Picture: 123RF/VITEE THUMB
Picture: 123RF/VITEE THUMB

Sixty-eight percent of South Africans believe the country’s education system is failing them. This is one result from the recent Pearson Global Learner Survey that all South Africans should take to heart. If we want to drive our economy forward, and promote sustainable growth, does it not make sense to start with education?

There are a number of factors that contribute to this perception of failure, and it starts at the top.

Access to tertiary education is dismal

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 7% of South Africans have access to tertiary education. To put it into perspective, the global OECD average sits at about 43%. At 7%, if you put all South Africans in a line, you would have to walk past 5,000 people before you encountered someone with a tertiary qualification of any kind. This is one of the lowest rates in the world and we should be more than concerned.

On the other hand, SA is actually leading the world in secondary education attainment. We can pat ourselves on the back all we want, but if these learners are not being filtered up to a tertiary level, we lose.

We actually have a surplus of people ready to take the next step, but they are blocked from doing so. Bragging about our secondary education attainment numbers is futile as it contributes little to our economic growth. If we don’t invest more in tertiary education and give people the skills that the economy desperately needs, there can be no hope for future growth.

Education is inconsistent

SA education is interesting. We have pockets of excellence with vast swathes of poor performance. This ties to our historic disparity with private institutions being largely inaccessible to the masses, which leads to the availability of both the best and the worst education in this country.

From a quantitative standpoint, we perform badly when compared to our neighbours let alone the rest of the world. SA truly needs to up its education game and alter its priorities when measuring success because the quality students are receiving isn’t good enough for prestigious universities.

On the subject of prestige, our tertiary institutions are not all valued equally. Prestige has become blinders on the eyes of progress for many students. Can you name one Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) college? I bet you can name at least 10 universities, though. Why? Because they have prestige.

How can anyone apply to TVET if nobody knows about them? We conveniently forget that students who go to these institutions actually get jobs because we need the skills they develop. South Africans are too drawn to traditional institutions to study traditional degrees where only 30% of them pass and struggle to find employment.

Putting academics over employability

In SA, you can be a qualified engineer or lawyer and still struggle to find employment. Our students are simply not taught how to find jobs. They can write a CV, but that is usually where it ends.

While a degree might get a foot in the door, hiring managers want to know two things: how employees are going to make them money and how they are going to save them money. If a student is not prepared by its institution to answer these questions, why would they get hired?

Theory needs to be connected with skills that will put cash in the pockets of students, whether through entrepreneurship or in a position at a company.

Our institutions are stuck in the past

SA’s universities have one unmovable problem: there are too many heads of department who are both ageing and have no hands-on knowledge of the very industries they are seeding. Higher education is stuffed with the wrong people from the wrong age and it is going to take too many years to work them out of the system.

This archaic academic immovability will always leave our universities lagging behind instead of being ahead of the curve. It would almost be better to simply build new universities filled with younger, more entrepreneurially minded faculties that have a direct connection to their students’ economic success.

Where should we focus our efforts?

It would be remiss of me to list my complaints without offering some sort of solution. While there is no quick fix, if we could re-insert higher standards into our education system, invest more in tertiary education, establish purposeful and applicable curriculums, and train a new breed of teachers with a new breed of teacher’s salary — only then can we hope to start fixing the perceived failure of our education system.

Dr Thwala is academic director at Pearson Institute for Higher Education.