As if cash-strapped universities didn’t have enough to deal with, now they’re having to cope with the curveball of finding a way to determine the real value of matric.

This month, government announced that 72.5% of pupils who wrote the school-leaving exam had passed — up from 70.7%. While this created the impression of an improvement in education, the true value of the national senior certificate remains a hotly debated issue.

Of the more than 700,000 new matriculants, only 21% (151,830) got marks high enough for them to be admitted to university bachelor degrees. This includes 78,878 pupils from low-income schools, predominantly in poor townships and black areas.

Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib points out that a matric certificate is not a great indicator of performance.

"Given the way government has behaved with the examinations and assessments, do not be surprised if, in years to come, the
universities develop an access exam or
procedure because at the moment, there
are questions being raised," he says.

This suggests that whatever government is saying about an improvement, many are sceptical, believing that the numbers have been gerrymandered and the true state of learning is much worse.

In particular, critics cite the global Trends in International Mathematics & Science study, which ranked SA 38th of 39 countries for maths at the grade 8 level, ahead of only Kuwait. SA was last when it came to science.

Equally, the World Economic Forum’s annual competitiveness survey ranks SA at 126 out of 138 on the quality of its basic education. The quality of maths and science education was ranked last.

Michael Jordaan, the former CE of FNB and the founder of venture capital firm Montegray Capital, says the average for matric maths of 30% is "depressing".

There are other issues. Angie Motshekga’s department of basic education adjusted upwards the marks in 28 of the 58 subjects examined last year.

But as the currency of matric has deteriorated, sacrificed, arguably, on the altar of government’s desire to show an improvement in the "pass mark", universities have had to devise new ways to assess whether students are truly ready for tertiary study.

Already, a "bachelor pass" doesn’t guarantee university entrance.

Instead, some of those students are then subjected to a national benchmark test (NBT), which is meant to measure academic readiness for university study.

Habib says that while the test is not the sole criterion, it is increasingly being used to determine access to university, "whether we admit it or not".

The NBT, he says, is not used as consistently as it could be.

Universities use the tests in different ways. The University of Cape Town requires potential students to write the NBT for most of its programmes, while Wits uses the tests for students who want to study medicine (in addition to the matric result) to help it get a more complete view of their capabilities.

Due to lack of university space and the limitations imposed by the NBT, many more prospective university students will find themselves at technical and vocational education and training colleges.

In SA, school-leavers often clamour for space at a university, but many experts believe vocational and artisanal training is what the economy needs most.

Jordaan warns that a matric pass has become less important in a fast-changing world. Instead, complex problem-solving, entrepreneurship and computer skills are becoming essential.

He says young people should see matric as a stepping stone, using the free opportunities created by new technologies (such as smartphones) to build skills they can use.

Economist Mike Schüssler agrees, arguing that a developing economy like SA needs more artisans and engineers. He says SA places far too much emphasis on university education.

"We need to change the mindset that exists in Anglo-Saxon countries that everyone needs to go to university. In countries where German and French are spoken you find more artisans and mechanics," he says.

As it stands, the structure seems broken.

Youth unemployment is at 38.2%, as people with freshly minted matric certificates sit at home. Often unable to access universities and not encouraged to develop the right skills, these young people are the casualties of a system that is looking to cover its back, rather than truly equip South Africans.

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