Barry Dwolatzky, Wits UniversityBarry Dwolatzky, Wits University

South Africa’s dwindling interest in maths and science subjects needs to be urgently addressed.

While matric results might have improved from 73.9% in 2012 to 78.2% last year, it seems less pupils are registering for maths and science. Maths uptake dropped 21% from 2009 to 2013 and science fell by almost as much (20%).

These trends do not bode well for the future of South Africa’s ICT industry, which continues to be fraught with issues of skill scarcity.

According to Prof , director of the JCSE at Wits University, there has been a steady decline in the number of young people registering for ICT-related disciplines since 2000.

He believes students are not drawn to study computer science, information systems, software engineering, electrical engineering or IT for a number of different reasons. “In most cases, these programmes require good matric results in maths, science and English. The poor state of these subjects in schools precludes many students from making the choice to study ICT-related subjects,” he explains. He also blames poor career counselling. “Parents and teachers at schools in townships and rural areas know little or nothing about careers in ICT. Students who may have the interest and aptitude are never presented with ICT as a choice. There are also very few role-models in previously disadvantaged communities,” he states.

Dwolatzky also believes poor career guidance can lead to incorrect choices. “ICT is a very broad discipline. A student may choose to study for a computer science degree, for instance, while he may be better suited to work as a business analyst, which would be better learnt through an information systems qualification.

“We have noticed that university graduates entries are very low for IT-related courses which clearly show a local skills shortage, which will inevitably affect the growth of the economy,” Malcolm Rabson, MD at Dariel Solutions explains.


According to Betty Enyonam Kumahor, regional director for ThoughtWorks Pan-Africa, students at secondary school-level often do not know what types of careers will be open to them if they take maths and science. “There is also the common perception that these subjects are more difficult than the others,” she explains.

Further challenges, she says, include a lack of support from families and not enough viable role-models for students.

Rabson agrees that a lack of interest in maths and science can largely be attributed to a lack of support and encouragement from teachers or parents, who often fail to make ICT-related subjects appealing for students.

“Furthermore, there is a lack of qualified technical educators in our school system, which makes exceeding in the subjects difficult,” he explains.

“A career in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industry is not seen as a ‘family-friendly’ choice, as many believe it is characterised by long hours,” Kumahor explains.

“There is also, of course, the perception that STEM is male-dominated, which discourages female learners from pursuing them at a tertiary level,” she continues. This originates from the early days of STEM when there were so few women yet in the industry and encouragement was rarely given to female scholars. ”Also consider the social factors in our communities that incorrectly teach women early on that they would be better suited to creative disciplines as their skills can not be fully utilised in the STEM world,” says Kumahor.


In 2013, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 5th Financial Development Report ranked South Africa last on the quality of maths and science education out of 62 countries surveyed. Why are maths and science marks not up to scratch?

According to Kumahor, science especially requires significant financial investment (ie labs and equipment) in order to be taught adequately and schools that cannot afford these investments struggle to sufficiently illustrate certain practical concepts to its students. WEF’s annual Global Competitiveness Report 2013, ranked South Africa 146 out of 148 for the (poor) quality of its educational system.

“Quite simply, it is due to poor teaching,” says Dwolatzky. “In my experience, I have found that maths and science teachers do not have good subject knowledge. They tend, therefore, to teach by repetition, rather than building a love and deep understanding of their subjects.”

Malcolm Rabson, Dariel SolutionsMalcolm Rabson, Dariel Solutions

Rabson agrees it is due to the lack of technical educators in our school systems that science and maths grades are dropping. “This is filtering down to the students as they are not being exposed to the full knowledge which is stifling their learning process. This is a serious issue especially in high school as at this stage students should be moulded to ensure their grades are good enough to carry them through their tertiary careers – and allow them to enter into the IT and sciences space,” he says.


Despite the current low state of maths and science uptake in schools, there is much that can be done to encourage interest.

Rabson believes the best way to do this is through education. “We need to educate the parents, teachers and principals on the inherent value in these subjects. These individuals play an important role in a young student’s life and can either have a positive or negative influence. They are in the ideal position to encourage and impose their knowledge to infl uence behaviour,” he says.

He suggests the industry start implementing programmes. “There are some successful programmes that have been implemented globally and are making a huge difference in the industry. South Africa needs to start implementing such programmes to ensure we see a positive and necessary change,” he says.

“Additionally, government needs to assist by partnering with the industry to develop pragmatic solutions as there is generally a lack of understanding of what is needed in the curriculum and what’s needed in industry in terms of skills.”

Betty Enyonam Kumahor, ThoughtworksBetty Enyonam Kumahor, Thoughtworks

Kumahor believes providing students with assistance, in their maths homework, such as peer study groups, instead of relying on parents who may not have adequate background in the subject, could greatly help learners increase their marks.

According to Dwolatzky, schools need to focus on improving teacher knowledge and provide more exposure to exciting careers (such as ICT, game design and app development) that require maths and science in order to study at university.

“Furthermore, the government needs to get the schools right. Better management, upgrading teachers, improve career guidance and getting experience are some changes that could greatly benefit schools. Schools could, for instance, consider using retired maths and science experts to support teaching. Finally, exposing students – and teachers – to inspirational role models would definitely be a step in the right direction.”

Rabson says if this issue is not treated as urgent we will find ourselves outsourcing services overseas to fulfil the local demands and still be stuck with the same problem 10 years from now.