‘Well-educated’ & ‘Highly-qualified’…. to beg

2013-02-28 05:22

From an education system that was designed to promote inferiority in its very form - almost 20 years post change in regime, what do we have? High levels of literacy, yet low levels of real education. High quantity of education with less than appealing quality. High levels of unemployment among both the educated and the uneducated. High skill shortages despite prevailing education system.

20 years post-apartheid, we have an education system that equips the black child to go beg. Begging for a job is still begging – only you do so with some ‘dignity’ but you’re still not guaranteed. What more with high levels of employment, it’s even more apparent.

The government has made some progress in transforming the nation from “you’re uneducated” to “you’re educated”, but has done little to transform the education system from “you’re educated” to “you’re empowered and equipped to be economically active & independent” – and that’s what we need. Is it supposed to be a government driven agenda? Yes it is, unfortunately.

We need an education system that will promote and empower the black child to be innovative,  independent, and willing to explore the resources and opportunities all around us.

Why do I say this about our education system? Let’s see…

Pre-school is designed to prepare kids for primary schooling. Primary schooling is designed to prepare for High School (secondary education). Secondary schooling is designed to prepare one for the ultimate examination, Matric. Matriculation is designed to prepare one for Tertiary education. And of course, tertiary education is, for the most part, designed to prepare one for a job/ to be an employee.

And that is, for the most part, the whole point of the 15+ years of one’s education. The first 12+ years (up to matric) doesn’t earn you much, especially since you can get through even if you know only 30% of the curriculum. The next 3-5 years of tertiary education, then qualifies to go and look for a job. Studying hard, failing, passing, supplementing, sleepless nights, debts, sacrificed weekends, and more – all to prepare one to be considered worthy of a job - ‘Begging’ as I call it. Except that, with a tertiary level education, you can do so with some dignity, a feeling of entitlement and make it all worthwhile.

Not to be misinterpreted. This path is by far one of the most effective ways to get people from a life of poverty to a life of living above poverty lines; and for most people, a licence to riches. It is a well-known fact that the unemployment rate is lowest among those who at least have a tertiary qualification. But to the unemployed, the unemployment rate is 100%, with or without a degree.

Going ahead, according to UN statistics, the tertiary enrolment rate in South Africa is a meagre 15-20%. Meaning, of all the youths old enough to be enrolling for tertiary education, only 20% actually do so (comparative rates: Libya 49%; Hong Kong 60%; India 18%). So, the rest of the 80%+ are left ‘hanging’, not having completed the road-path to better life prospects, as defined.

From this 20% that do enrol at tertiary level, there’s also the high drop-out rate and those who enrol just for the sake of being at tertiary. An HSRC report estimates that about 50% of undergraduates drop out before graduating. So, let’s say, of those who graduate from Matric and enrol at tertiary, only about 10-15% make it into the ‘formal’ economy in terms of ‘decent’ jobs. And hence the apparent and looming skill shortages in the country – very low throughput rate.

Given this, do we still want to provide education that primarily focuses on qualifying one to get a job?

Then there’s the other 80% who have completed Matric and those who have dropped out from tertiary – let’s call these the ‘non-academics’. This is where small businesses are supposed to start. Yet the reality is that these end up being the most dependant of government, recipients of government grants. Most end up in a life of crime even. And some remain unemployed to the point of despondency and no longer counted as such. Why? Because they have fallen on the wayside of the golden path to the ‘purported economic freedom’; they have failed in terms of academic achievement; and this mind-set prevent most from reaching their potential, beyond academics. That shouldn’t be.

Some sad realities we have to contend with include: a pass mark at 30%; marks being manually adjusted in order to improve pass rates; and more recently, a proposal for an automatic pass in second attempt of same class – all of which serve to create a false sense of being ‘educated’. Just another way the government is pushing youth into a non-existent job market.

Surely these ‘passed’ students are hardly equipped for a decent job and they surely will not proceed to tertiary level. Next, government will be passing a policy/ legislation forcing tertiary institutions to lower their admission criteria. Why? Because we need to be an ‘educated’ society.

