Vijay Reddy from the Human Sciences Research Council said the 2,7% drop in the matric pass rate to 62,5% was "very worrying because it means that 38%, or four out of ten, have failed".
However Reddy said it was "admirable" that university entry passes increased by 4% for the first batch of matrics to have completed school under the much-contested outcomes-based education (OBE) system.
Seen side by side, the two figures proved that the inequalities of the past persist because students from better resourced schools were better able to adapt to the OBE programme, Reddy said.
"We are seeing that pupils who were doing well have improved and that those who were performing poorly have been further disadvantaged under the new system.
"One of the aims of the new system was to level the playing fields but it will take more than one generation of outcomes-based education to achieve that."
Milnerton High School headmaster Paul Besener agreed, saying the results of the first matrics to write the new national senior certificate confirmed expectations that most traditionally advantaged schools would adapt smoothly to the new curriculum.
The Western Cape provincial education minister, Yousuf Gabru, said it was cause for concern that the number of schools with pass rates of less than 60% had suddenly increased by nearly 20% compared to 2007.
"The results show that we still have a long way to go to ensure access to success in all schools."
Brian O'Connell, the rector of the University of the Western Cape, said the 2008 matric results should not be blamed on historical inequalities but should serve as a warning of a crisis in the South African education system.
"There is nothing surprising in the results. We have no right to expect them to be any different." he said.
The problem, O'Connell said, was the political failure to build a post-apartheid culture of learning to make up for lost decades when education was a tug of war.
"We should stop throwing around the resources thing and ask why we don't have a strong national culture of learning, instilled from the presidency downwards.
"We have no leadership in schools and we have no quality control."
full story from M&G here