Desperate times for parents, students

Image: 123rf/dolgachov

It is the time of the year when a student (and parent’s) heart is about to be broken.

Universities inform a student whether s/he has been provisionally accepted to university, pending of course the final results of the National Senior Certificate examination (the old matric exam).

In competitive fields such as medicine or architecture where there is often an additional university selection process, those who do not gain entry find themselves bitterly disappointed. The responses are familiar.

“My child did not get in because of racial quotas. Since she was a little child my daughter wanted to be a doctor and that is not going to change. My son got 90% in his NSC exam and still they would not take him into medicine. Now what do we do?”

The disappointment is understandable especially when it comes to one’s own children.

Sometimes the parents do strange things out of desperation. One of my dean’s rushed to my office when I was vice-chancellor and asked for advice; a parent whose child had not been selected for a prestigious programme had left a thick wad of cash on his desk.

This dean was a man of integrity so there was never a question of taking the money; what he wanted to know was, how to respond to this act of outright bribery — report the matter to the police or call in the parent to fetch the cash or something else?

When disappointed parents rage against a university on social media, my blood boils for a simple reason.

No university wilfully denies a student a place to study for a simple reason — these institutions need bums on seats because of the way they are funded.

In general, the more students you enrol, the higher the subsidy income.

So clearly there must be something else going on that the parent either does not know or fails to disclose in her Facebook rant.

A common reason for non-admission lies in the finer detail about the student’s marks.

A student with an otherwise high average for the NSC exam might not get in because her marks in mathematics were below a required standard (say 65% for admission to architecture) or because she did “the wrong maths” (mathematical literacy) regardless of the mark attained.

The parent does not declare such simple facts but manages to whip up sympathy in the form of Facebook likes or negative comments from other angry parents with an axe to grind.

Another reason for non-acceptance is the National Benchmark Tests (NBTs) that several universities use to make final admission decisions.

The university authorities might not tell you this, but they do not trust the NSC results.

I have been a matric teacher in schools and a lifelong researcher of schools, and I can tell you one thing — the NSC results tell you little about a young person’s potential for success at university.

The NBT’s, on the other hand, is an assessment of language skills, numerical skills and mathematics that gives universities a much sharper sense of an applicant’s readiness for higher education.

A matriculant might, therefore, have decent marks on the NSC certificate, but low marks on the NBT’s and therefore fail to gain access to a competitive programme of choice.

A much more familiar complaint is that “my child did not get in because he’s white” a common response to non-admission to fields such as medicine.

By the way, I often wonder who or what white parents blamed when medical schools were all-white and their children still did not get in?

Now, it is true that medical schools seek diversity in their admissions for a good reason: if you only took NSC marks into consideration then most (not all) of the students admitted to medicine or optometry or physiotherapy would be privileged white students.

That would be an injustice for the following reason:

A child from a township school who studies in a crowded shack without electricity and still manages to obtain five distinctions is much more eligible in my book to study medicine than a child from a posh Houghton or Bishops Court home with six distinctions from an elite school with six-digit tuition fees.

It’s called fairness.

If there were no colonial or apartheid past, and every child started with equal opportunities, and the number of specialists reflected a more equitable distribution of talent then perhaps six distinctions matter more than five distinctions. What can be done?

On the one hand, parents need to prepare their children for more than one career option; it is not the end of the world if you cannot immediately get into the one profession you have set your heart on.

More importantly, parents need to teach their children — and themselves — how to unlearn a sense of entitlement.