UNIVERSITIES are failing to produce graduates with the skills necessary to underpin South Africa's development, say two educationists.
University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Max Price and Development Bank of South Africa policy analyst Graeme Bloch spoke at a public debate hosted by the Isandla Institute in Cape Town recently.
Titled "Does higher education produce the knowledge, skills, competencies and people needed for South Africa's development?", the debate sought to find answers to this critical issue.
"If we want to be a winning nation, we've got to prepare our graduates in the right way," Price told the audience. "Employers say the quality of degrees and training is not good enough."
A report in 2007 found that many of the country's graduates lacked communication skills, writing skills and the ability to think critically, Price said. The fault was often a learning system based on rote-learning rather than problem solving and flexible thinking.
Bloch, who has published a book titled Toxic Mix: what is wrong with South Africa's schools and how to fix it, said higher education was poorly funded.
Universities were forced to function on year-by-year budgets, preventing them from adequately developing a three-year plan. This meant their operating margins were hardly viable and students, inevitably, were the ones who ended up being squeezed.
The lack of a national vision for the future of higher education was possibly one of the most serious problems for the sector, according to Bloch.
"We certainly don't have a plan, and therefore don't have buy-in," he said.
"Are we producing the skills? No. I don't think we are producing the architects, the accountants, the teachers . or the skills of social critique. What are universities doing to provide those skills?"
Universities were failing to engage with society or to grapple with issues such as the meaning of the transition - or the dynamics of our political life. This disengagement would lead to society growing disinterested in universities and their work.
Price said the quality of the school had a powerful influence on whether people would make it through university.
"The schooling system is the bottleneck. But if we drop our (selection) criteria, the failure rate will go up . to between 70 and 90 percent and that's not fair on them or on their families who have often sacrificed so much."
l Hadland directs a research project of the Human Sciences Research Council on democracy and governance.