The essence of good strategic thinking and planning requires, for an organization, a critical capacity to anticipate events in the future that may have the capacity to derail its strategy and develop remedial measures to mitigate the threat. This is also true for a government.
The crippling financial burden of university education for the poor, middle-class students and their families is a major faultline that was bound to lead to an explosive crisis sooner rather than later. And it was also clear that the student would be at the forefront of the agitation for immediate change. What has clearly been missing on the part of the government was the inability to demonstrate leadership in the face of a looming crisis.
The funding of universities is a complex issue and is one priority among many that the government must contend with. But solutions are available. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is a good strategy provided it is used as a financial aid mechanism and as an incentive instrument for promoting access and throughput at universities. Useful lessons on how this is done can be learned from countries like Botswana if we can be humble enough to learn.
I propose that the NSFAS must provide full loans to all students that come from households that fall below a certain level of household income and partial loans on a sliding scale above that level. One of the key conditions for the loans must for example include the following: 1) 40% of the loan shall be converted to a bursary if the recipient passes the first year and an additional 20% shall be added if the pass rate is above 70%; 2) a further 20% shall be converted to a bursary if the recipient passes the second year and an additional 10% to be added for a pass rate above 70%; 3) the balance shall be converted on passing the final year be that 40%. In this fashion the NSFAS can be a powerful tool for promoting hard work and improving throughput and reducing the drop-out rate especially in the first year.
What is proposed here will not provide the total answer to university funding challenges. And it is not intended to. But it can provide high impact relief while more substantive discussions take place on how to increase the government subsidy per full time student.
Introducing a foundation year at all universities will certainly contribute to reducing the drop-out rate and improving the return on funds invested on each student. This has been a common practice in countries like Botswana and Lesotho and it has served the purpose of grounding the first-year students in basic subjects and provided them with the opportunity to absorb the learning culture of the university and enable them to reflect on the career choices they have made.
The drop-out rate is a problem and has its origins in the basic education system. It is the most revealing and critical of all the performance metrics about the quality of our public education and the efficacy of the system itself. The current focus on the final matric results is indeed misleading unless we also pay attention to the throughput rate of the system between Grades 10 and 12. When learners register for Grade 10, they register their intent to sit for the final national senior certificate examinations two years down the line. A true measure of the efficiency of the system must among others therefore be the proportion of those who succeed in Grade 12 relative to those who registered at Grade 10. Using this metric, it then becomes possible to understand what happened to the learners that did not sit for the final examination, what is called the “drop-out” rate.
Poor performing schools play a significant role in the high drop-out rate in Grades 10 and 11. Many learners that join Grade 10 from other intermediate schools, especially those located in the rural and poor areas, come with significant language and numeracy deficits. It is not possible to make up for these deficits in the three years leading to the final examinations. The tendency among many schools facing this challenge is for the weak learners to be excluded from Grade 12 through a process known as “culling” in order to please the demands of their district education officers. This is where the problem lies.
High drop-out rates have a direct economic impact in terms of poor utilisation of our human resources. Measuring this defect will ensure that we focus our attention and remedial interventions at points in the system that really matter. Improvements that can be realised at this level will certainly have an impact on the high drop-out rate in the first year at university.
To a very large degree, our goal and mission of attaining social justice, transformation and growing the country’s economic development are dependent on how the education system functions. The extent to which children from disadvantaged communities have a real opportunity to achieve educational outcomes that will enable them to be successful in the labour market, is a better indicator and predictor of whether the school system can be expected to transform existing patterns of inequality or merely reproduce them.