Beyond the Politics

Correcting the Flaws in SA Education/or Addressing the Skills Gap from the Ground Up

by Wendy Spalding, director at Tuesday Consulting.

Although the ongoing #FeesMustFall debate has taken on a decidedly political tone and direction, it is important for corporate South Africa to participate in a conversation that goes beyond politics. It is a conversation, essentially, about the future direction of business, and the country at large.

As many of the protesting students have correctly pointed out, lack of access to tertiary education (prohibitive fees) is preventing many talented young people from having a fair shot at entering SA’s professional workforce. They understand that education and skills are the passbook to decent work opportunities and a better future.

Our students are clearly not alone in their convictions. G20 leaders have identified robust training and retraining strategies as critical to addressing weak employment statistics, which is a prerequisite for sustainable and balanced growth in their respective countries. This viewpoint is further supported by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which insists that education and training systems enable young people with the right skills and attitudes to prepare them for the challenging world of work.

This need not be a distant utopia. There are glowing examples of countries getting it right. Finland and South Korea, for example, have been recognised as having the best education systems in the world. The clear differentiator in their systems is the unambiguous connection their governments make between economic and labour market demands and educational planning. This leads to high quality public schooling, high tertiary participation rates and strong consensus around the importance of lifelong human capital development.

A Flawed System

Sadly, South Africa is far from even vaguely emulating the ethos adopted by Finland and other standouts. And there are, admittedly, legacy issues playing a role in this.

Over the past several decades, donor institutions have placed greater emphasis on primary and, more recently, secondary education in their development assistance to Sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, tertiary education – the third leg of the system – has been badly neglected.

Indeed, reports have consistently shown that there is a concerning gap between attainment of secondary and tertiary educational qualifications – and that those students who can afford to attend or receive funding are often not equipped to succeed in the tertiary system. This has resulted in a dismal pass rate of approximately 50% amongst South African tertiary learners.

Building For the Future

There are two key elements of local education that if addressed, we believe could have a major impact on South Africa’s system and its learners. Firstly, we need to elevate teaching as a profession, and bring higher standards to our teaching system at every level.

To refer again to Finland, teaching is Finland’s ‘most respected’ profession, and primary school teaching is the most sought-after career. Beyond the culture of respect for teachers, research has shown that this is a result of the implementation of very specific policies and practices (which focus on the selection process, the work content and employment conditions and appropriate financial reward). Teachers are given the professional autonomy and credibility deserved of the critical role they play in the society, and their salaries are also competitive compared to other professions in Finland.

Secondly, until we address equal access to quality and relevant education across all levels, the skills gap created between high vacancy rates and large-scale youth unemployment will remain.

At a tertiary level, educational institutions should be offering a variety of bridging courses to enable greater academic success; offering access to relevant career guidance and promoting vocational learning to develop some of the critical artisanal skills.

Public & Private Collaboration That Goes Beyond the Politics

As with many of the country’s most pressing challenges, a critical part of the solution will involve stronger partnerships and collaboration between public and private entities. In our view, partnerships between employers and the formal education sector are critical to the development of relevant curriculum and high quality vocational education and training (VET). Moreover, curriculum developers and VET providers have to be in touch with what skills are in demand and to train for jobs that are evolving quickly.

With the 2015 gazetted BBBEE codes, large corporates in South Africa will now have an opportunity to play an even greater role in developing skills of ‘black’ candidates by offering learnerships, apprenticeships and internship programmes.

The task of correcting the flaws in our education system and paving the way for young South Africans to pursue rewarding careers is one that requires input and effort from all corners – it cannot simply be left to a few stakeholders to tackle what is undoubtedly a very complex beast.