MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Debilitating inequalities in education are tearing SA asunder


This week, the Department of Basic Education is releasing matric results for the class of 2022. The first of these results were released by the Independent Examinations Boards (IEB) on 18 January, while the National Senior Certificate (NSC) released its results two days later. While both IEB and NSC follow the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) curriculum, the IEB is a private assessment board that offers examinations to private schools. The subjects offered by IEB are equivalent to the United Kingdom’s Advanced Levels (A-Levels). And while both NSC and IEB are recognised and accredited by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), Umalusi and the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), the IEB matric certificate is further recognised internationally by a variety of higher learning institutions. This makes it much easier for students matriculating with an IEB certificate to secure a place in universities across the world – including Ivy Leagues such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But a majority of the students with IEB matric certificates do not pursue their higher education overseas; they compete for places in the 26 universities and universities of technology in South Africa – along with the hundreds of thousands of NSC candidates.

There are numerous problems with this reality. The first is the vast divide between IEB candidates and those from lower quantiles in the public schooling system. Private schools, including those touted as being “more affordable”, are inherently better resourced than public schools in general and those in the lower quantiles in particular. And due to their unaffordability by most South Africans, they also have lower teacher-to-learner ratios in classrooms. In 2022, the IEB had only 12,580 full-time and 945 part-time candidates. The NSC, on the other hand, had 921,000 candidates, according to the education department. This allows IEB schools to invest more time and resources into their learners, and to provide a far more conducive environment than an under-resourced school with a high teacher-to-learner ratio can. As a result, students from private schools tend to perform better. This is why the IEB consistently obtains a pass rate of more than 97% (for the class of 2022, the pass rate is 98.4%) and significantly more bachelor passes than the NSC. An impressive 89.32% of the class of 2022 achieved a bachelor pass. The implication is that with better scores, they get first priority into the best universities.

Now, factor in the issue of space availability in universities and colleges. According to a report by the_ Sunday Times_ last year, there are 200,000 spaces available across all 26 universities and universities of technology in the country. And yet, these institutions received a combined number of applications of a staggering four million for the academic year 2023. The implication is that 3.8 million learners will not find a place in these public institutions. Some will go to the 50 licenced Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges. But even with the sustained efforts by the Department of Higher Education and Training to increase the number of enrolments in TVET colleges, there are presently only 580,849 students in these institutions. This effectively means that even in the best case scenario, less than 800,000 of the learners who sat for matric exams in 2022 will be in a higher learning or TVET institution in 2023. Those who don’t get a place will have to try again next year – competing with millions of applicants once again.

But space is not the only constraint for public school matriculants when it comes to competition with IEB learners. Most learners in public schools are concentrated in quantile 1-3 public schools that have significantly less resources. These learners are from working-class backgrounds, meaning that most if not all will require state funding for their higher education. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) will fund approximately 100,000 students in the year 2023. But so far, 1,634,002 students have applied for funding (the number will likely increase before the application deadline of 31 January). This means more than 1.5 million students will not be funded. A few will study through loans which their parents will apply for, but given the high levels of unemployment and poverty in the country, it’s almost certain that over a million of these students will be forced to stay home or try their luck in an unforgiving and segmented labour market.

The gross inequalities in both basic and higher education are thrusting millions of young people into a debilitating cycle of poverty and unemployment. While there’s no silver bullet to the immediate resolution of this crisis, which is rooted in the economic mode of production that reproduces racialised inequalities, arresting this situation must be prioritised as a matter of urgency. The starting point is the establishment of a working partnership between the public and private sectors to build more higher learning institutions and training centres.

The reality is that our country doesn’t have adequate higher learning and training institutions. Developed countries understand the value of investing in these institutions – something we must strive to emulate. For example, Germany, with a population of 83 million, has 340 officially recognised universities. Canada, with a population of 38 million, has 223 universities and 213 public colleges and institutes. South Africa’s grossly inadequate number of learning institutions impedes on the state’s vision of industrialisation as a vehicle for economic growth and development. The private sector, the biggest beneficiary of our country’s higher education and state investment in students, must come to the party. While the provision of bursaries and scholarships to some students is commendable, it doesn’t address the fundamental problem of space limitations. Furthermore, the stringent and classist requirements for most private sector scholarships and bursaries further deepens the divide between learners educated in lower quantile public schools and those in the IEB system. The higher education crisis in our country is everyone’s problem because its ramifications - inequalities, poverty, unemployment, crime, violence etcetera - are felt by all of us. It’s a crisis that can be summed up as mutually assured destruction.

Malaika Mahlatsi is a Researcher at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg.