Guest Column

Economic freedom only comes from educational freedom

2017-08-23 10:54
School desks. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)

School desks. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)

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Robert J. Traydon

The phrase ‘radical economic transformation’ implies the acceleration of demographic representation across both ownership and participation within a nation’s economy. With respect to this proactive transformation, the article explores one simple question: Is economic freedom realistically achievable without ‘educational freedom’?

A new proposal by the Department of Basic Education suggests that “learners (in Grades 7, 8 and 9) who passed all other subjects, but failed mathematics with a minimum mark of 20%, were condoned and would thus pass mathematics and pass the examination as a whole.” Also being proposed, is the removal of maths as a compulsory promotion requirement.

Although there are compelling reasons behind these proposals, little consideration has been given to the adverse impact they would have on our ambitious economic transformation targets.

The hard truth is that mathematics remains a non-negotiable prerequisite for a number of university degrees including those in the following faculties:

Science – Computers, biology, environment, geology etc.
Engineering – Civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical etc.
Commerce – Accounting, finance, economics, IT, management etc.
Health – Medicine, rehabilitation, surgery, anaesthesia etc.

Importantly, these degrees constitute the compulsory qualifications required for entering various professions within these fields. And it is within these professions specifically, that South Africa is recording a publicly lamented and heavily criticised slow pace of transformation.

This raises the question, who is primarily responsible for the lack of transformation in key professions and industries? Is it the private business sector, tertiary education institutions, or the basic education system?

Private business sector

Many of our outspoken political leaders are quick to blame the private sector for its apathy, or even reluctance, to transform in line with the government-defined transformation targets. In many cases, however, the private sector is powerless to meet these targets because of the shortage of qualified professionals in certain demographic groups. It is one thing to set a target, but if the demographically desired resources do not exist in sufficient numbers, then the target will remain indefinitely and frustratingly out of reach.

In reality, the demographic proportions of qualified people across each profession determine the transformation results within that profession.

Tertiary education institutions

Universities, technikons and colleges are also being accused of sluggish transformation with respect to the demographics of student intake, graduation figures and academic staff. 

In an attempt to boost transformation, some institutions have adopted a ‘disadvantage factor’ which is applied to the admission requirements for certain demographic groups. But even this system has limitations, particularly for those who wish to study degrees in science, engineering, commence and health. 

Without a good score in mathematics and other school subjects, many will not be eligible to study these degrees despite the disadvantage factor.

Basic education system

In 2005, 1 233 581 candidates enrolled in Grade 1. By 2016, only 674 652 remained enrolled in Grade 12, and of those, only 610 178 candidates actually wrote matric. Of these candidates, only 56 555 achieved a result of 50% and higher in mathematics – necessary for a Bachelors Degree pass, commonly known as an ‘exemption’. 

The table and charts below shows a demographic breakdown of maths results in 2016.

Source: South African Institute of Race Relations

Immediately apparent is that only 7% of black matric candidates achieved 50% and higher in mathematics, compared to ±35% of their white, Indian and Asian counterparts. Less apparent, however, is that despite this concerning figure, black matrics still constitute 66% of all the matrics who score higher than 50% in maths.

Without going into the obvious historical reasons for this ‘maths results disparity’, we have to ask ourselves whether the transformation targets defined for tertiary education institutions and the business sector are realistic.

It is not necessarily that the tertiary education institutions and the business sector are averse to transformation, but rather that it is simply not possible when taking into consideration the slow pace of transformation in basic education.

Should the transformation focus shift toward the basic education system and improving school results, then everything thereafter will be better positioned to reflect our nation’s demographics.

The importance of maths

Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene hit the nail on the head recently when he said that decent education in maths is critical for transformation and that the education department, rather than downgrading maths’ importance, should prioritise improving the quality of maths teaching. No-one could have communicated this message more clearly.

The inescapable truth remains, as confirmed by the success of the Asian tigers, world-class education is the greatest mechanism for economic freedom and transformation. The day our matric results, specifically distinctions in maths (and science), reflect our country’s demographics, will be the day our country is truly on the path to representative transformation.

So, our message to the Minister of Basic Education should be loud and clear: “The primary responsibility for tangible and authentic transformation in South Africa’s economy lies in your department’s hands. Empower our young people with educational freedom, so they may realise true economic freedom!”

- Robert J. Traydon is a part-time author and BSc graduate of Mechanical Engineering. His writing seeks to raise awareness across various controversial fields including climate change and environmental sustainability.

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