsities do an in-house assessment too. Many companies ours included look rather to varsity students and they are not paid that well. Matric means nothing study further.

The only use of a Matric cert is to verify that its owner is somewhere between ages 17 and 23 !!!

If you want to see where the problem really is, look at the IQ stats.

That’s a problem the educationists CANNOT fix. Ever!

The remedy lies before the child’s conception, and starts with a small loving nuclear family = which is emphatically NOT the case for most of the failing students.

The bigger problem is that no one wants to admit this.

I agree that early childhood development holds the key, but it is hard to have a “small loving nuclear family” when both your parents work menial jobs and have to travel 3 hours a day to get to work and back.

Why, Notwarren, should travelling 3 hrs / day cause the parents to end up having a larger family than they can afford to raise with loving care?

This is where logic and math should come in. can you afford children?

Maybe a big part of the reason why the kids with 80% school maths fail varsity math is the darlings go from pampered classes of 25 at school to 300 at varsity. That, and nobody really believes the stats where nowadays 20 kids in a grade get 95% or above. That Bell curve is waaaaay too far on the right

As a retired academic from a Science and Engineering field, I think the role of Mathematics is badly misunderstood. I was once asked by our Maths department “What topics should we teach to support your course”. Wrong question.

Maths requires, and then enhances, abstract reasoning skills – what the old Piaget theory called “formal manipulation”. Suppose our English teacher asked “what specific books must the child read to be ready for your course?”, the question would be immediately recognized as ridiculous. I don’t care if they read Harry Potter or Charles Dickens – they are acquiring a much deeper skill than that specific content.

Likewise, Maths is not primarily about Algebra or Geometry or Logic or Calculus. It’s about the ability to use formal tools and to think and reason abstractly, sometimes symbolically, and to see relationships, understand equations, what constitues a proof, a counter-example, etc.

So Maths fails in the schools largely because the pupils are not cognitively ready to deal with the abstractions. So why not?

Well the most fundamental exercise we have to build abstraction is reading – turning squiggly symbols on a page into layers of abstractions – recognizing letters, words, phrases, punctuation, sentences, meaning, comprehension. We should have nightmares every time we see those embarassing and shameful results about how few of our pupils can read decently. []

So until we can get children reading fluently for meaning and their own pleasure, we have little hope of them being able to reason abstractly, and even less reason to expect improved Maths results.

100% agree!

It’s not enough for a child to merely be able to read.

There are many who can actually read, but it is still a useless skill for them.


Because the key differentiator that makes a skill ACTUALLY useful is one’s personal willingness to ENTHUSIASTICALLY apply that skill.

If you CAN read, but don’t like doing so, then you will be at a massive life-long disadvantage against a competitor who reads voraciously.

Where does the “love for reading” really come from? It’s not from school. It’s from your parents! Sitting you on their lap, and excitedly reading you (and helping you read) wonderful, evocative, stories.

Schools can, and do, build on this original passion. But they don’t create it when the parents deny it.

Which is why GOOD PARENTS are the corner stone of a successful education system

I went to one of the so-called ‘prestige schools’ in the Western Cape and matriculated in 1988. More than half of my classmates at the time were taking extra math lessons and were doing things like Master Maths. Despite this, maths HG was still a difficult subject for most pupils other than those with a natural gift for maths. If more than half of the kids have to take extra lessons in a subject, then surely there is something wrong
with the way in which the subject is being taught and the textbooks which they use. If it went like that in one of the so-called ‘prestige schools’, goodness knows how it is supposed to go in Kayalitsha or Sebokeng where children can’t afford extra lessons. Something is wrong with the textbooks and or the style of teaching maths.

Or, heaven forbid, something is wrong with the kids themselves… ???

I speak as one of those kids myself – who continually struggled with maths throughout my schooling and varsity.

Extra lessons made only a slight – but not exactly “winning impact” on my dismal progress.

In hindsight I charitably put this down to my relative immaturity compared to my student peers who were a year or two older than me.

I’ve made my career in technology, and done so despite my impediment at NOT being a maths whiz (or even close to that!).

I think that the biggest problem is the quality of the Maths teachers. While some people are born Maths teachers the majority are not hence the need for an effective training college stocked with experienced qualified ex Maths teachers. I do not believe such teachers are still around. I recently met a friend of my daughter who I remembered from her school days who really battled academically particularly with Maths. I was stunned to learn that she was now a teacher, teaching Maths!

I must strongly agree with cspwcspw and the replies. The problem with MATH is MATH. Which by the way is just MATH. When I was at school we had a good grounding in maths. These days anyone and everyone teaches the subject. Unless you know the basics like 1+1=2 and why. Basic yes but do the kids full understand or is it parrot fashion.

My friends son failed the subject so switched to Math Lit and passed that at Matric he battled to get anything decent at Varsity. My friend sent him to a retired maths and physics professor. He too the student back to grade 7 maths and explained how where and why maths works. The student in 1 year of studies passed Matric maths with 95% he then went onto spend a year learning science and physics. he just got his results 87%. Now the decision is what course to do at Varsity.

Reading is another problem. Do kids read enough – NO. My mother made me read every day for an hour and any words i didn’t understand i had to look up in a dictionary. Now its ask Google.

It all boils down to ONE thing UNDERSTAND THE BASICS OR DON’T MOVE ON.

Even if one ignores the few hundred thousand learners who go missing between grade 10 and matric, only approximately 1% of the actual matriculants get an A for maths. *ALL* SA’s doctors and engineers need to come from this pool. Oh, and most of the accountants, pilots and architects as well, to name but a few professions where maths plays a key role.
Don’t fool yourself that the candidate who got 60% or 45% for maths is also good enough – we are dealing with the SADTU-controlled, ANC-blessed Dept of Basic Edumafacation here.
In short: SA will be importing these skills and professions in future. That is, if the skills will even be available here at any price, once we have gone full socialist Nirvana.

The road to become a true African country is obvious a success. Institutions like universities have to fit in or get out.
The signs of success are all around visible.
For the learner, brave, stupid, rate payer, the country is on a road of no return.
The corner fundamental stone is BEE.
History demand sheep slaughtering, not mathematics, to please ancestors.

These stats are utterly, utterly scary and foretell the dismal failed future for this country. Contrast our situation with the Asian tigers, Singapore, South Korea, and now even Vietnam and others racing past SA.

the only source of knowledge………. is EXPERIENCE – take this as a guidance throughout our lives – the “new world” requires people who can WORK with people in the work place or where ever……. even with all the degrees and all other pieces of paper proof of studies, as Rooseveldt put it mildly ……. the ONE most important ingredient in the recipe of life skills for education is to KNOW how to work with people.

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