A reply to Jacob Dlamini: Universities, in South Africa at least, should be doing remedial work

The past should never be an uncomfortable thing, but because it often shines light on our previous failings, our inactions and shortcomings, it often is. South Africa’s past certainly is uncomfortable. The past, however, is also a necessary part of the present. It gives context to today and, if it is not shied away from, can teach us to be better.

So it is from wanting to be better by facing the past bravely that I am glad Jacob Dlamini asked, on the role of universities in society: “How does one make the point that there are thousands of students in university who should not be there without reinforcing apartheid stereotypes about who belonged in a university?”

This is an important question as I am sure many academics are asking themselves the same thing. He goes on to say – after pointing out that South Africa’s basic education system churns out kids ill-prepared for university and how this has compromised the quality of education on offer – that universities should not be in the business of remedial education.

He’s right on that. In an ideal, functional society, the kind that exists in a textbook perhaps, universities should not be in the business of remedial education. But in South Africa, universities find themselves there, owing wholly to the past.

This position is not unique to universities. Other organisations in this country, too, find themselves there.

In a former life, I worked at a firm that trained young accountants and was actively involved in the training. It became common parlance at some point to say that there existed in the system trainees who should be “managed out”, a euphemism to say they should be fired. These trainees, it was said, performed badly as they were ill-prepared for that kind of work. The workplace, it was also said, was not the place for the remedial education that these badly performing trainees needed. And the further discomfort around this, as described by Dlamini in his article, reared its head here too as all (at least during my time) the badly performing trainees were black.

It was again the spectre of the past, come back to haunt. Part of the problem was that the quality of previous education prevented some trainees from performing to their potential. Despite all the trainees possessing the same undergraduate degree, it was clear from their performance in the board exams and in the workplace that graduates from certain universities performed better than others, just as how in university, matriculants from certain high schools performed better. That these performance differences were largely due to South African’s past bears repeating.

The other part of the problem was less tangible, but still tied very strongly to the past. Unlike many of their white counterparts, black trainees had to deal with the things flowing from what I call the upheaval of upward mobility. Everything about their lives – from social cues and cultural references to economic position and physical location – had changed, almost overnight in some cases. It was these simultaneous and significant changes that presented extra hurdles for black trainees to overcome.

Thankfully, at least within my area of influence, very few trainees were managed out. I recall only one, in fact. Heeding the argument that black trainees, because of the past, face a complex myriad of factors that immediately affect their performance, the powers that be agreed that we must institute processes that provide support to badly performing trainees. They recognised that as an institution of further training and owing to South Africa’s past, it was imperative that we do remedial work. They recognised that we did not exist as ivory towers, far removed from the drudgery of the goings on in the real world and issues of the past.

I hold that in recognising the past so that we may become better and recognising that no person, organisation or institution is an island, it is the duty of all South African institutions and organisations downstream of the basic education system to develop the people they take in without compromising the quality of what they do.

That universities in South Africa are straining under this duty is undeniable. But discarding it is not the answer. To say that there are kids here who do not belong cannot be the answer. The answer is to look for ways to strengthen capacity to handle the burden while at the same time challenging the basic education system to shape up. How exactly this will be done is another conversation, but at least it’s the right one.

The other thought lurking in Dlamini’s piece – that universities exist to create intellectuals – I disagree with too, but that is also another conversation.

Having this past of training young people and being one who sometimes teaches business writing, I, too, see teaching of some kind in my future. I do not absolve students of their responsibilities by virtue of the past, but I have interacted with enough young people to know that all have burning within them the potential and desire to be great. A good enough educator, one who derives joy from seeing how what they teach leads to growth in their students, will not baulk at having to maybe work a little harder to help the student realise this potential.

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5 thoughts on “A reply to Jacob Dlamini: Universities, in South Africa at least, should be doing remedial work

  1. RK says:

    It’s complex. I believe universities should be elite institutions, but the global shift is away from this in any case, with all manner of forces militating against such elitism. I think part of the problem is that work that requires more technical training and which was traditionally being done at technikons and technical colleges, have become socially devalued. In tandem, technikons drove this shift by seeking to be reclassified as universities. And so we don’t teach children that it is good also to be an artisan; everybody must go to university, everyone can go to university, everybody should go to university, etc. It’s a democratising impulse, but it is misguided. Meanwhile, universities bloat their admin, subsidies are cut, rationalising occurs (some call it transformation), resources disappear. Mainstream university – i.e. before we even think of academic assistance classes – dumbs down and universities produce thousands of mediocre, barely educated students, rather than a few thousand really well educated students who can be leaders, good and proper. This is a kind of elitism that is good for society. But one wants these future leaders to not be divorced from what a country needs, so ‘well-educated’ means all sorts of things beyond whether a student can write a decent funding proposal or business report.

    There is nothing wrong with being elite in access, and there is absolutely no reason why exclusive access should be equated with racist access. Previously white English-speaking universities decades ago had developed admission policies that did not depend only on your matric scores. So methods of ‘opening’ up university access are there.

