IMF: Poor education hinders SA’s economic growth

An IMF report mentions that while SA has a fair budget for education, the teaching and learning is of poor quality

South Africa’s long-term low economic growth might be attributed in part to poor education outcomes, according to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper on education, which was released earlier this month.

“International evidence … seems to indicate that low-quality education has been a drag that partly explains the low long-run growth in the country,” says the IMF paper, which is authored by Montfort Mlachila and Tlhalefang Moeletsi.

It is entitled: Struggling to make the grade: a review of the causes and consequences of the weak outcomes of South Africa’s education system.

“Money is clearly not the main issue, since South Africa’s education budget is comparable to OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries as a percent of GDP and exceeds that of most peer sub-Saharan African countries in per capita terms.”

On average, South Africa spends over 6% of its GDP on education.

“However, a significant number of sub-Saharan African countries that spend far less per learner than South Africa have far better educational outcomes,” the IMF paper said.

“The main explanatory factors are complex and multifaceted, and are associated with insufficient subject knowledge of some teachers, history, race, language, geographic location and socioeconomic status,” the paper said.

“Education leads to a more skilled workforce, higher productivity of human capital and higher output…Education increases the innovation in the economy, with new products, new knowledge and new processes that can drive economic growth,” the IMF paper explains.


It quotes research findings that economic growth was positively related to the starting level of average years of school attainment at the secondary and higher levels.

The paper also quoted a study finding that differences in mathematics and science scores explained the high economic growth rates of the east Asia miracle countries, and the sluggish growth rates of Latin America.

South Africa’s economic growth in the early 2000s was skills-intensive and benefited highly educated workers at the expense of poorly educated workers.

“South African ninth-grade learners were second to last in a ranking of 39 countries by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement for eighth-grade learner mathematics performance and last in science performance in 2015.

“About half of South Africa’s students drop out of school before completing secondary education. Among the learners who write the end of high school examinations, about a quarter fail. Moreover, less than 5% of students who start primary school end up with a university qualification.

“South Africa has achieved significant improvements in access to education, but the quality of education is significantly lagging.

“Due to conscious government efforts since the fall of apartheid, access to education at a primary level is almost universal. The battle is usually won or lost at primary school. A substantial part of the low rates of retention is caused by learning deficits acquired at the primary level due to low quality of education.

“Peer countries such as Kenya, Swaziland and Botswana out-rank South African learners in reading and mathematics scores.

“It is evident that the population groups where the apartheid government denied quality education are those that have the poorest educational outcomes today.

“The apartheid government deliberately under-resourced black schools to limit the educational achievements of black learners.

“Indeed, in 1994, spending on white learners was one-and-a-half times higher than that of black learners in urban areas and fives times higher than in rural areas.

“The poorest 75% to 80% of learners depend on dysfunctional public schooling and achieve poor outcomes while the wealthiest 20% to 25% of learners enrol in private schools and functional public schools, and achieve better academic outcomes.

“Government interventions have had relatively limited success in redressing the situation – 80% of South Africa’s dysfunctional schools are in townships and rural communities.

“While management in these schools tends to have limited capacity, according to the literature, what is most worrying is the fact that the teachers from these schools tend to have lower subject content knowledge and few systems to hold them accountable.

“The level of retention and the average time taken to complete a first degree in South Africa’s tertiary education system are worrisome.

“As many as 25% of students enrolled in tertiary education in South Africa drop out in their first year.”


The IMF paper recognised language as a key barrier to education.

“A majority of South African learners, predominantly black, do not have a good command of the English language even though it is the primary medium of instruction in schools.

“Students who rarely spoke the language at home had much lower average reading scores.”

The paper also listed textbook availability as having an impact on South Africa’s education system.

Another issue raised was how teachers are paid.

“Low accountability from teachers and a flat-pay system is limiting the return from a relatively high teacher compensation bill.

“Teacher pay is relatively high for entry-level teachers but does not compensate for more experienced and more qualified teachers.

“Increasing accountability by transforming South Africa’s teacher pay system from a flat-pay system to a performance-pay may improve learning outcomes.”

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