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SA missing scientist targets because of shoddy basic schooling

South Africa is failing to reach its science graduate targets because of low pass rates in science and mathematics at schools, a parliamentary report claims.

The claim was made in the portfolio committee on higher education’s budgetary review and recommendations report, released on 17 October.

The committee said it is “gravely concerned that targets in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programmes are key to economic growth and targets are not met due to the poor outcomes in the schooling system”.

It added that this will have a negative impact on key economic areas and the health system, which has a “dire shortage” of graduates.

None of the science graduate targets were met by the Department of Higher Education and Training in the 2017/2018 financial year, the report says. Engineering science graduates fell 600 short of the 13,000 target, human and animal health 300 short of their 10,400 goal, and there were 200 fewer natural and physical science graduates than the 8,300 target.

Universities and DHET said the cause of the shortcomings was that prospective students did not have high enough science and maths marks to undertake these degrees. The latest figures found that 140,000 grade 12 students met requirements for a bachelors, but only 50,000 of them had passed mathematics.

The committee recommends that DHET ensures teacher training quality is improved, especially in maths and science, and that it raises awareness of science among learners.

The university sector also missed the total student enrolment target by close to 20,000, the report claims, which DHET said was predominantly due to fewer enrolments at the University of South Africa because of ICT problems.

The country’s universities fared better at postgraduate level, with close to 100 more PhD graduates and 300 more research masters graduates than their respective targets.

The committee praised DHET for clamping down on irregular expenditure. The department managed to reduce irregular expenditure from R63.8 million in 2016/2017 to just R230,000 in 2017/2018. The department made similar gains in curbing underspending in its university programme, from R16m to R1m.