South African Students Congress

SASCO response to the Council on Higher Education (CHE) report

23 August 2013

The South African Students Congress (SASCO) notes the report on undergraduate curriculum reform by the Council on Higher Education (CHE). The 258 page report-titled ‘A proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa’-was released on 20 August 2013 for public comment. Amongst the disturbing findings in the report is that less than 5% of African and coloured students in higher education complete their studies whilst on average white students’ completion rates are 50% higher than African students. The Report also highlights that over 50% of first year entrants do not complete their studies. We are not surprised about this sad reality as we have consistently raised this issue. The Report is spot-on in identifying the problem and its extent.

Whereas the Report correctly identifies the problem, its analysis and proposed solution leaves a lot to be desired. The inability of the Report to provide sound and cogent analysis inevitably leads the Report into proposing a misguided solution. The Report is pathetically narrow in its analysis of the challenge of high failure rate, particularly amongst black African students. Instead of providing a holistic and balanced analysis of the problem, the Report focuses on the underpreparedness of students for higher education as a dominant factor responsible for high failure rate. The high-failure rates in our Universities are squarely attributed to a failure of basic education to prepare students for higher education.

SASCO believes the Report’s analysis is limited and does not deal with all factors responsible for high failure rate in universities. We refuse to believe that the CHE’s ‘underpreparedness’ thesis is sufficient in helping us understand the many other variables involved in poor academic performance. SASCO strongly believes that the Report’s major analytical weakness and blunder lies in its inability to appreciate that lack of adequate student services, unqualified academic staff and lack of proper academic support and mentoring also contribute to high failure rates in higher education. Whether or not students are underprepared for higher education is immaterial unless our institutions of higher learning are able to provide a conducive and supportive environment for academic excellence.  

The Report fails to acknowledge that most of our universities and colleges are unable to provide adequate accommodation, learning support material, hire properly qualified academic staff; provide adequate library and computer facilities and address many other issues related to student services. Instead of acknowledging these factors, the Report either completely ignores these factors or makes peripheral reference to them. Why did the authors (Ian Scott, Njabulo Ndebele, Barney Pityana, Nasima Badsha, Brain Figali, Weiland Gevers) of the Report ignore these factors? Is it because most of them were senior university administrators and now seek convenient comfort in pointing fingers at others without realising that their inability (as university administrators) to provide adequate academic support and student services contribute to the problem?

The unsound and narrow analysis leads the Report into proposing a hasty solution. The one solution is packaged under some narrative of a so-called ‘flexible curriculum structure’. This narrative is a product of narrow and mechanical analysis and is presented as a panacea to the crisis of high failure rate in universities. The hasty idea of a ‘flexible curriculum structure’ aims to extend the year of study towards an undergraduate three year degree or diploma by one year—for ‘underprepared’ students. As SASCO, we totally disagree with this proposal as it is a quick-fix to a problem that requires multiple interventions, particularly on the part of universities. Addressing the challenge of high failure rate cannot be solved by extending the duration of study. It can simply be solved by ensuring that proper and adequate academic support and student services are provided to all students. We must also ensure that the academic staff is qualified and adequately prepared to teach, supervise and mentor.

For more information contact:

Ngoako Selamolela, SASCO President, 076 333 9127
Themba Masondo, SASCO Secretary General, 079 199 3421