    But present culture also means the university is focussed on ‘through-put’, so it may be that students who should maybe not have been accepted, are. They fail and drop out. Or, they make it through, just (because their marks have been pushed up in the name of through-put) only to enter a workplace where they will be managed out. And so they become victims of a culture that says universities are for everyone. That the world out there is open to you. So, isn’t there a bigger harm in society and university telling this student that everyone can be X? Rather than society and prior education valuing a range of professions and careers, so that not everyone would, in teh first place, believe that a university education is the natural right of everyone? (Disclaimer: if it wasn’t for academic assistance in English I, I would not have passed first year.)

    As one small example, take teaching. When I was a kid, teaching was a very respectable profession. But over the decades it has been devalued by a broader culture obsessed with all manner of other, glamour successes and wealth. Teachers are/were also underpaid, conditions of employment are difficult, etc. Who, apart from those who feel it as a vocation, wants to be a teacher? Eventually, teaching is regarded as one of those professions where you ‘end up’ because you ‘couldn’t do better’. Up-shot, less dedicated teachers, less education (in a system that already has other deep flaws), while kids feel that everybody should get into university… How many teacher training colleges have closed over the decades? Now think of other professions and careers, which exist at a ‘lower’ rung in the SA middle-class popular imagination (the one that creates media, i.e. reflections of our society): plumber, electrician, mechanic, building, etc. Watching Top Billing or Isidingo, who wants to be a mechanic?

    I agree with you that, in the context of our history, universities should play a role and they do play a role to the disadvantage of the university. But it is also unfortunate that, because of that history, elitism is a swearword that inevitably gets equated with racism. But the ‘remedial’ work that universities do will, in my view, continue to be a kind of lie because 1) it cannot remedy a bigger educational problem (you will continue to have trainees managed out) and 2) it will keep on dragging on the university, which, I believe, should be training an elite to lead.

    The biggest problem in SA is primary and secondary education (and it is my biggest disappointment in the ANC and brings us back to apartheid history). Badly or untrained teachers (as well as outcomes based education) are basically in command of small children’s cognitive development, children whose family lives are also most of the time ill equipped to prepare them or deal with their education. The clevers will always get through, but the majority and the average will have stunted cognitive abilities as their intellectual foundation. By the time the kid is 17, 18, these are intellectual habits, and they are difficult to re-engineer.

    What the universities are thus doing in terms of ‘remedial’ education comes after the fact of hugely problematic primary education. The child’s brain has been mis-trained. How do you remedy that at tertiary level?

    The tragedy is that education is precisely the place where we reproduce society. Think about that.

    Education should be our biggest budget commitment.

  2. RK says:

    Just read that interview with Jansen at The Daily Maverick. I see I echo many of his views: http://www.thedailymaverick.co.za/article/2011-06-03-jonathan-jansen-time-to-bring-back-the-nuns

    Friends may attest to this as a boring hobby-horse of mine since the late 1990s.

  3. dikela says:

    MTO – i could agree with you more!

  4. Loudly South African says:

    I think that you are missing the point of WHAT universities are meant to be.

    I suggest that their essence is research. As such they are places of learning, not teaching. Teaching is best left to schools and technical institutions, as you suggest. Unfortunately, the ideologies of the last two National Socialist governments first converted technical colleges to technikons (spot the difference?) and them merged them with universities under a misguided egalitarian impulse.

    Universities are judged by their international peers and ranking organisations (like the Times) by their research output, Nobel prize winners or “A-grade scholars” their faculties, not the “throughput” standards the SA Department of education imposes. The latter is important in a poor country that needs value-for-money, but should be an ancillary standard, not THE guiding one. All that happens when universities churn out the wrong graduates is that, like money, the over-worked printing presses (printing degree certificates) cause devaluation: for some USA universities where this happens, a Master’s degree is the equivalent of a “real” B-degree or even diploma. The USA has been through the phenomenon of “PhD’s driving taxis”.

    As you imply, we DO need bricklayers & plumbers more than architects; electricians and welders more than engineers (not that there isn’t a shortage of university graduates).

    As for remedial work: most SA universities are doing just that – but in research, especially in medicine and education, but every university researcher wants their research to be (and be deemed to be) relevant.

    There is also no avoiding the facts that:
    • Trying to bridge or catch-up past failings at university is far more expensive than doing so at school – in fact the gap begins before school – Google the USA’s “Head Start”
    • Providing the suggested remediation at university prejudices school-kids who do not make it to university. With their lessor skills, they will not be able to compete in the job market. Let’s not forget that in “normal” societies the majority of the workforce do not have university or even tertiary education.
    • Trying to fix the problems at university is at best a work-around for a dysfunctional school system. This needs to be fixed.
    • The biggest determinant of a learner/pupil/student’s performance is the home, not school, college or university.
    • The product of a bad schooling will always be playing catch-up at university. Specifically, without a good grounding in basic school subjects [“reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic’]- which are assumed at university, the student will not be able to grasp new concepts which build upon them.

    I agree that, traditionally, SA has attached too much snob value to university and devalued technical education. As part of changing the ills of the past, we need to learn to respect one another as humans, not by the letters behind their names.

  5. […] the work of high schools. Universities should not be in the business of remedial education”. TO Molefe has responded to Dlamini’s column, making the case that academic excellence is not the only imperative at […]

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