South Africa 10.9.2018 09:45 am

No more designated subjects for high school pupils

Picture: Yeshiel Panchia

Picture: Yeshiel Panchia

The change is said to lead to an increase in the number NSC candidates qualifying for admission to degree studies.

Opinion by Anne Oberholzer, CEO of the Independent Examinations Board (IEB).

Up until March 2018, the minimum requirement for admission to degree studies at a higher education institution was subject to a list of 20-credit subjects known as the ‘designated subject list.’ In order to gain entry into degree studies, pupils had to obtain an NSC with a minimum of a 50% achievement rating in four designated subjects.

However, on March 2, the designated list was revoked through a Government Gazette from the department of higher education and the minimum admission requirements for degree study are expected to be changed to a required achievement of 50% or more in any four subjects from the recognised 20-credit subject list. (The only NSC subject that does not have 20-credits is Life Orientation).

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In addition, pupils need to pass one official language, at home language level, at 40% or more; pass two subjects at a minimum of 30%; and meet the language requirement for entry to degree studies.

The removal of the designated list of subjects from the requirements for the achievement of an NSC pass which allows entry to bachelor degree study is a significant move and has some major implications. The change is applicable to the current Grade 12 pupils that will write the NSC during the October/November examination session; and more significantly, perhaps will be its impact on the subject choices of current Grade 9 pupils who will enter the FET phase in 2019.

This new development does pose 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.

Does this mean standards have dropped?

No, is the short answer. It will not mean a pass for anyone who would have failed the NSC. The relaxation that increases the number of subjects in which a 50% pass will contribute to meeting the minimum admissions requirements for entry into degree studies will lead to an increase in the number and percentage of NSC candidates qualifying for admission to degree studies (and a corresponding drop in the number who qualify for admission to diploma studies). There is bound to be an (uninformed) public outcry that standards have dropped.

The change has no impact on the standards which are being assessed in each subject. The actual examination papers, which embody the standards of the qualification and the specific subjects, still go through the stringent processes of moderation to ensure that they are of the standard required to assess competence expected of pupils who have completed 12 years of study at school and a minimum of three years of study in a specific subject in the FET phase. The standard of the NSC has not been modified in any way.

Impact on the current Grade 12 cohort

The change follows long-standing criticism of the “designated subject list”. The key criticism was that it excluded subjects that should probably have been included in the list and skewed subject selection by pupils.

It is likely that there will be a greater number of pupils who qualify for entry to degree study. But it is crucial that all pupils realise that meeting the statutory minimum for entry to study a degree does not mean that they will be admitted automatically into an institution or into their chosen course of study. The pressure on institutions to accept first-year students is enormous and it is reasonable to expect that admission will still be reserved for the higher NSC achievers.

It is also important to remember that each university, and possibly each faculty within the university, have set minimum requirements for entry into that institution or that faculty. In most instances, the requirements are more stringent than the minimum requirements for an NSC pass with entry to degree study. The more testing courses such as medicine, engineering, and actuarial sciences, have very stringent entrance requirements and achievement of the minimum requirements will never open the doors to these programmes of study.

This does not mean that there are no other options. In fact, in many cases, following the university pathway is actually not in the best interests of the pupil. It is crucial that schools and parents provide sound career guidance and appropriate opportunities for Grade 12 pupils to explore alternate pathways.

Impact on the current Grade 9 cohort

The removal of the designated list of subjects does open up the curriculum and accommodate a far broader range of subject offerings to pupils. While all subjects in the NSC hold value and were considered by universities in the Admission Points Scores, the designated subject list to a large extent dictated pupils’ subject choices for Grade 10.

A number of worthwhile subjects were ignored in favour of offering an additional designated subject. At the IEB, they were often told by schools that they were dropping Computer Applications Technology or Design in favour of a designated subject. Both Computer Applications Technology and Design are very useful subjects and the fact that they are no longer sidelined by not appearing on a designated list is a welcome improvement in the system.

By the same token, the fact that there is no longer a list of designated subjects means that pupils run the risk of selecting a package of subjects that lacks direction or purpose and does not provide the pupil with the subjects and disciplines needed to develop the kind of thinking and information processing strategies they need to thrive in an academic or other learning environments. The importance of career guidance in choosing subjects in grade 9 is even more critical now than it has been in the past.

While the NSC is by now a well-established qualification, our South African institutions of post-school learning have been severely challenged by a changing society. The demand for further learning, accessibility to it, and its costs pose serious challenges for the education system as well as those who fund it.

Given the lack of any concrete evidence that passing four designated subjects at 50% does provide a clear indication of success in future studies – as opposed to simply scoring highly in the NSC subjects offered to a pupil – it seems that universities have decided to remove this perceived barrier and allow individual institutions to deal with applications as appropriate to their contexts.

This does mean that in the absence of a pre-determined minimum set of requirements, the more prestigious institutions may have more demanding criteria than other institutions. The onus then is shifted to the pupil to ensure that their subject offerings and achievement levels align with the institution at which they wish to study. To emphasise the point, the importance of career guidance is thrust right into the spotlight.

Anne Oberholzer is the CEO of the Independent Examinations Board (IEB).

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