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Fix the public education system to grow the economy

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.


  • Thabang is a very experienced and leading strategy consultant with more than 20 years of executive management experience. His forte and focus as an organizational strategist concerns helping organisations develop vision aligned strategies and deal with repositioning challenges in changing market environments while maintaining a sustainable and competitive advantage. He is a graduate of the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. He has also completed the Harvard Senior Executive Programme.


  1. HughRobinson HughRobinson 27 October 2015

    The way I see it the drive to give all a university education has come home to roost. At UKzn my niece gets paid to give English lessons to first and second year students who are incapable of stringing together a single paragraph. Her friends teach other subjects. WHY is this necessary?
    Is it because the admission bar has been set so low that the campuses are flooded?

  2. Thabang Motsohi Thabang Motsohi 27 October 2015

    I do not think the admission is necessarily lowered. The problem is located at at least four places in the system that prepares students for tertiary study.
    1. Early childhood phse is almost nonexistant for the majority poor choldrem. What you have are warehousing facilities for children in most poor communities.
    2. The transition between learning to read and reading to learn at the 3rd and 4th grade requires very experienced and strong teachers to manage. In poor schools the gap is never closed!
    4. There is a massive catchup intervention required at grades 8th and 9th grades for students coming in from poor rural and semi-urban areas.
    5. A foundation phase should be established at universities that must focus on preparatory subjects and especially english.

  3. HughRobinson HughRobinson 27 October 2015

    One would have thought having the last 20 years + a historical 70 years looking in complaining that your suggestion would have been the first fix. Why do you think such an important list was so neglected?

  4. Thabang Motsohi Thabang Motsohi 28 October 2015

    Hugh, First, I think these obvious strategic choices were deliberately left out because they could not bring immediate political results. Ideological blockage and short terminism mentality dominate popular thinking in the ruling party.

    Second, these interventions require experienced teachers. Most of them were allowed to take early retirement post 1994. The remedy should have been to import teachers from outside. SADTU blocked this option just as they have blocked the decision by DBE to introduce performance management for principals and HOD’s. The Western Cape is the only province that has implemented performance management and examinations for matric examination markers. And, they also lead in implementing early childhood learning. It shows in the decline of their dropout rates.

    What I have suggested, in addition to what I have published before, is in the public domain. Regrettably critical minds are not particularly welcome!!

  5. Thabang Motsohi Thabang Motsohi 28 October 2015

    Thank you for the correction.
    Culling describes a practice, by principals and HOD’s , of eliminating poor performing learners from sitting for the final matric examination. They do this to reduce the risk of poor examination results and thereby miss on their bonusses and potential opportunity for promotion. But here is the catch. The victims are always children from poor backgrounds. What this does is to re-inforce the painful reality that learners from poor families are denied the right to escape the poverty trap through the opportunity to have quality education because we have neglected to invest in proper school infrastructure and resources because of incompetence and corruption.

  6. Thabang Motsohi Thabang Motsohi 28 October 2015

    The neglect stems from lack critical thinking within the ruling party. The dominant paradigm short for political gain. These interventions require, for their success, experienced teachers. But most of them were allowed to take early retirement post 1994. We should have imported experienced teachers on specific contracts but did not so because the SADTU blocked such a move. They have also blocked the BDE decision to introduce performance management for principals and the HOD’s. The Western Cape is the only province that has implemented performance contracts for principals as well as examinations for the matric markers. You can see the results in their reducing drop-out rate.
    What I have suggested is not new. Researchers have published extensively on these issues. I have also written a few pieces on these issues too. Regrettably there is little tolerance for critical thought in the ruling circles.

  7. Voldemort Rupert Voldemort Rupert 29 October 2015

    But how do they eliminate them from sitting the final exam? You can’t expel someone for under achieving. How do they actually prevent them from writing?

  8. Biloko Biloko 29 October 2015

    I once eavesdropped on two 14-year-old boys as they sat chatting in a street in Muizenberg, two or three years ago. They were deploring the fact that they were being taught “Maths Literacy” rather than true Maths, as both of them intended to become astrophysicists …. This shows that even schoolkids worry about their education and whether it will fit them for adult job, and allow them to become scientists …

  9. best essay services best essay services 2 December 2015

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