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Young South Africans struggling to go all the way in education

Last week saw the shocking incident of a woman trampled to death outside South Africa’s University of Johannesburg, when thousands of young people pushed forward to sign up for last-minute places.

Over twenty people were injured in the stampede, after many thousands of would-be students and their parents had camped outside the university waiting for the gates to open. The University of Cape Town is one of nine top universities in the country. But these establishments have nowhere near the number of places to satisfy the 180,000 would-be students who apply each year.

According to an article in The Guardian, the courses offered at other colleges and vocational education institutions are widely seen as inferior in quality. With high unemployment, many students feel the only way to guarantee a job in the future is to have a qualification from one of the main universities. The application process closes in June. However, around 800 places at the University of Johannesburg were kept open for poor students to apply once they had their secondary school exam results. In one 24-hour period, the university received 7,000 applications for these 800 places. Since many youngsters from poor backgrounds have no access to the internet, the crush of people trying to apply in person was inevitable.

The episode highlighted the shortage of university places in South Africa and also the difficulty of access for many black youngsters, despite policies which favour black applicants in recent years. Universities complain that even for those black students they accept, levels of attainment are often extremely low, with some pupils barely achieving 50% in their Senior Certificate exams.

According to an article in the Economist, three million South Africans aged 18-24 years – over half this age – are outside education, training or employment and seven in ten are without any qualifications at all. The situation of under-achievement among young blacks continues despite the government spending a fifth of its budget on education.

Regardless of this spending, education levels in many poor areas remain woeful, even where school facilities have been improved. The Economist points to a lack of commitment among teaching staff as one key problem, comparing the 6.5 hours a day worked by teachers in former white state schools with the 3.5 hours a day clocked up by teachers in black state schools. Many are also absent on a Friday. The article highlights one school - the Forte High School in Soweto – where philanthropists have become involved in raising teaching standards. Five years ago, most pupils at the school either didn’t reach the final year or didn’t matriculate. Now four-fifths of its students pass their exams and half achieve grades good enough for university. Perhaps the government’s education minister, who admitted the vast majority of South Africa’s schools were “dysfunctional”, should pay a visit to the Forte High School in Soweto.

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South Africa on 'Our Africa'

For an overview on education in South Africa, go to http://www.our-africa.org/south-africa/education-jobs.