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UCT Online High School: Reproducing elites in a sea of inequality and ignoring the rest

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Dr Sara Black works as a contract lecturer for the University of Cape Town, teaching research design for the master’s students in the School of Education there. She is also a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg.

That UCT is confronted with a shrinking public fiscus and scrambling for third party funding is not to be underestimated. Most universities globally find themselves being quasi-privatised by stealth through austerity funding conditions. But whether setting up shop in the market of education is the answer is far from a foregone conclusion.

Last month, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, announced the launch of a new online high school, “UCT Online High School”, or UCT-OHS, in partnership with the Valenture Institute, a US-based online education company.

The purported ideal, from Valenture and UCT, is “to unleash South Africa’s potential”. However, this desire does not align with the South African context, ie who is able to meaningfully access such an opportunity, and who is excluded.

UCT-OHS is economically inaccessible for the vast majority of South Africans

The school claims to be the “cheapest private school available” at R2,095 a month. This might be nominally true, but doesn’t mean much in the face of the average South African’s economic situation. Nedlac negotiations in 2017 sought a minimum wage of R3,500 a month, a baseline that would raise the income of 50% of working South Africans at that time (never mind those without work, a figure that has increased sharply since the onset of the Covid pandemic).

Postgraduate students at UCT, holders of doctorates who rely on piecemeal contract work (including teaching some of UCT’s undergraduate and postgraduate courses) could not afford R2,095 a month for their children. [Promises of staff-based discounts miss the point that an already elite, highly educated sector still doesn’t earn enough to afford this school’s fees].

So for who exactly such a fee rate is imagined to be “affordable” is not entirely clear. Those who could afford such a fee are in a tiny elite minority. The Saldru Income Comparison Tool is a good indicator of this issue in concrete terms.

The claim of being competitive as a fee-based private school indicates the yardstick by which this intervention is being measured — UCT is behaving as a private company competing in a market. Ironic for a public, tax-funded university whose primary focus should be the public good. That the university is confronted, as most are, with a shrinking public fiscus and scrambling for third party funding streams is not to be under-estimated.

Most universities across the world find themselves being quasi-privatised by stealth through such austerity funding conditions. But whether setting up shop in the market of education is the answer is far from a foregone conclusion, especially in a private-school market as overcrowded and small as South Africa’s.

UCT-OHS ignores research about online modalities and the conditions required to make it viable

Material provision for online learning is just one of the many issues regarding the viability of online education in the South African context. Only 11% of South African homes have an internet connection based on fixed infrastructure, according to StatsSA. Most South Africans rely on cellphones to access the internet at all, and most do so under crushing data prices. All of this depends, of course, on stable energy provision, which is far from a foregone conclusion.

But as I have outlined elsewhere, the pedagogical implications of online are also complex, with research indicating that online schools often are no better than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Virtual schooling in the US has not lived up to the hype. In addition, online schooling assumes that all the functions of social reproduction in the home — food, shelter, safety, health and so on — are in place and taken care of, freeing the student up to study in a conducive space. This is only true for a small middle-class minority of South Africans, indicating again who the UCT-OHS is targeted at and designed for. 

UCT-OHS is English-centric and far from ‘decolonial’ — digital neo-colonialism at work?

The UCT Vice-Chancellor’s statement about the nascent online high school states that UCT is an “inclusive and innovative African institution”, signalling the desire of the university to pay homage to calls for decolonisation of curricula and a recentring of knowledge production and prioritisation for the benefit of culturally marginalised local groups.

How this stacks up with partnering with a US-based company is not obvious. Digital colonialism is on the rise (cf the work of Michael Kwet, James Bridle and others), whereby new forms of control, new vectors of power and influence echo old ones, but in 21st-century wrapping. The “personalised, adaptive learning” environments touted by techno-solutionists are premised on machine-learning algorithms drawing on big data sets developed elsewhere.

Yarden Katz, Safiya Noble and others have outlined in detail how such machine learning has been demonstrably shown to echo the human biases of their designers, including racism. That is: the UCT-OHS project might speak the rhetoric of African-ness and decolonisation, but its DNA is far removed from this ideal.

