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Distinctions and defeat: The scramble for universities

The dust has finally settled. Most schools (at least those which have textbooks and teachers present) are back into the routine. The matric results frenzy has ebbed. I’ve always been disturbed by the country’s obsession with matric results every year as though we will discover something different. Every time I think about the frenzy I think about the fate of the grade one learner who is starting their 12-year journey (in a private or public school). Depending on their class, there are certain things they will learn to take for granted. There are givens by virtue of the family they come from and the school they attend. The question of class and education is not a new one and in South Africa we often forget this.

When I matriculated in 2005 I had a few givens that I didn’t have to consider mostly because of the kind of school I matriculated from. It was a middle-class school, which was (intentionally or unintentionally) designed to be a feeder school for the university I had set my heart on since grade 11. I didn’t consider that I was competing with thousands of other applicants to get into the university. I applied to one university and I was convinced that there was no reason why they wouldn’t accept me. I had gone to a good school and I met the minimum requirements. It seems arrogant but the 11 years I had behind me at a privileged middle-class school allowed me to be arrogant at the time. I didn’t do spectacularly in my final exams — straight Cs — but because I did all my subjects on higher grade I had a better chance of getting better points to get into a university.

I doubt I would have been accepted into any university if I had been in the class of 2013 with the same marks I had in 2005. Stakes are high. An article in September last year revealed that Wits university had 46 000 applicants for 5 500 places in first year and the University of Johannesburg had 132 000 applicants for 10 000 places, the University of Pretoria had more than 30 000 applicants for 16 500 places and the University of KwaZulu-Natal has less than 10 000 places for first year but received over 65 000 applications. I imagine a similar scenario for the rest of the universities across South Africa. It’s now become common knowledge that if all our matriculants could pass with a bachelor entrance, tertiary institutions would not have enough space to accommodate all of them. And because of some policies, even if one gets distinctions, that’s not a guarantee they will get into their desired course of study as is the case at the University of Cape Town.

It seems universities will choose the crème de la crème from high schools in order to fill their hallowed halls of what we have associated with success. Going to university means one is successful. Passing and getting a job thereafter is a conversation for another day. If universities can choose the crème de la crème (because let’s face it, who wants to go to a Further Education and Training college?) does that mean we are generating an elite club of university graduates? If getting into university is a matter of the survival of the fittest, who is winning the race? And of course there’s the consideration that people only consider the top six universities in South Africa (I bet many people don’t know that there’s a university in Limpopo). These seem like an unnecessary consideration to make because if one drives through any township, they will find the answer in the numbers of the young black people who have been defeated and failed and therefore unemployed or not in any kind of training, nor are they studying.

It’s not new knowledge that our education system has grave consequences for working-class people who have limited options as it is. What we seldom consider is the implications it has for middle-class people who it props up and the opportunity it affords “exceptional” working-class people to assimilate into middle-classness and all the perks that will afford them. The scramble for university entrance is causing a wider rift in an already stratified society. We take the consequences of this rift for granted. It seems we relish in it because it has become a bizarre reminder of the limited view we have of transformation — society is transformed when there are many people vying for positions in higher education. Surely there has to be more to transformation than the number of university students we have in our first-year cohorts?