The “fees must fall” movement has given South Africans an opportunity to talk about the affordability and accessibility of education, but the focus shouldn’t fall entirely on tertiary education because we need to debate a way forward for the whole education system.
There are several problems in education that need to be addressed such as the disparity in the number of children who start Grade One and those who matriculate; the difficulty students experience in their first year at tertiary; and the phenomenally high rate of unemployed graduates.
There are fundamental problems with education, which extend further than fees must fall and which requires a concerted effort from government and the private sector to work together to ensure that we create a structure that supports learners and creates opportunities, but that does not leave them with a sense of entitlement.
Don’t drop school standards
If learners are struggling at school, the solution is not to lower the standards for everyone with a 30% pass. Children that are not intellectually gifted should be provided with alternative forms of schooling such as remedial schools or those that focus on making things using your hands. On the other hand itis equally pointless to force more intellectually developed children to accept a standard that doesn’t challenge them. Not everyone has to be taught in the same way.
Education teaches children how to think, how to work in a team, how to analyse problems and the 30% pass requirement is doing them a disservice because professional environments don’t accept such low standards. This is why young people struggle when they leave matric because school teaches them to do the bare minimum to get by. A negative consequence of the 30% pass requirement at school is the high number of students who drop out during their first year at university. In some cases, it might be an affordability issue where students can no longer pay their fees, but there is also a high failure rate, which is indicative of the significant gap between high school and university.
We need a more inclusive system that supports students and closes these gaps without lowering standards. It’s not a case of students not being diligent or not studying hard enough, but it’s more about the schooling system that does not stretch themand allows them to think that a 30% pass is all that’s required for them to succeed.
Free education, then what?
If we were suddenly able to wipe out university fees for all students by initiating a graduate tax, increasing funding from the private sector and allocating more government spend to tertiary institutions, what would students give back to the country in exchange for a free education? Why is this a one-way street? Giving young people a free education only solves a small part of a bigger problem that requires a more holistic approach.
I believe that if free tertiary education can be provided, students should do two years of compulsory community service for which they will get a fixed stipend that covers basic costs such as transport, regardless of where they work (public or private sector) and what type of work is being done. This will help graduates gain much-needed work experience in their relevant fields, resulting in them being more employable.
According to youth employment accelerator Harambee, young people who can get and keep a job for 12 months have an 85% chance of being employed for the rest of their lives. Two years of community service would teach students discipline and how to conduct themselves in a professional environment. For the private and public sectors, such an initiative would mean paying a flat rate for students doing their articles, for example, and that would result in businesses being able to take on more students who then have a better chance of finding jobs. Even if students do clerical work and administration, it will still put them in a position to find employment because these are basic skills that are always in demand.
Unemployment rate versus vacancies
Taking a more structured approach to tertiary education will also ensure that we produce graduates in vocations needed in the economy. Currently, there’s a mismatch because students have qualifications that the economy doesn’t necessarily need, so we have too many graduates with certain degrees and in other fields such as medicine, there are huge shortages.
Free education could be provided, but what happens when there aren’t any jobs for all the new graduates? Perhaps a reduction in the number of seats for certain degrees is worth considering in cases where there is an oversupply. What is certain is that a co-ordinated effort must be made to reduce the skills gap and, as a country, we need to adapt to a changing world and a changing economy. There are qualifications and jobs that exist today that didn’t exist 20 years ago and we need to take this into consideration.
There also needs to be more monitoring of Technical and Vocational Education and Training colleges as well as private colleges because most employers don’t understand what someone with a diploma in financial management, for example, can do. We need to stop offering qualifications that are not relevant because those graduates are the ones sitting at home, wondering why they can’t find jobs.
Another positive outcome of two years of community service would be that students gain exposure to an environment in which they would be able to identify opportunities. When you’re in a workplace and you see something doesn’t work, you can come up solutions to those problems.
Students who are considering starting their own businesses will be able to identify problematic processes and they can then create specific products and services to address those problems.
The Mineworkers Investment Company through the JB Marks Education Trust Fund provides full bursaries for children of mineworkers and construction workers, and all we ask of them is that they give back to their communities by mentoring students or helping in some way to pay it forward because we believe this will help build a strong society. Our approach also ensures there’s no sense of entitlement, of people taking something and not giving anything in return, and this ideology of reciprocity, of us all being in it together is what is sorely missing from the fees must fall debate.
Mary Bomela is the CEO of the Mineworkers Investment Company.