Research, ironically much of it produced by the UCT School of Education (which was not consulted regarding the development of the UCT-OHS), has also shown that learning exclusively through English is one of the factors inhibiting “South Africa’s potential”. That the UCT-OHS is clearly English-only speaks to an Anglo-normative coloniality baked into the education system, and reproduced through UCT’s “innovative” high school.

Potential explanations: Looking for alternative sources of cultural and economic capital for the university

Rather than taking the espoused purposes of the UCT-OHS at face value, there are alternative explanations for this intervention, which point to the types of crises the university is facing and the conservative solutions being offered in response to these.

The first is a crisis of funding, common in academia around the world. Projects such as UCT-OHS are deemed “sexy” by certain big-money sources, and increasingly universities are depending on these private donors to stay afloat, potentially eroding their academic independence and crowding out curricula and research that is not to funders’ liking. The public should be wary of such forces, as they foreclose what an education is “for” and what is deemed to be worthwhile teaching, learning and researching is based on the whims and interests of invisible and powerful international actors.

The second is that UCT wishes to sustain a relative advantage in the university field in SA, but is struggling to do so as adequately prepared applicants become increasingly scarce. That is: as the public basic education system buckles, particularly in the light of pandemic closures, the university is struggling to attract sufficient numbers of students who do not require significant academic support to complete their studies, particularly from disadvantaged demographic groups. The UCT-OHS might then be understood as an effort by UCT to “grow its own wood”, sandbagging its undergraduate degrees against the vicissitudes plaguing the basic education sector and attempting to rein in expensive academic extension programmes.

Whether these motivations are true is hard to know for certain — but if they are, the UCT-OHS is a regressive response to both problems and reproduces class inequality in what is already the most unequal society in the world.

If the unrest in South Africa recently is anything to go by, it is clear that the marginalised majority cannot remain ignored. Whether one believes this unrest to be politically coordinated or not, desperation tills the soil for populism — a population living in comfort and security cannot be coerced to such behaviour.

Rather than laagering against such issues through home-grown private schools, the University of Cape Town must lead the charge to reinvigorate public education for all, irrespective of race, income, location or language, leading efforts to de-commodify education and challenging austerity politics that guts public institutions that serve the poorest and most marginalised.

The UCT-OHS is a step in the wrong direction. DM

Disclosures and disclaimers:

Dr Black’s opinion here in no way reflects that of the School of Education at UCT. With regard to her position as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, her opinion is also her own.

Dr Black was approached by Reys Group Consulting, a marketing research company conducting interviews on behalf of Valenture regarding the ability of the UCT online high school to address inequality in South Africa. Her views expressed here are in line with her views from that interview: that the UCT-OHS, Valenture Institute, or any other private actor engaging in localised piecemeal reform — no matter how well intentioned — cannot address broad inequality in the South African context, due to its structural nature.

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All Comments 9

  • Valid and clearly explained.

    In terms of the bias that designers bring to systems I imagine UCT is going to use a diverse team of curriculum designers who will work within the constraints of CAPS. Hopefully that will counter the bias inherent in curriculm design.

    Non Internet Online education has existed for years. It used to be called correspondence education or distance learning. Those minimally technologically based education systems opened up opportunities for those who could not access face to face institutions due to temporal, spatial and financial constraints. Thousands of South Africans and Africans were able to achieve an education allowing them to progress and contribute to the economy.

    And internet online schooling is not new. Brainline has been doing it for years. So has Curro. All the criticism is valid but it is important to tease out if the criticism is focussed on online schooling per se or on UCTs decision to get into the online sector. The article is not clear as it vacillates between the two.

    But whatever the motivation and regardless of the criticism the state of education is so dire that any option that allows a child an opportunity to progress is welcome, even if it falls short of addressing the issues of neocolonialsm and inequality.

    The more educated people SA has the greater chance there is of supporting the public school system and addressing inequality. So, maybe, UCT, Curro etc are addressing the valid issues raised by the author.

