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Implement these 10 principles and we can reform and fix our education system


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

It is becoming increasingly clear that without improving South Africa’s competitiveness, we will not be able to reduce the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Last week I joined other luminaries at a conference organised by the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation in the Drakensberg. Over the course of the weekend, I reflected on capacitating education and training to increase economic competitiveness.

In my reflection, I proposed 10 principles we need to incorporate into our culture, organisations, politics and society to build education and training institutions and increase our economy’s competitiveness while working towards reindustrialisation.

In crafting these principles, I was reminded of the former minister of education Kader Asmal’s call for an education system rooted in the realities of our society.  

The first principle is to get the basics in our education and training sector right. In this regard, our curriculum must be appropriate and produce a linguistic, mathematical and logical-literate society. Our education and training sector must have adequate infrastructure.

This means there have to be sufficient classrooms, amenities and tools to offer a good education that prepares our people for an economy of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Additionally, there have to be adequate educators who understand the curriculum that they teach. For example, in order to introduce coding in our schools, we have to have teachers who can teach coding.

The second principle is to foster multidisciplinary education. Our education system must integrate all aspects of our lives, and every learner must be literate in human and social sciences as well as science and technology. This will naturally lead to a society that is digitally literate in addition to being classically literate.

Classic literacy speaks to the ability to read and write, while in the 21st century, digital illiteracy is increasingly becoming a human rights issue. At the University of Johannesburg (UJ), for example, we have introduced a compulsory Africa Insights Module to foster the culture of multidisciplinary education, with a focus on African literature, politics and economics. Furthermore, we have also introduced a mandatory Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Fourth Industrial Revolution course to ensure advanced digital literacy for all our students.

Theory and practice

The third principle is our education system must have a good mix between theory and practice. As Kurt Lewin once stated, “theory without practice is sterile; practice without theory is blind”. Our schools must have basic workshops to teach our learners practical subjects. These workshops should use machining infrastructure such as CNC machines and 3D printers to open learners’ eyes to the increasingly complex 21st-century world they will have to navigate.

Furthermore, we need to bring basic agricultural science to all our learners, especially at the primary levels. This is especially important given the agricultural underperformance of our economy. One merely has to drive around South Africa to witness vast tracts of land that remain underused.

Holistic view

The fourth principle is to have a holistic view of the education system. Higher education that is separated from basic education is suboptimal. UJ is an excellent example of this because one can begin in Grade 0 at the Funda UJabule Primary School, proceed to UJ Metropolitan High School and then to UJ, where one can move on to postdoctoral studies. The relationship between UJ and the Central Johannesburg TVET College also serves as an excellent example of the cooperation between a university and a vocational college.

The fifth principle is to link the education system to the international community. In the 21st century, we have to open the eyes of our learners and students to the rest of the world. This means that our learners and students must spend time outside South Africa, and they should welcome learners and students from outside South Africa.

At UJ, Africa Innovation By Bus, where more than 10,000 students have travelled by bus to Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia, is an excellent programme to emulate. Furthermore, at UJ, 20% international academic staff and 4,000 international students from more than 80 different countries are great examples of bringing the rest of the world into our classrooms. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “South African education system ‘needs significant reform to address low literacy rates of children’

The sixth principle is starting education earlier and even before the schooling system. One of the founders of the company Sony, Masaru Ibuka, wrote a book, Kindergarten is Too Late, which observes that three-years-old is already too late to prepare a child for an advanced society.

People in remote areas of our country need and deserve digital education. It is imperative to start education earlier than the current system allows, and the government must be involved in this regard. Preschooling in South Africa is confined to those with economic means, leaving huge swathes of poor people behind, to the detriment of our economy. We need to create systems and mechanisms that ensure that our communities across the length and breadth of our society have access to preschool education.

Role of professional bodies

The seventh principle is to leverage professional societies to build a strong education and training system. For example, can we leverage volunteers from the South African Institute of Civil Engineers to ensure that school infrastructure is of high quality and its depreciation is tracked? How do we leverage these volunteers to ensure that learners across our society are exposed to multiple professions?

I am reminded of my own experience when I decided to study mechanical engineering without ever having encountered nor conversed with a mechanical engineer. Wealthier schools are doing well in this regard, but the gap that needs to be closed is in rural areas. This process should be extended to all other professional bodies, such as the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants and the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers.

The eighth principle is to build a culture of reading. A society that reads tackles problems of unemployment, poverty and inequality better than a society that does not read. Reading is even more important for our educators to ensure that they serve as role models who instil the culture of reading in their learners.

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It is also important that educators and learners individually read widely and from diverse sources to create a culture of innovation. At UJ, we have introduced the Vice-Chancellor’s Reading Club, where I read diverse books varying from classical books, such as Plato’s Republic, to African books, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, to science and technology books, such as Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, and reflect on the wider implications of this material alongside staff and students.

The ninth principle is to invest in research and development (R&D) to capacitate our education and training sector. National competitiveness and the resultant labour productivity are preconditions for high growth, the creation of employment and decent wages central to long-term growth in living standards.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Against the ‘new normal’ — reflections on universities after Covid-19

According to a 2018 note from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Africa has the lowest productivity growth rate among emerging economies. It currently spends 0.62% of its gross domestic product on R&D. However, this must be increased to 1%, which is necessary to improve South Africa’s competitiveness to the levels required to address unemployment, inequality and poverty.

The 10th principle is to develop a culture of using public/private partnerships to solve our problems, including within the education and training sector. For example, the system of accrediting accommodation providers has vastly increased university accommodation to levels that would be unaffordable if public universities were left to fill this gap.

We can get private-sector players to bring knowledge and experience into public education and training institutions. The government must agree with the private sector to ensure that the skills and knowledge that reside in that sector flow into the public-sector institutions.

These 10 points are not exhaustive, but represent a good start to rebuild our education and training sectors. DM



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Deborah Blaine says:

    Wise and solid insight, focusing on fundamentals. Read to our children, teach them to read, write and UNDERSTAND the story, the lessons and structures. Ask them WHY they think 5 – 4 = 2 … help them tackle and unpack their mistakes. This is where critical thinking, taking ownership of your own learning and knowledge begins. And we should all be doing this… this is everyone’s job!

  • david clegg clegg says:

    Good sensible stuff but I would promote the culture of reading into the top 3. If a person does not read easily and is not used to picking up a book (or tablet) on a regular basis he or she will remain under-educated in relation to society, his/her job function or profession and the whole world of ideas.
    I am quite sure that much of the idiocy expressed by cabinet ministers and politicians generally is a result of their private opinions on many matters being formed without the input from a contestation of ideas, derived from the reading of well researched materials.

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