OPINION | Can Africa use technology to leapfrog its huge educational backlog?

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(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Will the continent’s governments be any better at delivering 5G and augmented reality than they have been in delivering books and pens to their people, asks foreign policy analyst Peter Fabricius.


Grade 7 and 12 students are returning to school rather haltingly after nearly three months out of their classrooms, trying to learn how to learn remotely, from home. So this  might be a good time to look at the rather dismal state of education here in South Africa and across the continent and whether digital learning can help it catch up with the rest of the world.

“Successful modern societies are called knowledge societies. Education and prosperity go hand in hand,” Jakkie Cilliers declares in his new book Africa First! which investigates why African countries generally lag behind the rest of the world in development.

One of the biggest lags is in education. It was so before Covid-19 and is likely to be worse after.

During the 1960s and 1970s  Sub-Saharan Africans were a little better educated than South Asians, for example. But by 2018 South Asia had pulled ahead, reaching seven years of education compared to just 5.6 years in sub-Saharan Africa and only 4,6 years for women - versus the global mean for women of 7,8 years.

Only 29% of Sub-Saharan students complete secondary school, compared to 41% in South Asia, 63%  in Latin America and the Caribbean, 64% in the Middle East and North Africa and 73% in East and South-east Asia.

Within Africa, Southern Africa as a region now leads the pack with about 7 years of schooling. But by 2040, Cilliers forecasts it will lose its lead to North Africa and West Africa will have almost caught up.

Cilliers attributes the slowdown in Southern Africa mainly to educational stagnation in South Africa - “an example of how to get things wrong. “ He blames bad policies, poor governance and corruption in the governing ANC which have limited investment in education; failed experiments in imported education model such as outcomes-based education; and the dominance of teachers unions which “now practically run schools and determine policy” – for instance by regulating themselves rather than being regulated by what used to be an effective system of independent schools inspectors.

Many of these failures could be projected across the continent, one might add.

When it comes to the quality of education, rather than just pushing greater student numbers through school, Africa does even worse. 

In recent international standardised tests, less than half of sub-Saharan African students  met the minimum proficiency threshold, versus 86% in developed countries.

And so, all in all, it is highly unlikely that Africa will meet the primary education target of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 4.1 ,which is that by 2030 all girls and boys should have access to “free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education”, as measured by a minimum proficiency in mathematics and reading.

The World Bank blames Africa’s “low education trap” on  weak economic growth, poor education policies, meagre government spending on education and poor education quality.  Students too often graduate without the skills required to do available jobs, especially the jobs of the future in digitisation and the fourth industrial revolution. 

Building enough schools, educating enough teachers, and investing enough in the necessary infrastructure for sub-Saharan Africa to catch up with the global averages will be an immense challenge.

“But something must be done. More of the same will not do the trick,” Cilliers says.

The highly successful Asian Tigers, as usual, show what can be done. In South Korea basic education expanded “massively” before economic growth boomed in double digits in the late 1960s.

China, conversely, shows how spectacular economic growth can be ploughed back into education, as the country only introduced compulsory nine years of education in 1986 when economic reforms had already driven the economy to plus 10% annual growth.

To give an idea of what is possible, Cilliers uses the powerful big data engine of the University of Denver’s International Futures platform to model “aggressive but reasonable” improvements in African education.

The interventions of this “Rejuvenating Education” scenario  would increase student numbers; achieve near gender parity; boost education quality at primary and secondary levels by about two percentage points above the Current Path by 2040; and increase  vocational, science and engineering education.,

All this would increase Africa’s mean years of adult education, from about 5,6 years  in 2018 and about 7 years in 2040 - if business continues as usual - to just over ten years in 2040.  

These improvements would considerably increase the continent’s expenditure on education, from 5.7 per cent of Africa’s overall GDP in the current path forecast in 2030, to 5.9 per cent- amounting to a hefty extra US$340 billion overall from 2020 to 2040.

But this investment would boost the size of Africa’s economies by a total of US$1,38 trillion over 2020 to 2040. Cilliers believes this would be “an awesome return on investment”.

And the impact would be even greater if African countries reduced the number of children entering schooling by family planning. Inequality would also be slightly reduced and so would extreme poverty, by about 29 million people in 2040.

But would increased spending on education be enough? Cilliers cites Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann as suggesting not. He points out that  in 1998 Ghana’s workforce had an average of about seven years education and its per capita income was about $1 000. At the same level of education, Mexico’s per capita  income was over $10 000 and France’s was  over $20 000.

”These figures tell us that rich countries are rich not just because of education, and, conversely, that investing in education alone won’t make you rich,“ Hausmann concluded.

For Hausmann the differences among these nations was the ability to apply the  knowledge, that their growing economies demanded  from their workers.

Cilliers insists, however, that the real difference is in the need to boost the quality rather than just the quantity, of education.

And so he offers the hope that rapidly advancing information technology especially 5G and augmented reality such as holograms could help Africa leapfrog its huge deficits, especially its poor teacher numbers and quality.

Cilliers enthuses about such technologies replacing teachers in front of whiteboards or chalkboards with apps, gameplay and entirely new ways of teaching. “Each student could have an artificial intelligence teaching companion in the cloud that delivers information at the optimal speed for him or her. In this brave new world, students will be able to consume lectures at their own pace, with time in class used for discussing problems or collaborative work.”

This is indeed  an inspiring brave new world he envisions. But it leaves some questions. One is cost. Will this highly sophisticated technology come any cheaper than the current technologies which Africa clearly can’t afford?

And the last, but invariably the central point in Africa, is governance. Reading between the lines of this chapter, it is mainly poor governance which underlies Africa’s education deficit, just as it underlines most of its many deficits.

Will the continent’s governments be any better at delivering 5G and augmented reality than they have been in delivering books and pens to their people?  Or will they squander these miracle cures as  somehow they have managed to  squander most previous resources?

-  Jakkie Cilliers, Africa First! Igniting a Growth Revolution, Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg and Cape Town, 2020. Africa First! presents Africa’s current development prospects along various dimensions and models the impact that ambitious interventions in demographics, education, leapfrogging, industrialisation and other areas could have on prospects by 2040.  

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