Guest Column

Moving education from “unfreedom” to freedom

2017-05-07 06:25
(File, Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

(File, Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

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International case studies have shown that when nations prioritise the delivery of quality education, not only do individual socioeconomic development levels rise, but so does national competitiveness.

Education is also the only durable equaliser enabling citizens to compete fairly for opportunities presented by the market.

Conversely, in nations where citizens are not able to compete for, and access, opportunities which improve their standards of living, despite being politically emancipated, freedom and democracy become tenuous.

In 2005 globally renowned economist Amartya Sen crystallised this phenomenon when he spoke of the “connection of poverty with unfreedom”.

This has profound implications for South Africa.

Our country, with its globally admired Constitution and a plethora of other progressive legislation, holds the dubious distinction of being the most unequal in the world.

The people of our country will not be patient forever and a sustainable response to poverty and underdevelopment must be a multipronged, multistakeholder one that begins to yield observable results.

Our people will not be forever soothed by the many policies and programmes which have as their objective the reduction of poverty and inequality without the corresponding shifts in their reality.

At the heart of this multipronged national solution must be the provision of quality education.

This must drive our quest for equality, development and employment towards authentic freedom.

Writing in the International Journal of Educational Development, Laura Perna, Kata Orosz and Zakir Jumakulov assert that:

“Educational attainment, an indicator of the human capital accumulated by a population, is a primary determinant of a nation’s prosperity and global economic competitiveness.”

The World Economic Forum underscores the importance of higher education to national competitiveness, asserting that “today’s globalising economy requires countries to nurture pools of well-educated workers who are able to perform complex tasks and adapt rapidly to their changing environment and the evolving needs of the production system.

“[Indeed] although labour market policies and other forces also play a role, higher education is particularly important to the competitiveness of nations with developing and transitioning economies.”

The positive correlation between education, personal and national development cannot be overemphasised.

It is equally the only realistic response to the stubborn challenges of poverty and underdevelopment.

That government, business and civil society are collectively aware of this is evidenced by public and corporate investment in education.

Corporate social sustainability company Trialogue has found that, corporate social investment in education has increased and continues to do so.

More importantly, corporate social investment spend is focused at school level and committed to maths and science programmes.

This trend is mirrored in the public sector where at least R300 billion was last year committed to providing quality education at primary, secondary and early childhood development levels.

The collective investment is yielding some results and we are starting to see improvements in our performance with trends between 2003 and 2015 showing that South Africa has consistently improved its performance in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

Last year, the country made the biggest improvement of any education system in the world since we have been participating in the study.

This is mirrored by South Africa’s performance in the 2016 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index.

In both the areas of primary and secondary education, the country has improved steadily.

While these steady improvements are welcomed, they must be assessed against the massive public investment in education.

Spending on basic education in 2017 will amount to about R240 billion, or 17.5% of the consolidated budget. This will increase to just more than R261 billion in 2018/19 and to about R280 billion in 2019/20.

Do we have the courage to ask the questions that matter: Is our investment being matched with returns? And if not, why?

Will our citizens, and particularly our young people, be patient until we get it right?

Can our national competitiveness be improved?

Will generations of the future forgive us if the freedom that thousands of people spared neither life nor limb to achieve is not guaranteed by sustainable and durable improvements in our levels of poverty and underdevelopment?

Delivering quality education is within our power. It will move billions of people out of poverty, which will improve families, communities and ultimately our nation.

This can move us to a state of authentic freedom.

Will we act decisively?

Pillai is communications director at the Human Sciences Research Council

Follow on Twitter @ManushaPillai

Read more on:    education  |  world economic forum  |  democracy
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