South Africa

Analysis: The real education crisis and how we can start solving it

By J Brooks Spector 18 November 2015

After years of watching the problems in South Africa’s educational sector, and as yet another school year draws to an end, J. BROOKS SPECTOR offers a plan to start on the reconstruction and rebuilding of the sector – before it is too late.

For the past few months, anyone interested in South Africa’s future has probably been transfixed by the #FeesMustFall protests on university campuses aimed at trying to force the country’s tertiary educational institutions – and the government department that supervises them – to provide redress over those continually rising university fees. For many, the goal has been fully free education, as per the implied promise of the Freedom Charter, and electioneering by the ANC back in the 1990s.

A look at the Freedom Charter shows that the key words on education in that document read:

  • All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands;
  • The aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace;
  • Education shall be free, compulsory, universal, and equal for all children, and
  • Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all, by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit….

Given the steep financial burdens a university education can place on poor students and their families, this call for an end to university fees is wholly understandable. But our argument is that from a national policy perspective, this drive is actually a misplaced priority. There is a yet more important education crisis that must be addressed with even more immediacy. This challenge must be dealt with if the country is to make any headway away from the continuing embarrassment of the low rankings of its educational system, and that system’s output in virtually every international comparative study.

Back in 1955, the Freedom Charter had argued explicitly for free and equal education for all children, rather than for adult university students – something that was glaringly not the case back then – and remains something of an unfulfilled promise even now. Back in the early 1950s, urban church-supported, and more rural mission schools were still the mainstay of black education, even though they did not usually offer free tuition to all and they were sharply insufficient in capacity to even approach the ideal of universal access.

Meanwhile, for higher education, the Charter had specifically advocated a system of state allowances and scholarships to support worthy students. Back at the time of the Charter’s writing, of course, a university education was certainly not available to hundreds of thousands of black students. Instead, there were just a handful of black students at all of the traditional “white” universities put together – and there were just a few hundreds more at Ft Hare University College. Now, of course, there are a much greater number of black students in the nation’s universities. Even so, however, less than 5% of all black persons between 18 and 29 years of age are in tertiary education.

However an even more critical crisis – and the one mortgaging the country’s future, is in the country’s primary and secondary educational sectors. The most appalling statistic is that while, on average, around a million students enter the educational system annually at the beginning year of the system, by the time that cohort should have graduated from high school, only around half have actually run the full course. Instead, half of that cohort have vanished from the system and are, generally, on their way to a lifetime of sporadic, ill-paid work – or long periods of unemployment. And, of course, for the schools themselves, that “equal” bit in the Freedom Charter remains a shockingly long way from attainment – once one begins to compare, for example, a good former Model C school in a better Johannesburg suburb, and a so-called “mud school” in an isolated village in the Eastern Cape.

In fact, many of the young people who leave school never find any form of employment at all, what with a youth unemployment rate that hovers around 50% or more. This has effectively condemned at least half of each new generation to the most meagre participation possible in the country’s economy – and its future. Such circumstances can, however, provide fertile ground for political movements that hold little or no stake in the current political order – instead promising major seismic changes.

The educational part of the old Apartheid political order was, of course, built on a malignant fairy tale. This was that the country’s black population would largely remain those legendary “hewers of wood and drawers of water” – even if they even hoped to enter the national economy. The new dispensation has argued, rightly, that all children are supposed to be able to exercise their capacity to grow into productive citizens, fully integrated into the country’s modern economy, and inspired by ideals contained in the Freedom Charter.

The challenge, of course, is that the global economy – and South Africa’s place in it – has dramatically changed over the past generation. Much of the country’s old industrial manufacturing base has faded away, right along with all those pick and shovel jobs that might have been a step up for successive waves of still-indifferently educated workers. And along the way, many of the unions that have pushed for better treatment and wages for their members are similarly in decline, save, perhaps, for the public service unions that organize many government civil servants, teachers and police and correctional officers.

The result of all this is that the jobs that the less educated could aspire to, have bled away, even as the jobs that are still coming into being now require more skills than ever before. The nation’s school system, however, has largely been failing to educate its students sufficiently for these jobs, even as the standards for a matriculation certificate largely operate almost as they were designed to avoid providing most graduates with the competencies right for those new jobs – or even to help them turn themselves into individual entrepreneurial go-getters on their own. As a result, a real disaster lies in wait in the future, even as the education system continues to churn out its students. This happens at the same time as the national fixation on the matriculation pass rate that usually begins right about now. Has it gone up a few notches, or dropped down, and if so who is at fault or who can claim responsibility for this miracle? But this, of course, virtually ignores all those who have departed from the system even before graduation.

Surely this cannot continue forever before an eventual, collective calamity comes due – as we achieve a more modern version of French King Louis XV’s words as he passed on the decaying French kingdom to his son when he sighed, “Apres moi, c’est le deluge.” [After me, the deluge – with reference to a coming revolution]

The continued high-quality education for the small cohort of students graduating from the country’s private schools, and a relative handful of strong public schools – mainly, but not entirely, those former Model C schools with their energetic parent bodies that raise funds (often 50% of the cost of the total teacher corps for such schools, and many of the schools’ facilities such as libraries, science labs, sports fields and arts programs) will not be enough.