    • “In terms of the bias that designers bring to systems I imagine UCT is going to use a diverse team of curriculum designers who will work within the constraints of CAPS. Hopefully that will counter the bias inherent in curriculm design.”

      From what I can tell they won’t be. It’s Valenture Institute who will be developing the content with UCT branding. I mean, why would they ignore their own experts within the institution (see UCT School of Education: “which was not consulted regarding the development of the UCT-OHS”) if they planned on using them?

      “All the criticism is valid but it is important to tease out if the criticism is focused on online schooling per se or on UCTs decision to get into the online sector.”

      My guess is both of these things are problems.

      “But whatever the motivation and regardless of the criticism the state of education is so dire that any option that allows a child an opportunity to progress is welcome, even if it falls short of addressing the issues of neocolonialsm and inequality. ”

      The question is whether UCT OHS will offer anything that isn’t already offered by many other providers. Time will tell.

      “The more educated people SA has the greater chance there is of supporting the public school system and addressing inequality. So, maybe, UCT, Curro etc are addressing the valid issues raised by the author.”

      Indeed, but whether UCT-OHS was needed or if the target market was saturated is an important question to ask.

  • Please explain to me how it is a bad thing that a highly regarded institution offers even a few thousand South Africans a better education a a lower price than the various sharks that operate in this space?

    This is like Superman swooping in to rescue seven train carriages from the river but then the academics stand on the river bank and complain that Superman did not rescue two more.

    • Unfortunately your analogy is a bit flawed. Imagine Superman arrives to save the trains. Except it’s not Superman. It’s just someone who looks like him. And then before he saves you he asks you if you have enough money. Then he only saves the people who paid him and left those that didn’t behind.

      One of the main questions the author poses is whether UCT, as a public university, should even be playing in the private space, and what impact it could have on the institute moving forward as, assuming the project is successful, they may grow dependent on the resources it provides which could then affect policy making in the future.

  • Placing secondary and tertiary education under one roof is a great concept. Traditionally, there is a great divide between the two and if the transition can be smoothen out it will be a great gain for the education system, the tertiary institution and the individual alike.
    No university has the capacity do address the shortfalls of an entire society, but anything that can provide another educated person should be supported. Will it influence the institution’s ability to fulfull its obligation to also conduct research? It would rather support it as one would get an individual coming through the system that does not need to be alugned to the field of research before starting to contribute.
    Is an institution that uses English as its preferred language pro-colonialsm? If so, China is also getting colonialised very fast as they have put a premium on English. The answer is that English is generally accepted as the business language of the world.
    All in all, this is a great initiative from UCT.

  • Why not make it cheap and bring every one down to the lowest common denominator. That way everyone gets a crappy education. Easy squeazy.

  • Parents sacrifice a lot to pay for education. And I will sacrifice whatever is needed, work as hard as I need to, give as many hours as I have to, attend PTA and SGB at night, spend nights helping with homework and assignments: anything to make sure they get one. We do this after performing all our civic responsibilities: taxes, municipal rates, petrol taxes, paying for our own medical aid and pension, subsidising water and electricity, taking care of extended families. Are we now expected to sacrifice the little we have to secure opportunities for our children’s future? If UCT offers it, it’s a bad thing? Why does everything need to be bad? Should my child rather have no option? I got a gutter education and now want to give them the best. So now does that mean I fund inequality because I want to sacrifice to make sure my kids do better – have a shot at equality in the economy through education? They’re trying something new – couldn’t we just wish them well?

  • We as a society need to face realities; that within the foreseeable future, it is simply not feasible to offer tertiary learning for those earning less than R2k per month. We also need to wake up to the reality that the educational spend in South Africa is very considerably more than any middle income economies, yet the outcomes are immeasurably worse; this would seem to indicate that it is less the money spent and more the extremely low quality of teachers that is at the heart of the problem.

    We should, rather than worrying about the inequalities, embrace this opportunity of a way of giving considerably more students the opportunity of quality tertiary education; if we spend all our time ensuring that none can walk faster than the lamest of the laggards, we will, with certainty end up with equality perhaps, but most certainly of the lowest common denominator.