South African exam disaster

January 23, 1998

AFRICA. Many South African universities and colleges will have to consider lowering their entrance criteria for students following disastrous school-leaving results last week.

More pupils failed than passed "matric" for the first time last year. The success rate dropped 7.6 per cent to 47.1 per cent of 556,246 pupils who took the exams. The proportion achieving university exemption was 12.4 per cent, down from 15.4 per cent in 1996.

This means fewer than 69,000 pupils will be eligible to enter South Africa's 36 state universities and technikons and more than 100 higher education colleges when the academic year begins in February. South Africa will be more hard-pressed than expected to achieve its goal of raising the proportion of 20 to 24-year-olds in tertiary education to 30 per cent.

Most universities said they would not adjust entrance criteria to counteract the drop in eligible matriculants. But historically white institutions will be able to scoop the cream of the school crop.

Disadvantaged universities and technikons (polytechnics) will have either to accept some students without exemptions or accept fewer students - a move that would fly in the face of government plans to expand higher education.

While the number of pupils taking the exams has risen from around 70,000 candidates in the mid-1980s to more than half a million, the results could indicate that growing numbers are coming from sub-standard schools.

But education experts deny any drop in school standards or pupil performance. They say it is the result of improvements to the examination process itself, which only became non-racial in 1996.

Glen Fisher, education and training director for the National Business Initiative, said the 1997 results may be the first real reflection of performance in South African schools. "The way the examinations operated previously may have masked problems."

The universities of Cape Town and the Wi****ersrand said they would not change the profile of first-year students, although numbers might be down. Cape Town said it was likely to broaden the base of disadvantaged students gaining admission through alternative selection procedures as did the University of the Western Cape.

Since government funding is linked to student numbers and pass rates, universities and technikons are under pressure to take in the full quota and good students if they are to meet their predicted financial commitments.

The results have thus dealt a double blow to many institutions: with fewer and weaker students, several institutions may not receive expected income in 1998-99, and higher failure rates from weaker students could erode their budgets further in future.

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