Perchance to teach: aye, there’s the rub

What do matriculants plan to do with their lives after school? And why does it matter? A recent study of a group of 2005 matrics shows that the majority of grade 12 learners planned to continue with their studies, but that only 3% of learners planned to study education, Michael Cosser found.

The study surveyed 20 659 grade 12 learners in 362 schools spanning the entire public schooling spectrum in South Africa. More than seven out of ten grade 12 respondents (72%), the study shows, wanted to continue their studies, a fifth (20%) wanted to work, 7% wanted to travel overseas, and 1% were not interested in any of these activities one year from the survey date. 


"There are signs that the aspiration to proceed to higher education is waning"

The aspiration of black and Indian/Asian learners to study (74% and 73% respectively) was far higher than that of whites and coloureds (both 64%). White learner aspiration to travel abroad, on the other hand, was far higher (at 14%) than that of any other group, whereas only 6% of black learners wanted to go overseas. And while three-quarters of female learners saw themselves studying, only 69% of male learners expected to be studying. The corollary is that a higher percentage of male (24%) than of female (18%) learners saw themselves working one year from the survey date. 

Which institutions for further studies? 

Of those who planned to study further after grade 12, three out of five learners wanted to enter a higher education institution, a quarter a Further Education and Training (FET) college, 9% a nursing college, and 3% each a private FET institution and an agricultural college. 

The quest for a higher education is not surprising: the demands of the information age, in which human capital is the new wealth, require school-leavers to equip themselves for higher-skilled employment than the mere attainment of a Grade 12 certificate can do. Whether the higher education aspirations of the 2005 cohort were realised, however, is doubtful; on average, only 14% of grade 12 learners (about 65,000 learners) in any given year go on to higher education. 

Waning ambitions to enter higher education 

But there are signs that aspiration to proceed to higher education is waning. Black learner interest in entering higher education was significantly lower in 2005 (56%) than in 2001 (86%) - indicating a major shift in the thinking of the largest youth cohort (by race) in the country. Similarly, white learner interest in going to university has declined, albeit less dramatically - from 82% in 2001 to 75% in 2005. Socio-economic status and academic performance at school are key predictors of aspiration to proceed to higher education, underscoring the point that social upliftment in combination with better schooling is the key to higher learning.

Most popular study areas 

Business and Commerce is the programme to which the highest percentage (23%) of would-be university students aspired in 2005, followed by Engineering (17%), Computer Science (14%), Health Sciences (12%), and Law (7%). At the broadest level of analysis, the ratio of Humanities to Business and Commerce to Science, Engineering and Technology preferences was 21% : 23% : 56%. 

Interestingly, the study reveals biases in black and white learner programme preferences. Black learners opted predominantly for study in numeracy-intensive fields (the sciences other than the social sciences and the humanities), whites opting predominantly for study in the literacy-intensive fields (human and social sciences). 

This is ironic in the light of the poorer performance at school of black learners than white learners in numeracy-oriented subjects. It is also potentially compromising, from a retention perspective, for higher education institutions where such preferences translate into enrolments.

The study shows too that engineering and the health sciences, from an aspirational perspective at any rate, remain highly gendered: women prefer the latter, notwithstanding the option of women enrolling for nursing qualifications in nursing colleges. These biases have implications, among other things, for income distribution between the sexes with engineering and nursing at opposite ends of the salary scale spectrum.

Concern over little interest in teaching 

The low interest in studying education is of particular concern, from three perspectives: 

  • White learner aspiration to study education is significantly higher than black learner aspiration to do so. This replicates the disjunction between white and black learner preference for studying education observed in a 2001 HSRC study of student choice behaviour, and would seem therefore to herald a trend. Were learner aspirations to be realised in enrolments, this development would be worrying in a national context of dire need for well-qualified teachers in rural areas, which are unlikely to be serviced by white education graduates.
  • The study shows a possible disjunction between graduation in an education programme and uptake in the teaching profession. This disjunction has resource implications for faculties/schools of education whose aim is to produce teachers for the schooling system. Were this disjunction to be realised, more emphasis would need to be placed on career guidance and screening to ensure that faculties/schools of education do not become transit stations for undecided students or an easy means to qualifications for employment in other fields. In this regard the linking of the award of bursaries to service contracts, outlined in the National Policy Framework for Teacher Education and Development in South Africa, is to be welcomed.
  • The majority of black learners indicated in the 2005 survey that they would prefer to qualify to teach in a secondary school or in special education rather than in a primary school.

Were these preferences to be realised in enrolment decisions, there would be major implications for Foundation Phase teaching, especially in the mother tongue. 

The study shows that a slightly larger percentage of survey respondents in 2005 (3%) than in 2001 (1.5%) wanted to study education - which may or may not have led to their enrolment in teacher education programmes and their subsequent uptake in the teaching profession. While this increase is encouraging, the low base off which an improvement has been registered indicates that teaching remains low on the professional agenda of schoolleavers. The mounting of the Fundza Lushaka bursary scheme for prospective education students may promote increased enrolments, but it is unlikely to attract students

"Far more emphasis will need to be placed on recruitment of aspirant students at school and community levels"
in large numbers, particularly given the diminished status of the teaching profession in relation to the high-status professions to which learners have been shown to aspire in the study. Student enrolments in education will also depend on the number of places available in education faculties/ schools.

What the low aspiration for enrolment in education programmes does indicate is that far more emphasis will need to be placed on recruitment of aspirant studen ts into such programmes at school and community levels. Teaching needs to be sold to learners. Ironically, however, it is unlikely to be bought by pupils who are themselves the products of inferior teaching role-models. This self-perpetuation points out the need for more research into what university faculties are doing in this regard, what they can do better and with what kind of support. 

Michael Cosser is a chief research specialist in the programme on Education, Science and Skills Development. The full report, Studying Ambitions. 

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