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Open letter to university vice-chancellors: Adjust the entrance goalposts to allow for Covid-19

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Mmusi Maimane is the chief activist of the One South Africa Movement.

My appeal is for universities to give students access not dependent entirely on the 2020 matric results – that would be unfair. Those results are not likely to be an accurate reflection of student ability and effort. The pandemic has removed the prospects of that for many poor and working-class students in the system.

Dear university vice-chancellors,

It is commonly accepted that the school-leaver certificate determines qualification; it determines access to university and it additionally determines access to competitive programmes offered by the various universities – programmes with limited seats and with lifetime rewards that are sizeable.

Education is supposed to be the great equaliser; it is meant to be a fair chance at access to upward mobility through individual effort, talent and creativity. Ideally, the school-leaving exams should be carried out on an even playing field, but this is South Africa and the playing field hasn’t been even since the policy of Bantu education was introduced in 1953.

In addition to the already unequal playing field, it is clear that this year in particular escalated the problems and accentuated the education gap. While the closure of schools was necessary, especially during the Covid-19 surge, we cannot ignore that this has been a very disruptive year in respect of education – many students have not had access to online learning as they have in the private schooling system and the high-quintile schools. In addition, some students have lost their teachers due to the Covid-19 virus. Tacked on to the already imbalanced playing field, we need to consider a clear reality.

The exams are in effect not free and fair, and the handicap that students from poor environments are playing with is uncommon and undue. 

Ideally, the Ministry of Basic Education should postpone the exams to a much later date: this would truly allow for a meaningful remedial programme. However, it is clear that Minister Angie Motshekga is unlikely to shift the date – the department has not shown a commitment to flexibility on these issues.

Universities should be cognisant of this and devise measures to accept students on alternative criteria. My appeal is for universities to give students access not dependent entirely on the 2020 matric results. Those results are not likely to be an accurate reflection of student ability and effort. The pandemic has removed the prospects of that for many poor and working-class students in the system. It would be unfair to make life and opportunity-determining decisions on a measure disproportionately skewed by the pandemic.

I propose that universities use a teacher-based assessment, moderated with consideration of a student’s prior Grade 11 performance. This holistic approach introduces a balance of fairness and ensures that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic – which disproportionately affected poor, black pupils – do not jeopardise the future prospects of said learners.

I would also request that universities put students who are accepted under this more equitable system into extended programmes – these programmes are useful to close any learning gaps due to the pandemic and the uneven education system.

I hope this appeal is well-considered and I look forward to engaging you on this further. I believe that universities have to play a role in creating a fair pathway to upward mobility and real equality. 

I am encouraged because I know that many vice-chancellors appreciate the value of education as an equaliser, and I hope that you can take this letter into your consideration. DM

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  • On face value, the proposal seems to have merit, but to keep on referring to our bad history as the only cause of a remaining uneven playing field, is a poor argument. Fistly, a fully level playing field doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. It didn’t when I grew up, and it doesn’t now. It’s a reality. Secondly, the ANC government has been in charge of SA for 26 years, thus about 12 full batches of school starters and leavers. The government spends ca 20% of its budget on education, which on a per capita basis, is one of the highest in Africa. But, with what result? It is well known that the spending efficiency is poor – in other words, the tax payer gets very little value for its money. Even the Latin American countries beat us hands down on this metric. Furthermore, the ANC-aligned trade union continues to bedevil efforts to optimise the education system.

    So, Mr Maimane, may I suggest you look closer to home for the main reasons for the remaining uneven playingfield?

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