Picture: 123RF/ iqoncept
Picture: 123RF/ iqoncept

Consensus is strong in SA on the need to close the “skills gap” that perpetuates inequality of income and poverty, and keeps economic growth in low gear. Families — parents and children — understand that getting a tertiary education is the best guarantee of escaping poverty and pursuing a decent life in today’s SA. 

Private companies and public institutions compete fiercely to attract the skills they desperately need, resulting in very high wages and very low unemployment rates for skilled workers. Compared with workers without tertiary education, wage earners holding a university degree can reasonably expect to earn R15,000 more a month, with a 99% chance of being employed.

So, it’s no wonder we see long, winding queues outside universities at the beginning of every academic year, such as seen in the footage of the University of Venda in Limpopo and other institutions in February. Encouraged by the new policy that provides free tertiary education announced late in 2017, even more students are likely to seek to enrol at these institutions.

However, policies come with their advantages and disadvantages. While progressive, particularly as it encourages students from poor and working-class families and extends support to the “missing middle” — previously considered too rich to receive state support but too poor to afford the high costs of studying — the new policy may also generate frustration among prospective students, some of which could be playing itself out in protests seen on campuses last week.

Using household surveys done by Stats SA, we estimate that nine out of 10 students in tertiary education have become eligible for full support, and that the resources needed to fund this policy amount to about 1.1% of GDP. This could limit the government’s ability to expand admission capacity in universities and colleges, and to improve the quality of education where needed. Under this scenario, a growing number of pupils who are eligible for this support and have successfully passed the grades required to enter technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges or universities, may be turned away.

Hence, SA finds itself in a conundrum. The challenge is finding a balance between full financial support  for students — including accommodation, books, meals and tuition as the new national student financial aid scheme intends — on the one hand, and improving the quality of education delivered in tertiary institutions and their capacity to enroll more students, on the other.

The bottom line is to better balance the achievement of these three objectives: affordability, enrolment and quality of education, with limited fiscal resources. We know there is not a single country in the world that has managed this perfectly, but there are examples where SA could take inspiration. One direction is to refocus resources and attention towards technical education and combat the stigma that TVET colleges are for poor students or those who have received substandard schooling.

This is particularly important in the context of the digital economy, which calls for the digital skills for which TVET and community colleges are better positioned to supply.

In addition, encouraging greater participation of the private sector in the provision of education — either through partnerships with technical colleges or through the expansion of private tertiary education institutions — will increase overall admission capacity at a lower cost to the public purse.

However, in SA, like in many other parts of the world, the fear is that allowing the private sector to play a bigger role may not serve the public good as it could deliver expensive and irrelevant education. The world is full of these painful experiences, but it is also full of successful cases, when quality insurance controls are strengthened through financial incentives, including fees regulation and support to students is extended to those enrolled in private institutions.

Furthermore, greater competition between tertiary institutions and strengthened quality controls to all segments of the sector — that is, extended to public institutions as well — is a way of comprehensively improving the system. In this new setting, public institutions would be equipped to fare better, as they already benefit from high levels of autonomy in their decisions regarding student selection, teacher recruitment and curricula.

Everyone agrees that SA’s children deserve affordable, better quality education in general; and more importantly better quality tertiary education. We welcome steps announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his state of the nation address, in prioritising education, particularly early childhood development and the development of skills to achieve higher and more equitable growth, to draw young people into employment and prepare the country for the digital age.

I believe these steps and the comprehensive improvement of SA’s post-school education training system by strengthening the quality of education in TVET and community colleges, distance education institutions and historically disadvantaged universities, will go a long-way in delivering such a system.

• Noumba Um is World Bank country director for SA.