Change to university exemption criteria opens new horizons

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South Africa’s education system is once again in the news, with the gazetting of a change to university exemption. As of March this year, students will no longer have to gain pass marks in four specific subjects in order to gain university exemption. Rather, they can now choose any four subjects from a 20-credit ‘designated subject list’.

Change to university exemption criteriaPreviously, the minimum requirement for admission to degree studies at a university was a minimum of a 50% pass in four designated subjects. This designated list has now been revoked. The minimum admission requirements for degree study is now expected to be a 50% or higher pass mark in any four subjects; a pass mark in one official language, at home language level, of 40% or more;  and pass marks in two subjects at a minimum of 30%.

Anne Oberholzer, CEO of the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) has pointed out that this new development poses challenges for pupils and those who advise them on subject choices. “There has always been a need to know the entry requirements of both the universities and the faculties at which pupils might want to study. It’s important to understand that this change does not mean that any three electives will be acceptable for entrance into a course of study at a university, as each university and each faculty within an institution may set its own entrance criteria; these criteria often specify a set level of achievement in specified subjects,” she says.

What that means is that courses such as medicine, engineering and actuarial sciences, which have very stringent entrance requirements, will remain out of reach to all but the highest achievers. It also means that the number and percentage of pupils qualifying for admission to degree studies will increase, with a corresponding drop in the number who qualify for admission to diploma studies.

Universities will also now have more leeway in terms of their entrance requirements. In the absence of a pre-determined minimum set of requirements, the more prestigious institutions may have more demanding criteria than other institutions, Oberholzer points out.

This will, unfortunately, shift the onus to the learner to ensure that their subject offerings and achievement levels align with the institution at which they wish to study. While the system has been structured in such a way that subject choices will set students on the right path towards their chosen careers, it can be a double-edged sword. Many pupils know they want to study further, but have no set course in mind; others think they know what careers they want to follow, only to change their minds between grades 9 and 12. Still others might aspire to a certain degree, only to find themselves struggling with the necessary subjects.

Career guidance is therefore going to have to become one of the most vital teaching roles schools offer. In order to ensure the success of learners as they leave school to go to university, teachers will have to clearly advise learners on what their subject choice means when they make their selections in Grade 9. They will also have to follow student progress closely in order to be able to advise if a different set of subjects would be a better choice.

In light the current gap between matriculant standards and university expectations, this change may make the difference in turning around our education system. Not only will it stop shoe-horning individuals who may not have the aptitude for certain subjects into a specific course, it will open up new avenues for study for students who previously would not have gone to university.