Remember the World Economic Forum's report of last year, the one in which the quality of South Africa’s educational system ranked 140th out of 144 countries, and in which maths and science ranked second last, ie 143rd?
For interest’s sake, under the same two categories, Namibia ranked 126th and 127th, Botswana ranked 55th and 66th, Zimbabwe ranked 30th and 50th, Mozambique ranked 119th and 131st, Lesotho ranked 102nd and 119th and Swaziland ranked 110th for both respectively.
So I ask: what good is an increasing matric pass rate when the quality of education in South Africa is among the lowest in the world?
What good is an increasing matric pass rate when, of the 73.9% that passed matric, only 26.6% gained university exemption?
Exacerbating this low entrance rate is the fact that several would-be students will fail the entrance requirements set by the universities and that 40% of those that do actually make it in, will drop out within the first year.
South Africa’s education system is failing its youth and the country as a whole through the low quality of education, and through allowing learners to drop out.
Education rights group Equal Education points out that in 2001, when most of last year’s matric class began school, there were 1 130 659 learners, of whom only 512 133 (45.2% of the 2001 figure) completed matric.
Considering all of this, are you surprised that South Africa’s unemployment rate is so high?
Regardless of the challenges faced by businesses in the labour market, why would any CEO want to employ someone with a sub-standard education, let alone a person who has not even completed matric?
Perhaps our government fails to understand the importance of a quality education in securing the much sought-after creation and retention of quality employment.
An investment with a return
Analyses of the benefits of education have a long history in economic literature. Studies have established that spending on education is an investment with a return.
Conclusions about education’s contribution to productivity are well established. Education's link to growth is especially critical and after the causal association between the two came under attack, the important dimension of quality - what students know, or cognitive ability - came to the fore.
As the World Bank study Education Quality and Economic Growth states, “it ultimately is the degree to which schooling fosters cognitive skills and facilitates the acquisition of professional skills that matters for development”.
So, the crucial factor is learning achievement. It is by improving this, along with the expansion of schooling, that our government will improve labour productivity.
This, in turn, will be reflected in workers’ earnings and will contribute to higher and sustainable rates of national income growth.
Clearly, our government is focusing on the wrong objective, the matric pass rate. Instead, they should have a dual mandate that needs to be achieved simultaneously: improving the quality of education and increasing the number of learners passing matric.
For those matrics that passed, well done and I hope for nothing but the best for you.
In reading this, I hope though that you and all South Africans (especially those in government) will start realising that a 73.9% pass rate means nothing if the quality of the education received is all but worthless.
*Geoffrey Chapman is a guest columnist and trade policy expert at the SABS. Views expressed are his own.