Exams too hard? That’s a pathetic excuse for students
The Limpopo fiasco shows that universities must take a stand against a creeping culture of academic disregard
It was even funnier than watching British Prime Minister Teresa May recently attempt a Mr Bean-like dance routine on African soil. Up there in the north at one of our institutions of higher learning, students in an examination room exploded with rage because the test they sat down to write on the philosophy of education was “too difficult”.
The darkish recording on social media shows students screaming and papers flying into the air as an adult voice tries to calm the rebellion with the appellative “comrades!”
This was of course embarrassing to citizens of the University of Limpopo and shortly thereafter there was an attempted explanation on social media: it was the wrong examination paper.
You do not need much brainpower to figure out that this made no sense. In any civilised place all a student needs to do in such a case is raise a hand and point out the “wrong-test-for-the-course” mistake and the issue would be immediately resolved.
The university leadership would later confirm it was in fact the right test; if there was a mistake it might have been that the wrong course number was on the cover, but the content was exactly what they were taught and on which they were now being examined. The students were revolting against something else.
There is a creeping culture of academic disregard on several of our campuses when it comes to the intellectual demands made on students in the academy. Not too long ago there was a report at the University of Fort Hare that some students were demanding that they be compensated with marks and be allowed to pass given the destructive impact of the union strike on the teaching calendar. This notion that marks can be handed out in the absence of any academic assessment is not new at all. Those who lived through the student activism of the 1980s would remember a common refrain: “Pass one, pass all.”
But you do not have to go back that far in history or blame students for the mayhem because academic disregard is, believe it or not, government policy.
A pupil in school is not allowed to fail a grade more than once. This policy of automatic promotion for what locals call “progressed learners” is precisely that: you pass without the need to meet and exceed the rigours of academic assessment.
No doubt some of those students at Limpopo were beneficiaries of this largesse by the Department of Basic Education and were simply asking for a repeat performance. In other words, the test or exam exists to make our lives easier – so what’s this nonsense about setting difficult and demanding assessments? We are supposed to pass.
What we saw at the University of Limpopo, in other words, was simply part of a gradual shift in campus cultures that I earlier described as academic disregard. Nobody finds it outrageous that universities from the Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal can lose months to strikes and other disruptions and still have the temerity to host graduation ceremonies. It might not matter for now until the market hits back and businesses and the professions refuse to employ graduates from some of the suspect universities.
The leadership of UL is correct in their concern – this type of behaviour tends to spread, and I guarantee that such objection to academic demand is going to become more and more common in SA universities. We did not get here overnight.
To this day university lecturers, under pressure from students, spend time discussing “the scope of the exam”. What does this mean? That you basically tell students what they do not have to learn. How pathetic. Instead of broadening students’ intellectual horizons, we narrow them so that it becomes easier to pass.
White lecturers will tell you how easily students use another handy weapon to ensure they pass: the demanding academic examination can only mean the lecturer is racist. On occasion that might be true but far too often it is an excuse for being underprepared or not having mastered the knowledge required.
What is to be done?
Quite simply, universities must take an uncompromising stand and defend the academic standard. There are enough remedies that offer students a second chance, including tutorial support and supplementary examinations. If that fails, the student repeats the academic year.
There is one very sad thing about the Limpopo protest: these were education students. I shudder to think that these young people will even set foot in an SA classroom.