Academic and quantitative literacy in higher education: Relationship with cognate school-leaving subjects

Keywords: academic literacies, quantitative literacy, numeracy, language, higher education, school-leaving examinations, university entrance assessments


Academic and quantitative literacies (AQL) are essential to success in higher education. These literacies are largely not explicitly taught, but acquired indirectly, mostly through practices in various school subjects. The National Benchmark Tests (NBT) Project assesses students’ AQL competencies to assist in identifying students who need support, with placement into appropriate programmes and with curriculum development.

We analyse the performance on the NBT AQL test of students who took the school-leaving examinations in Mathematics, Mathematical Literacy, English Home Language and English First Additional Language. We use the subject choice as a representation of the level of a candidate’s quantitative competence and language proficiency respectively, and investigate the relative contributions made by these subject choices to a student’s AQL.

Students who paired Mathematics with English as Home Language subject had the statistically significant highest mean AQL score and those who took both English First Additional Language and Mathematical Literacy had the lowest. Language competence has a stronger effect than mathematical competence on AQL.

Students who took the subject combination Mathematics and English Home Language at school are better prepared for the academic demands of higher education than their counterparts who took the alternate subjects. Treating these subjects as equivalent to English Home Language and Mathematics for admissions purposes ignores the differences in preparedness of these students.

Author Biographies

R. N. Prince, University of Cape Town

Senior Lecturer,

Center for Educational Testing for Access and Placement (CETAP),

Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED).

V. Frith, University of Cape Town

Co-ordinator of the Numeracy Centre and Senior Lecturer in the Academic Development Programme of the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED).

S. Steyn, University of Cape Town

Academic Literacy Research Lead,

Centre for Educational Testing for Access and Placement (CETAP),

Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED)

A. F. Cliff, University of Cape Town

Interim Dean,

Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED)


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How to Cite
Prince, R. N., V. Frith, S. Steyn, and A. F. Cliff. 2021. “Academic and Quantitative Literacy in Higher Education: Relationship With Cognate School-Leaving Subjects”. South African Journal of Higher Education 35 (3), 163-81.
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