It would be an understatement to say that education has been in the news and top of mind for South Africans over the past year. Education has certainly been in the news and more specifically, people are talking about how we ensure that we harness the resources that numerous sectors in South Africa currently pour into the vast education value chain more effectively. Whatever one’s personal view of the #feesmustfall movement, one thing is sure – #feesmustfall has been very effective in shining a stark light on the challenges that students face, often leaving a public secondary schooling system that does not equip them for tertiary education.
So, do we throw our hands up and look for the nearest culprit to blame? The list of suspects grows daily if one takes cues from social media – government in its multiple guises, the scholars and students, parents, teachers, principals and school administration teams, unions, school governing bodies, the apartheid regime, the business sectors, the previous generation of activists. While critiquing may be a useful analytical tool in trying to understand the causality of deeply complex social challenges such as the universal provision of quality education to a country’s citizens, it is of limited use without consequent action I have never seen blame resolve any problem.
South Africa is not unique in the challenges it faces as a middle-income developing country. Where we tend towards the unique is unfortunately in those areas where a procession of cheerleaders is not welcome – deeply structural inequality and a lack of efficacy of public spend, especially so in education. On average, South Africa spends 20% of its national budget on education (circa 10% of GDP), with this figure projected to rise to R254bn on basic education by 2018, according to the Medium Term Expenditure Framework. Yet we consistently rank low on various metrics of the effectiveness of this spend, whether it be basic literacy at various levels of the education value chain, world rankings with respect to science and maths literacy, or the growing gap of unemployed school leavers and graduates that the formal economy is not absorbing.
Education is not only prioritised by public spend. Over 90% of South African corporates support education in some form or another through their CSI programmes, with nearly half (47%) of all corporate CSI annual expenditure allocated to education (more than double the next priority, social and community development). And yet, the total spend of R8.1-billion on CSI in 2015 is a drop in the ocean compared to the R104-billion spent by the state on basic education. Is the effort therefore pointless?
I have the good fortune of working for an organisation, the Mineworkers Investment Company, that enables the children of some of our poorest citizens, mineworkers, to access quality tertiary education through its dividends – channelled to the JB Marks Education Trust Fund (JBMTF). To be precise, it has enabled 1016 such children to graduate to date in all fields of study, including engineering, medicine, commerce, the sciences and humanities. I have seen first-hand the power that education has to change the lives of these children and their families. And I have seen the deep sense of community and citizen responsibility that this opportunity leaves these young adults with.
This journey has not been without its hurdles – JBMTF is unique in the sense that it does not cherry pick outside of the riskiest category of students – namely first year. The scheme is open to all qualifying beneficiaries (dependents of NUM members), and does not solely rely on academic results as a filter for acceptance. Initially, failure levels, especially for the first-year students were very high. However, over time, lessons were learned and interventions put in place that recognised the challenges these students faced given their socio-economic backgrounds and we worked with them as opposed to against them, in overcoming these challenges. This included bridging courses, induction workshops, regular visits and the clustering of students in institutions – and the (expensive) decision to fund all costs associated with a tertiary education – tuition and books, accommodation and food.
I could continue on this topic ad nauseum – education is an area I feel strongly about and the list of challenges that it currently faces in South Africa are almost inexhaustible. And yet, I have seen some bold initiatives from the business sector that despite the relatively small financial muscle in comparison to state budgets, aim to achieve large-scale change. Consistently, these initiatives aim to work with not against government efforts, and they take brave and calculated risks.
Perhaps it’s time for all players in this space to think beyond narrow sectarian interests and to take bold, brave and large scale actions to direct creative and effective thinking at these challenges, be they early childhood development, harnessing technology to assist teachers and administrators in secondary schools, or innovative funding mechanisms to enable more students to access – and complete – tertiary education. What is needed is decisive leadership.