Maybe a ‘perception of being educated’ is more valuable than ‘being actually educated’. Or is the government comfortable to have an ‘educated’ society that is highly dependent on social grants?  Promotion of an unsustainable welfare state? Not so.

What am I getting to? I believe the whole education system needs to be reformed. Rather than an education that focuses on preparing one for being an employee, we need more of a system that promotes innovation, critical thinking and entrepreneurship among students from school level.

A few pointers:

Encourage Entrepreneurship among students

In the UK, there is an initiative called ‘the Reluctant Entrepreneur' - students who hadn't previously thought about starting a business, but are worried they may never get a job.

To quote one of the brains behind the programme:

I call myself "reluctant" not because I think I'm owed a job, but because I've been raised and educated to aspire to be a good employee. Many young people are reluctant entrepreneurs, even if they have great business ideas, simply because it's scary to go in the opposite direction to the path our parents and teachers thought they were laying out for us.

How many today would classify themselves as reluctant entrepreneurs? Once you’re comfortable in a job, it becomes even more difficult.

But what if entrepreneurship was promoted while at school – at Tertiary level and even High School level? Entrepreneurship should be considered a viable career option for students, and have them complete their studies with this idea in mind; or drop-out with this in mind.

I agree, there are a lot of government initiatives to promote entrepreneurship and small business development – but for most, it’s normally an after-thought, a last resort option: when you can’t find a job, or get frustrated in a job, or can’t continue with studies, etc. What would be ideal is for this ideal to be instilled in students while they are studying. Entrepreneurship should not be an after-thought, or a fall-back-on option.

Even employers like employees with an entrepreneurial spirit, right?

Vocational Education/ Training

The introduction of Further Education Training (FET) institutions was a move in the right direction – to promote vocational training. However, a lot still needs to be done in this regard.

I believe FET colleges have a role in our society, however, as it is currently, it’s mostly dysfunctional and riddled with perceptions of inferiority. For one: FET is seen as a last option for those who couldn’t make it academically (inferiority) or don’t have funding for university. Two: it has been reported that about 65% of students do not get in-service training which would allow them to graduate (dysfunctional).

Instead of being a post-Matric option, maybe vocational education should be incorporated into the High school curriculum – say from grade 9 or 10. This way, it may do away with the notion of inferiority for the less ‘academically inclined’.

That way, resources will be better channelled to improve Maths & Science achievement by focusing on those students who have identified ‘academics’ as their ideal path – rather than get imposed on every student just because it’s considered the golden ticket.

Moreover, vocational education will need to be promoted as a viable alternative, with just as good economic prospects, if not better.

This system has been adopted and is successfully operated in most Asian, European and North American countries. Worth exploring.

Execute/ Implement the NDP

The National Development Plan has been well accepted in government, even a stamp of approval from the opposition parties – I guess we can safely deduce that it’s a well articulated policy document/ development path.

This comprehensive plan also details the challenges facing education in the country and talks to possible education reform initiatives, which are well called for.

To quote from the NDP chapter on Education:

…higher education faces major challenges: low participation rates, high attrition rates, a curriculum that does not speak to society and its needs, the absence of an enabling environment that allows every individual to express and reach full potential, and poor knowledge production that often does not translate into innovation...

And it goes on to list proposals to bring about the required changes. I hope the details will ultimately address some of the challenges as highlighted above.

In fact, how about we have this National Plan and some key local economic policies be incorporated into the High School curriculum. At least that way, students will be in a position to participate, feel involved and know that the country vision rests on their shoulders. Rather than just wait on the government/ politicians to run with the vision.

Dear Government,

You have many individuals, corporates, charity organisations and other NGOs (local and international) willing to commit their time, brains, expertise and money towards ensuring a well-educated society in the country.

Just get the content and management right, will you?


This is in no way meant as a policy document nor is it meant to be exhaustive in the subject matter – only another opinion piece.

My name,  Xolani Khumalo, please do follow me on twitter @xolanik


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