For most of the rest, the prospect remains grim – and it will get worse unless things change. But, strangely, it is not primarily a matter of money. As a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) devoted to education, South Africa appears to be the second highest in Africa, surpassed only by Morocco. And again as a percentage of GDP per capita directed towards education, the country is actually higher than the equivalent measure for the Netherlands and Canada (although their per capita incomes, of course, are higher than South Africa’s). The problem is more a matter of political and bureaucratic will than just money – the relative lack of a sustained national commitment to do much, much better, before even more damage is done to the nation’s future.

It isn’t even really a question of looking hard to find the right models. The understanding of what must be done is fairly well known; start early and work hard, and well. The Roman Catholic Church’s Jesuit Order has always been fond of saying that if they got hold of a child early on, they had them for life. Meanwhile, Japan – along with a number of other successful East Asian societies – takes education in the early grades as so important to building a strong foundation for later education, that the best teachers are directed into the earliest grades, and are paid more for their efforts than are other teachers. In the first grade, in fact, home visits, organised by every school, take place routinely to ensure parents understand what is expected of them as an integral part of the nation’s educational success.

And so here is what we need to do – and what we should have already begun a generation earlier. From now on, education must be a prime national commitment – with the budget to make it happen, of course – to drastically improve the quality of education, grade by grade. A key element is to ensure every school in the country has at least the standard minimum of quality inputs in a standard quality building.

This coming year becomes Grade R’s turn. Once that level has been stabilised, the following year becomes the turn of the next higher grade, and so forth until every grade has been thoroughly supported properly with the necessary libraries, science labs, electricity, electronic connectivity – and working plumbing and running water. If delivering textbooks is a problem, then turn it over to beverage delivery companies –beer and soft drinks are found available in every hamlet and every spaza shop in the nation, after all. If the responsible officials fail in these basic requisites, they need to be treated as they would be in a place like Singapore. They must be relieved of their jobs and placed on a blacklist for any future positions, as well as some very visible public humiliations in the media.

Do we need teachers who can instruct in maths, science and any other discipline? Here’s another element in the plan – the part that can help university students out of their current miseries. For university students, ensure every student is eligible for a mix of loans and scholarships. The poorer a student and their family are, the better the mix tilts towards scholarships – up to, let’s say, a 70%-30% split. As far as the loans exist, moreover, every student can be offered a chance to have those loans forgiven if they participate in a national teacher corps after graduation. Teach for a year in a very isolated public school, and a third of the still-outstanding loan balance is expunged, and so forth. If the national government’s student loan fund is hurting for cash, why not make university loans from the big banks underwritten by guarantees by the government, rather than government money, per se? Are there problems with the disbursement of these loans? Make the loans for the tuition portion paid directly to the universities (and known to be the case in advance), rather than the more complex distribution to students and then to the schools that what has become a bone of contention for too many and a disruption to their studies.

Taking a leaf from the Economic Freedom Front’s playbook, why not encourage (or even require) every major business above a certain level of annual turnover to adopt a primary or secondary school or two or three, and then encourage those corporations to channel a portion of their corporate social responsibility activities into these schools and, simultaneously, offer regular internships to university students so as to give them a leg up on entering into the adult work force. Or, perhaps, even make it mandatory to do so in the name of national patriotism and “national cohesion”?

Because there continues to be a need for places in tertiary education (but often by students who might benefit from education more directly linked to the world of work), take the money now largely wasted on the SETAs and create superior quality technical training institutions that are tuition-free. Link these new institutions to actual corporations – thereby creating a feeder system and improved employment chances for graduates. Programs like these could make a tangible contribution to a usually more vacuous conversation about that ephmeral “national cohesion” we hear so much about.

Finally, change the regulations to encourage the establishment of privately financed, endowed and supported tertiary institutions, restricting the national educational department’s involvement to ensuring quality control on the education offered, and appropriate fiscal management. It is not as if the country is overrun with solid tertiary-level institutions, after all. For example, the country is desperately in need of medical and health professionals of all types. Why not let the market place help address this very need? Successfully carried out, such a move would open up more places in the existing government institutions for qualified students who must finance their educations via a mix of scholarships and loans. Surely the country’s major health insurance companies and hospital groups would be natural fits to support such efforts.

And finally, if quality education becomes the nation’s key priority, there may be a need to redirect resources to support it symbolically as well as tangibly. As a result, there should be no more fancy “bling bling” cars for government officials, all up and down the line. No more excessive foreign travel delegations on meaningless international boondoggles. Save more money there. Determine that fines from a variety of legal penalties, infractions and punishments are automatically directed into the country’s education budget instead of the general fund. And redirect the entire spending on blue light brigades and the bloated VIP protection service to the education budget as well. There, that should get us started with some working capital.

Angie? Blade? Are you there? Can we discuss this further over a Spartan meal sometime soon? Time’s a-wasting, and there is a new school year coming up fast. DM

Photo: A class at Tyburn Primary School in Chatsworth, Durban, September 15, 2015. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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