What is your degree worth?


I remember the moment with great clarity. During a workshop at a certain university, the senior lecturer said to me as facilitator: “Sometimes they struggle so much to write, I just write the thesis for them.”

This could not possibly be true so I stopped everything and asked my fellow academic: “I am sure I misheard you; could you please repeat what you said?”

My heart nearly stopped. I looked around the room to see whether the shock had registered among the 50 or so other participants attending. Nope. Dead quiet, and I could swear one or two of them nodded with understanding. That was the end of the workshop. How do you know the worth of your child’s degree? Yes, of course there was graduation and a certificate was handed over. But what was it really worth? What knowledge and skills were really learnt?

This is the unspoken scandal of university education in South Africa today. The low standards of the school system have infiltrated universities. It was inevitable – students who have to scale a low passing hurdle (remember the 30% and 40% pass requirement?) obtain a so-called bachelor’s pass that underwrites entry to university.

It should not surprise, therefore, that more than half of the first-year enrolments fail or drop out and only a third of funded students graduate in five years.

The main reason for this state of affairs is the poor academic preparation of incoming students. Even if every student had full funding, as the promise of free higher education suggests, this will not change the outcome – most students will fail to pass.

So what do universities do? To put it bluntly, they try to make it easier for one simple reason – the more students fail, the less money universities make. The government subsidy is incentive-based; it rewards high enrolments (within agreed caps), improved pass rates and more published research.

When money is tight, organisations find ways of optimising income.

Undergraduate classes tend to be overcrowded, especially at the start of the academic year. Walk onto some campuses and ask to attend an introductory class in economics or psychology.

The sheer numbers make teaching impossible unless, of course, there are massive investments in new technologies, teaching assistants and academic tutorial support per class. But there are no budgets for that in most universities.

Nobody can teach effectively in a mass meeting of this kind.
Inevitably there are long lines at the computer labs, and library resources are under strain. In fact, in the absence of space the libraries themselves become places of study and, on several campuses, essential accommodation.

When you teach masses, you streamline assessment. In other words, you do not ask for long, contemplative essays to see whether a student can make a complex argument and, yes, write. You do multiple choice questions as the preferred choice of assessment.

Students cotton on. Why study the full text or concentrate on the full term of teaching? And so another ritual plays itself out in the weeks leading to the examination – students want to know “the scope of the examination”. A generous interpretation is, “give us the questions”.

Why on earth would an academic teacher with any conscience engage in seemingly fraudulent activities?

There is a head of department and a dean breathing down your neck. Your pass rates are too low. In other words, your contribution to subsidy income is negligible.

Under pressure, the poor lecturer at the plankton end of the academic food chain complies even if this means giving failing students multiple opportunities to pass the same test.

The evidence is in. A recent study found that at one university the finalyear teacher education students were functionally illiterate.

These are the graduates who will be teaching students in schools and future students in university. How on earth did this happen? Simple, really; in many of our universities, getting a degree has become far too easy. Universities have adapted negatively to the poor quality of incoming students by lowering the bar for academic excellence.

In South Africa’s toptier universities this kind of negative adaptation is less of a problem for now, in part because of they attract the small pool of top academic students from public and private schools who can meet the high entrance standards.

But for the majority of universities, there is a race to the bottom.

Such a trend can only have negative consequences for economic growth, technological innovation and the replacement leadership that our country so desperately needs.