The ‘wasted generation’: Why SA universities are failing students – top UCT scientist

Much of the focus in the university chaos rocking South Africa has been on students demanding free tuition and the elimination of all signs of European influence from curricula and tertiary education structures. More attention needs to be on South Africa’s wasted generation: students who enter the system, but can’t cope and drop-out – or emerge from studies ill-equipped to be productive members of the workforce. Much of the blame for these problems can be attributed to flaws in teaching and learning at university level. As Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe notes here: academics need to up their game substantially so that they can genuinely add value in their day jobs. This is not only an individual responsibility; the system must be changed to give students more time and opportunity to flourish in their studies and the hiring and review system can be altered so that it rewards international best practice. The violence sweeping campuses is a symptom of deep-rooted problems. Until these are corrected, awarding extra money for tuition fees will only paper over the cracks. An overhaul is required to ensure that South Africa’s universities face a positive future and can also function effectively for the greater good. – Jackie Cameron

By Tim Crowe*

There is only one solution to ensure a positive future for the University of Cape Town: ACCOUNTABILITY.

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe highlights some of the ingredients required to ensure a world-class university
Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe

First, much written recently about ‘problems’ at South African universities has focused on financial matters in general and student fees in particular. Eliminating fees for tertiary education will, if anything, exacerbate these ‘problems’ and/or other more pressing problems, for example health care for the poverty-stricken. Nico Cloete’s proposal for a differentiated fee structure is the best current approach relating to fees. What is needed is a system that makes wealthy students pay and is adapted to prevent any students from falling into a pit of debt. This is one way in which university executives can become accountable. Talk to Cloete!

From here on, I focus on the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Second, Mike Berger’s view that “Maintaining the norms, processes and institutions” by “holding the centre” in South Africa is the way out of the current “chaos” is misguided – particularly so for internationally highly ranked (and more importantly respected) universities like UCT. 

Sipho Pityana, chairperson of UCT’s Council, is spot on: “It cannot be business as usual”.  UCT Council, back him up and be accountable!

Third, more funding for UCT in general, as has been suggested by its Executive, is not going to solve the problem if the status quo is maintained. I’ve given views on this matter as they relate to academic research elsewhere. The balance of this piece focuses on education.

#FeesMustFall movement
#FeesMustFall movement

Educational development at UCT needs to be adapted radically to solve immediate institutional and national economic problems and technological challenges. In short, UCT MUST generate graduates who become socio-economic ‘drivers’ (not just ‘passengers’) equipped with innovative ideas and real-world solutions. This requires:

  1. major changes in undergraduate and post-graduate education, especially that related to teacher-training and
  2. re-evaluation, re-training and, if necessary, re-deployment of existing and recruitment of new academic staff.

Undergraduate education

The root cause of UCT’s educational ‘problem’ is that, to take advantage of government subsidies, it admits large numbers of educationally ‘disabled’ school-leavers. Despite the ‘fact’ that they meet national ‘requirements’ for tertiary education and perform ‘adequately’ on the UCT-admission-filter test to ‘correct’ for this disability, given the current deployment and attitudes of academic staff and curricula, these kids simply cannot cope with the challenges of quality university education.

More than half fail to complete their undergraduate degree on time (often not at all) or do so with barely passing marks. This diminishes or eliminates their ‘value’ to UCT in terms of government subsidy and, in real terms, to South Africa in general. 

These students can become bitter, unemployed, ‘collaterally’ damaged adults who have wasted 3-5 years at UCT, paying thousands of Rands for nothing, ending up carrying gigantic (generally unpaid) debt. Some morph into (or join/sympathize with) anarchists, hooligans and vandals who are destroying UCT as I write. Of course there is no ‘quick-fix’ or panacea. 

But here are some suggestions, most of which will offend the ‘Fallists’ and ‘crypto-colonists’ alike.

First, in the absence of massive new financial investment and the acquisition of appropriately-skilled staff (if they could be found and recruited), admission of educationally ‘disabled’ school-leavers should be limited to levels that can cope and be coped with.  This is where the UCT Executive must show fortitude and become accountable to students, parents, private donors and the government.  Maybe CHED, the massive, discipline-free ‘faculty’ created to deal with educational transformation at UCT needs to be dissolved and funds diverted to academic departments? Think about education, not just rhetoric and money! 

Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @brandanrey
Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @brandanrey

‘Fledgling’ students should be chosen carefully, using one-on-one interviews and background investigations – not just a written test – to maximize their chances for success. The primary criterion should be academic ability. 

Depending on the students’ access to finance, flexibly support ALL their needs (not wants/demands – food, accommodation, books, laptops, internet access, multi-diversity socialization, etc.). Eliminating fees is not enough.

The key thing is to get these kids living, talking and working with contemporaries and their mentors in a nurturing environment. They need one-on-one counselling and, if necessary, mentoring from people who understand their backgrounds and needs. 

No amount of money or on-line IT-based, MOOC ‘education’ can fill this breach. Finally if they do not perform adequately, ALL students should be counselled as to how to improve. If they continue to fail comprehensively, they should be replaced by the equally deserving who will succeed. In short, ALL students should be assigned to a responsible academic adviser and both be held accountable for the investments made in them.

