Filling a gap: Although he has a PhD, Lukhanyo Mekuto tutors high school maths and science in Philippi, Cape Town, where he is from. Of all the matriculants who wrote maths in grade 12 in 2015, fewer than one in five achieved 50% or more, reports the National Advisory Council on Innovation. Picture: CPUT
Filling a gap: Although he has a PhD, Lukhanyo Mekuto tutors high school maths and science in Philippi, Cape Town, where he is from. Of all the matriculants who wrote maths in grade 12 in 2015, fewer than one in five achieved 50% or more, reports the National Advisory Council on Innovation. Picture: CPUT

Every year, the list of "highlights" gets shorter. In 2017, at the launch of the National Advisory Council on Innovation’s 2016 science, technology and innovation indicators, Azar Jammine, project leader for monitoring, evaluation and indicators, and director of Econometrix, grasped at straws.

"It’s not all doom and gloom," he said last Thursday.

SA has, for example, a very high penetration of mobile technology: 159 mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people, and one in two people have access to the internet. This is higher than most upper-middle income countries and more than the Southern African Development Community average.

Research publications are also rising: each year academics increase SA’s research output. In 1996, they published 4,969 academic papers or research units.

In 2015, that output had more than tripled to 17,246 publications. However, a recent study by Stellenbosch University researchers found that many articles had been published in so-called predatory journals. This has raised questions about the quality of these publications, and a report is expected in 2018 analysing the general quality of academic output.

That said, there has been a steady rise in South African academic papers in the top 1% of world papers — which are the most cited and have the highest impact internationally — from 0.66% in the 1996-2000 period, to 1.42% in 2011-15. International collaboration has also increased. In 1996, only one in five papers had an international collaborator. In 2015, it was one in two.

But these are small sparks of light among dismal performances. Every year, the same depressing data are produced: statistics on the maths and science ability of pupils show that SA is not making the improvements needed to fix the education system. The interventions are not working or, at the very least, not working fast enough.

The foundation of the system of innovation — the pipeline of skills — is broken.

The International Trends in Mathematics and Science Achievement (Timms) says 61% of SA’s Grade 5 pupils lack a basic competency in mathematics. In grade 9 mathematics, two out of three pupils lack the Timms minimum competency; in science, this was 68%.

These outcomes are worse for pupils at no-fee schools than for those at independent schools. Limpopo and the Eastern Cape habitually vie for last place in provincial ranking.

Sizwe Nxasana, founder of Future Nation Schools and chairman of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, highlighted the large gap between no-fee schools and independent schools.

"The poorest of the poor are lagging behind in terms of the standards they need to achieve, especially by international standards. Poverty, you can see how it comes through," he said.

"There is a need to focus on early childhood development", he added, because there was a correlation between those who had not been to a proper preschool, compared with those who had.

Basic education is the foundation on which any system of innovation is built, but some of the most radical and necessary interventions to fix it are ignored because they are too politically hot to touch.

The poorest of the poor are lagging behind in terms of the standards they need to achieve, especially by international standards. Poverty, you can see how it comes through
Sizwe Nxasana

In 2010, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor commissioned a ministerial review into the science, technology and innovation landscape. Published in 2012, the review called for teaching at all levels to be declared an essential service. The National Development Plan also proclaimed that teaching needed to be reviewed as an essential service. This suggestion, as is often the case with any changes in South African basic education, hit a political wall.

There have been several reports of poor teacher performance and absenteeism, and corruption in teacher and principal appointments. But teachers complain about a lack of training to cope with a constantly shifting curriculum; the absence or late delivery of resources such as textbooks; having to teach subjects they are not trained for; and classes with pupils of different ages and abilities.

Pupils also have challenges — from their home environments to learning abstract subjects such as maths in English rather than in their home tongue.

The numbers in the National Advisory Council on Innovation’s report reflect these problems. When pupils reach matric, they are unprepared in maths and science. Of all the matriculants who wrote maths in Grade 12 in 2015, fewer than one in five achieved 50% or more.

In 2015, almost 1-million students enrolled in higher education — about a third (295,000) in the science, engineering and technology fields. Black students made up two-thirds of enrolments, followed by white (19.7%), Indian (6.1%) and coloured (5.7%). Most of them will not graduate. According to the report, one out of every five science, engineering and technology enrolments will graduate and "thankfully, this represents a slight improvement from the ratio of 1:6 in 2005".

The number of students who do postgraduate study and complete doctorates dwindles further. While PhD numbers are increasing, there are still fewer than 1,300 a year — a far cry from the 5,000 PhDs a year needed to reach the National Development Plan goal.

SA’s economic problems compound this problem in education. Jammine said 2015 "was a bad year" for foreign direct investment (FDI), which is an understatement. In nominal terms, FDI slid from R80.14bn in 2013 to R62.63bn in 2014, before nosediving to R22.62bn in 2015.

In real terms, it fell from R67bn in 2013, to R49.56bn in 2014, before crashing in 2015 to R17.21bn.

While there has been a slowdown in the global economy, the National Advisory Council on Innovation’s report also notes that "in SA, the slowdown in FDI has arguably also been negatively affected by increased political uncertainty and uncertainty about economic policy".

Innovation is often flagged as a way to create jobs and boost economic development, particularly in the face of such declines in investment. But the small innovation system and its blocked pipeline of skills are no match for South Africans’ desire for foreign technology.

SA’s technology receipts — what other countries pay to use its technology — have been creeping up steadily: from R1.16bn in 2013 and R1.26bn in 2014, to R1.33bn in 2015.

This is less impressive in real value (using 2010 as a base year): R967m in 2013, R997m in 2014 and R1bn in 2015.

These small gains are swamped by the money flooding out of the country in technology payments: R18.65bn in 2013, R18.79bn in 2014, and R21.8bn in 2015. (In real terms, this was R15.59bn, R14.87bn and R16.62bn.)

This accounts for 12.5% of the current account deficit. SA pays 7% of its GDP to import technology. "You need imported know-how to succeed, but also you need to succeed to become less reliant on imported know-how," Jammine said.

But any discussion on how to gear the National System of Innovation towards developing new products and services is tinkering with the sandcastle’s turrets. Good people are doing great work drafting and implementing policies that work, innovating and chasing the dream of a country where innovation drives the economy and creates employment.

But every year, analysts flag the poor maths and science results and describe a gain in a percentage point here and there as a "positive trend".

It is time to stop with the congratulations and face the crisis in maths and science education. Unless that is done, there will be no robust and effective National System of Innovation.

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