Opportunity to Fail

July 2, 2009

I have begun writing about education in South Africa (here and here). It is a system caught between two worlds, as is much of the rest of South Africa.

In the one world, it is a system designed to compete on an international level with the rules of the game set elsewhere—publish or perish. University faculty in SA have the same expectations of research excellence that are found everywhere in developed countries. In chemistry, this means that there are laboratories filled with expensive and specialized equipment, graduate and post-doctoral researchers, and lots of long hours in order to publish novel scientific work in top-tier journals based in Europe or North America. The best researchers are given a rating from South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF). This coveted ranking is highly competitive and based on past performance and future potential. The NRF rating influences everything from salary increases to research funding. The top research universities in South Africa largely expect all of their faculty members to achieve an NRF rating—which puts research active faculty into direct conflict with the other world of South African tertiary education.

In the other world, there are many, many students who struggle to understand basic concepts in science and math. They have passed their matric exams and have thus been given a green light into tertiary education. Passing the matric is supposed to be a passport to future success, but for many South African students, it is just the beginning of more struggles—an opportunity to fail. When I say “many students”, it is difficult to quantify the exact number without adequate standardized testing, but the number of students who struggle severely with university-level work approaches 50% in the sciences. When I say “struggle severely”, I am talking about many students receiving between 2 – 4 out of 30 on their first test—a basic chemistry literacy test. This is the type of exam that the majority of college-bound students in the US could pass out of high school. Subsequent tests get progressively more difficult until the final exam is of a caliber similar to what students in universities around the US would face at the end of their first term in general chemistry. In other words, the expectations on the final exam are commensurate with chemistry courses in other parts of the world—the type of training that one would need to become a professional chemist or continue on to graduate work in chemistry. And this is exactly the charge given to faculty by the university and the NRF—produce chemists who can compete at an international level. In fact, if you look at UKZN’s mission statement, it neatly summarizes the charge to the faculty: “to be the premier university of African scholarship”.

But the faculty have been given another charge, and it goes something like this. “You cannot blame poor student performance on weak secondary school training. These are the students that are at your university—now it is your responsibility to turn them into university caliber students.”

Did I mention that an undergraduate degree in South Africa is three years? Basically, university professors are supposed to write research proposals, mentor honors, graduate and post-doctoral researchers, write papers, participate in the peer review process, lecture up to four courses per term while simultaneously providing remedial work to nearly half of the undergraduates who enroll at the university. In short, let the tertiary system fix the problems of the prior 18 years of education.

The tragedy of this system can be seen through the eyes of the students. They are the most direct recipients of this opportunity to fail. I got to know one of my students, Siyabonga, during the course of this past term. He is a polite young man with outstanding English skills. He is well dressed, always attending lectures and courteous when addressing his professors. He calls me “Prof”. He came to my office on several occasions asking for additional help with careful notes taken outside of class and lots of questions. He is the kind of student that makes teaching a rewarding career. After working through his nanoscience questions, I asked him where he was from and asked him why he had already failed this course once. I could not understand how someone with his desire to learn, command of English and willingness to ask questions could be failing courses. I will spare the details, but there are many opportunities to pass a course and the bar is pretty low—a student needs to receive better than a 50% in the course with a final exam and a supplementary exam to help get over that bar.

Siyabonga’s answer was revealing. He said the following, “If the students in my matric (high school) could see me now they would be shocked. I was one of the top students in the school and one of the best in maths and science. Once I got to UKZN I got used to getting low grades on papers and tests. After a while you begin to think that you deserve such grades and then begin to expect them. To be honest, I gave up trying a while ago because no matter how hard I tried I could not seem to pass my courses.”

I was stunned. Here is an articulate young man trying hard to succeed on a first world playing field. I pictured his umama and gogo scraping together every rand that they had to send the first member of their family to university. I could hear them telling their friends about how proud they were of their boy going off to study chemistry at the varsity. I could imagine the pride in the voices of his teachers from matric that one of their all-star students had gone off to UKZN. He was probably the kind of student that helped them to maintain their sanity and carry on with the difficult work of teaching in an under-resourced and often discouraging environment, and he certainly was respected and probably envied by his peers. Passing the matric was supposed to be a passport to success instead it turned out to be an opportunity to fail. He was set up with an unrealistic expectation of what passing the matric really means.

What is to be done about this unfortunate situation which plays itself out with tens of thousands of university students all across South Africa every year? They have all been given this passport telling them that they have an adequate foundation and are prepared for university-level work, yet nearly half of the students are not ready for the rigors of university work at a world-class level.

There are two possible solutions, neither of which are particularly attractive. The first, lower the standard and expectation of their coursework so that the students who have entered the university with weak math and science backgrounds can pass. This is only a solution if the level is then dropped for expectations in the second and third year as well because chemistry, like most disciplines, is a subject that builds, brick upon brick from course to course and year to year. Lower the standards in the introductory course and you must lower the standard in each subsequent course. The result, of course, is the production of a cadre of students who have managed to pass this newly defined chemistry degree but who are now no longer competitive in the world of chemistry and in the world of publish or perish. Maybe South Africa does not really need chemistry graduates with international standards, but I would guess that the scientists and engineers at SASOL, Mintek and other global companies based in South Africa would beg to differ. I know that top Ph.D. schools around the globe not be interested in students with a sub-standard degree, and this proposed degree program would not provide a supply of high quality honors students in South Africa as well. The future pipeline of science leaders would rapidly dry up in a country with a severe skills shortage.

The second option is to continue to push the responsibility of bringing students up to university standards onto the universities and thus conceding that the secondary schools have largely failed. This has been the implied stance, but it is politically difficult to admit that an entire segment of the infrastructure of the country is a failure. This also puts the faculty in the research university into the impossible task of being both world-class researchers for a small group of students and high school teachers for the majority of students. This system is currently not working well either.

In my third year class, there were perhaps 30 – 40% of the students who had serious deficiencies in basic chemistry, physics and math concepts, but showed flashes of potential. Ironically, several of them had already failed once. There were another 30% who did not demonstrate even a basic understanding of general chemistry, physics and math and have almost no chance of success as professional chemists even though many of them will eventually pass with a BSc. degree in chemistry. Most of them would never have gotten to their third year in the States.

If the faculty could focus on that first 30 – 40%, perhaps they could be encouraged and challenged to rise up to a new level—from barely passing their courses to honors caliber students with the potential to be future science leaders in South Africa. As it stands, the goal is to pass as many as possible; to give as many people as possible an opportunity. Quantity trumps quality.

There is a third option which might be gaining political traction. Add a year or two of introductory material converting the three year degree into four or five years which many students would be required to take depending on their incoming preparation. There are few details in this bridging program, but if I was inventing the program it would have the following requirements: basic numerical literacy (interpreting graphs, percentages, fractions, basic statistics), general laboratory techniques (taking measurements, errors and significant figures, using instrumentation, experimental limits), general chemistry, physics and biology concepts including bonding, forces, periodic trends, modern biology, genetics, electromagnetic theory, etc., basic algebra skills and a required English reading and writing course each term. This will require a serious commitment from the government and the universities. This type of program will require many dedicated university faculty members with no research expectations who can dedicate their career to helping nurture the Siyabonga’s of South Africa to be the next generation of scientists. Maybe this type of program could become an opportunity to succeed.

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