Undergraduate education MUST be done over four, not three years. Drop the honours degree.

Educating educators

Even before they enter UCT, too many students have been betrayed (literally) by South Africa’s Basic Education system. Professor Jonathan Jansen has documented this ‘problem’ extensively. 

At UCT, the foundational ‘problem’ is in the failure to produce skilled and highly motivated basic educators.  There is no longer an undergraduate programme at UCT dedicated to producing school teachers. Current 3-year bachelors’ programmes do not produce well-rounded competent teachers. 

The B.Ed. Honours Programme within UCT’s School of Education focuses on students who wish to go on to M.Ed. or Ph.D. studies. Its Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) programme is not suited to fill discipline-related gaps. Indeed, many of its entrants are unemployed, ‘knowledge-imbalanced’ M.Sc./Ph.D.-educated specialists who regard teaching as career plan ‘B’.   

First, part of what is needed are balanced undergraduate curriculum streams that pre-adapt potential PGCE students to become first-class teachers. Talk to Jansen (or head-hunt him or Dr Ramphele to be the new VC) or basic-educational discipline specialists and provincial and independent educational authorities to identify what’s needed. Think about one-year crash educational programmes to upgrade already employed teachers. Specialist academic educators, get cracking and be accountable!

Second, all (not some) disciplinary undergraduate curricula should be reviewed by internationally respected peers to demonstrate the extent to which they equip bachelors graduates with the requisite skills to compete in the real world (get jobs).  o achieve this, talk with potential employers. For example, in the event that the civil service is re-modelled to demand competency, talk to bosses there as well. Indeed, one possible strategy is to require students who receive total financial support for their studies to fill civil service positions, at least for some fixed time. This could be a good way to “pay it forward” because they may appreciate more than most what level of service is required.  There is also the possibility of short crash programmes for deserving currently employed people. 

This is still not enough.

Third, although all existing staff should be counselled to improve their ability to educate struggling students, key players in this exercise are staff who represent currently demographically underrepresented sectors of the South African community. To the extent that they are willing and able to go the ‘extra mile’ and excel in helping ‘disabled’ students to succeed, they should be rewarded financially (in terms of pay packets and research funds) and fast-tracked in terms of promotion.

Nevertheless, curricula should not be restricted to current politico/economic/socially relevant issues.  This is reflected by a quotation from Professor Drew Faust, the first woman president of Harvard University:

“When we define higher education’s role principally as driving economic development and solving society’s most urgent problems, we risk losing sight of broader questions, of the kinds of inquiry that enable the critical stance, that build the humane perspective, that foster the restless skepticism and unbounded curiosity from which our profoundest understandings so often emerge. Too narrow a focus on the present can come at the expense of the past and future, of the long view that has always been higher learning’s special concern. How can we create minds capable of innovation if they are unable to imagine a world different from the one in which we live now? History teaches contingency; it demonstrates that the world has been different and could and will be different again.”

These contributions need to be assessed/contrasted/debated rationally and critically inside and outside lecture theatres with those from Africa’s pre-colonial and modern history. UCT should not want to emulate Harvard.  t should want Harvard to emulate UCT!

Third, where there are other ‘deficiencies’ in existing curricula, regardless of their ‘centricity’, they need to be identified and remedied to benefit graduates’ ability to deliver on national and international platforms. To achieve this, talk to leading educationalists and researchers and demand (not request) that ‘decolonists’ deliver competitive curricula to ensure that there is no compromise of educational excellence. Merely, purging existing items on the basis of alleged ‘oppressive’ connotations or ‘racial’, geographic, and age-related criteria is tantamount to educational ‘cleansing’.


This requires ALL academics and students to be accountable.

Now to what will make me some deadly enemies.

Academics need to make the most major long-term transformations. Currently, UCT’s staff is disproportionately white, male and Eurocentrically educated. If a newly appointed lecturer survives a non-rigorous review after three years’ service (and nearly all do), he/she becomes “tenured” and effectively employed for life. 

This should cease and be replaced by a rigorous process similar to tenure review in the USA. Thereafter, academics should be subject to review every four years. In the event of a poor evaluation they should be counselled. After a second consecutive failure, they should be retrenched and replaced with someone who will deliver competitive and locally ‘relevant’ graduates. More accountability!

The research side of evaluation should be handled by the National Research Foundation’s rating system. Again, two strikes and you’re out. 

The educational evaluation could be done internally and be based on transparent student and faculty evaluations. With regard to post-graduate educational performance, use academic ‘Darwinian’ fitness: production of graduates who find jobs and publish research. Academics who produce young Darwins or Makgobas should not just be promoted. Invest in them with ‘no strings’ funds for own-choice research and professional development!

  • Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe has been associated with the University of Cape Town for more than four decades as a science student, educator/researcher/Elected Fellow. He is the husband and colleague of a UCT science student/specialist science educator/researcher (also connected for 40+ years) and the parent of a UCT graduate. For more information on Tim, click here.