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South Africa University Students Ponder Future

  • Nadia Samie

Students queue outside the University of Johannesburg to register for this year's studies, January 10, 2012.

Students queue outside the University of Johannesburg to register for this year's studies, January 10, 2012.

This is Part 11 of a 12-part series: Education in Africa
Continue to Parts:1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 /
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At the end of last year, about 350,000 Grade 12 students in South Africa passed their final exams. While some celebrated, others pondered their next move. In reality, a very small group of those who had passed, had achieved grades good enough to qualify for university admission. And of this reduced pool, very few can afford to pay for their tertiary education.

While South African education officials celebrate last year’s 70.2 percent Grade 12 pass rate, the party’s over for many of those secondary school graduates, who are now scratching their heads, unsure of what to do next. Just about 24 percent of the graduates have the grades necessary to apply to universities.

And while some have since started their tertiary education careers, what has happened to the rest? Many say they simply couldn’t afford to study further, or their grades wouldn’t allow it.

Down payment

Despite the obstacles, talking to young people like Samuel Jacobs, 18, it’s clear that education is greatly valued, and is seen as a down payment, on a successful future.

“A tertiary education basically sets up your future, because if you don’t have a tertiary education, you’ll probably be a blue collared worker and be earning a little money, and then life is going to be so much more difficult for you,” he said.

Lenyaro Sello graduated from Grade 12 - or matriculated, as it’s called here - when she was 16 years old. She says there are many reasons why young people feel they’ve hit a brick wall, once they leave the high school safety net.

“You don’t get guidance, you know, you don’t get guidance as to what you want to do, what makes sense, what you are suited for," said Sello. 'So for instance, I remember when I was in matric, everyone in my class wanted to do office technology. So I thought I’m gonna do office technology. I get home and my grandfather says - he’s very big on education - he says, so you want to be a secretary. I’m like oh, so that’s what it means. See what I mean.”

Sello also believes there’s a lack of preparation at school level, which becomes apparent once students enter university.

“No one actually prepares you for the work that happens at varsity [university]," she complained. "Just the academic work itself, it is very different. No one cares if you’re going to do go to classes, no one cares if you’re going to write exams or whatever. And I feel like there’s a gap missing, you need to be prepared. If I don’t go to school, my parents would be called, but if I don’t go to varsity [university], no one cares. And then you wonder why there’s such a drop in graduates.”

Lack of funds

The major obstacle standing between young South Africans and a university education, is a lack of funds. But Sello - who is the recipient of a state student loan - says many prospective students are unaware of the funding opportunities that exist in the country.

“First of all, finance, because it is there, people don’t know about it. Especially in townships, people pass, they don’t know that there is a student loan," she noted. "Two, universities are made out to be for intelligent ones, so most of the people are not ambitious enough to even apply for universities, so they end up going to dodgy colleges, because no-one has told them about universities, no one has told them what is required of it.”

Jacobs agrees that among his friends, university education is perceived to be too expensive, and out of their reach. And a host of other social issues also come into play.

“Firstly, government can start making the prices more accessible, because it is quite expensive to join a university, and number two, to make transport services more accessible,” said Jacobs.

In his State of the Nation Address on February 9, South African President Jacob Zuma announced that two more universities will be built and acknowledged another problem: that the country’s universities are running at full capacity, and there’s simply no space left to admit more students this year.