SA’s poor education system is hobbling innovation and stifling economic growth, top economist Azar Jammine warned on Thursday at the launch of the National Advisory Council on Innovation’s (Naci) latest science, technology and innovation indicators report.

"The ability to think sufficiently to innovate properly is driven by education. It is not just teaching you how to read and write, it is also teaching you how to think and solve problems," said Jammine, who is MD of Econometrix.

"It means there are too few people who end up being able to do work that is useful to society, and too few people who are in a position to be employed in areas where they can add value. This, in turn, translates into a low level of productivity, which has negative macro-economic effects," Jammine said in a telephone interview with Business Day.

Naci’s report draws on previously published research to paint a picture of how SA’s innovative capacity has evolved over the past decade, highlighting constraints in the country’s human capital pipeline from primary school through to graduate level.

The proportion of students enrolling in science, engineering and technology subjects at undergraduate level remained stagnant between 2005 and 2015, at 29%. "It’s not changing because there seems to be a blockage in the willingness to recognise that it is a huge problem," said Jammine. "The figures are dismal. Only one in 40 [children who begin school] get 60% or more for matric maths [and] only 22% of university entrants finish with a degree."

World Bank economist John Goddard agreed that SA’s economy had been hurt by its limited innovative capacity. "Since the global economic downturn [in 2008], up to 0.7% has been shaved annually from economic growth in SA because of declining productivity. A big part of it is [lack of] innovation: private-sector research and development has declined by about 40% over this period," he said.

However, Goddard acknowledged there were strengths in SA’s innovation system, citing the research capacity at top universities, and its growing publication output. SA’s share in the world’s publications increased from 0.39% in 1996 to 0.69% in 2015.

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