Student Preparedness

Another problem that continues to plague the higher education system is the lack of student preparedness. The HESA commissioned the National Benchmark Test Project in 2005 to assess the entry-level literacy and mathematics proficiency of students entering higher education. By evaluating the relationship between university entry requirements and students’ proficiency as they left their K-12 schools, institutions hoped to gain information that would help them place students in the right courses and improve their institutional curricula.

The initial results, based on a pilot project, revealed that only 7 percent of first-year college students were proficient in mathematics and only a quarter fully quantitatively literate. In fact, fewer than half had the academic literacy necessary to be successful in a university.38 A mismatch existed between, on the one hand, the government’s goals and expectations for the higher education system and, on the other, the performance of the primary and secondary schools that feed into that system.

Such results were cause for concern for several reasons: (1) the lack of student preparedness plays a role in student dropout rates, and (2) with the government’s current emphasis on students graduating in science, engineering, and technology, inadequate levels of quantitative literacy are particularly challenging.39

In response to such poor learning outcomes, the Department of Education launched a three-year “foundation for learning strategy” in March 20 08.40 It identified the main problems, in order of priority, that K-12 students experienced: a lack of books, high tuition and fees, inadequate facilities, large class sizes, a shortage of educators, and poor teaching.41

Government officials and educators have tried many new ideas to improve student preparedness. They have implemented programs, projects, and even special schools to help children succeed academically. In certain schools in the South African townships, for example, a teacher has been assigned to track each student through secondary education. Every time that a student misses a homework assignment or is late for school, the teacher reminds and encourages him or her. Not surprisingly, students at those schools have a 94 percent success rate in secondary school and perform better on college entrance tests.

Disappointingly, however, more than 98 percent ofthose students drop out after the first semester at the university—perhaps because no one follows and guides them once they get there. And although such students obviously have the talent to perform in the higher education system, this particular method of helping them to succeed has proven to be too resource-intensive to be sustainable.42

Teachers in particular have been held responsible for the lack of student preparedness. In his first State of the Nation speech in June 2009, President Jacob Zuma warned teachers that they needed to take their jobs seriously; additional training would be made a prerequisite to any promotions. He also shared what he believed were the government’s nonnegotiable expectations, saying, “Teachers should be in school, in class on time, teaching with no neglect to duty, and no abuse of pupils.”43 Yet teacher performance in the primary and secondary sectors of education continues to be an issue, as schools lack the capacity and/or willingness to prepare and incentivize teachers to improve their teaching, or to try to meet the shortage of good teachers by recruiting new ones.

In particular, many black students still feel they are not well prepared for university studies at elite universities, even though those institutions have become more racially integrated, and find it challenging to be in a predominately white environment for the first time. Unfortunately, the statistics demonstrate a high failure rates among black students. For example, at the UCT, an elite and historically white institution, 82 percent of white students completed their degree in five years, while only 48 percent of blacks did.44

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