Education: beyond slogans and hashtags

The missing link in getting real value from education.

SWELLENDAM – There were two Koreans in the class of 1983 of the Senior Management Development programme at the Oxford Centre for management studies (now called Templeton College). They were severely disadvantaged because one could manage only a few English sentences, and the other hardly understood the language at all.

They would record every word of every lecture and with the help of an interpreter back home, work through the material for hours after class. In effect, they were spending twice the time on lectures as their classmates did. Yet, they soldiered on for months, helping each other in a camaraderie typical of those determined to achieve a common goal. As if that was not enough, they would constantly question their fellow classmates who hailed from various countries, again recording every word and throwing that into the mix of information they would work through at night. It was as if they were hopelessly addicted to knowledge.

These two were a perfect reflection of a nation determined to succeed – one that clearly saw education and knowledge as the key ingredient. They epitomised the superhuman work ethic that Koreans were known for, and I finally got to understand what was behind the Korean economic miracle.

Of course there were many other factors that contributed to that miracle, not the least of which was the conversion within one generation and with massive US funding, of a mostly agrarian society at the end of the Korean War in 1953 into a largely industrialised state. With that came huge investment in education and training. Then there was cultural cohesiveness, galvanised by the constant threat of an aggressive northern neighbour. Above all, like Germany and Japan after WWII, they were a society devoid of any sense of entitlement; one with low individual expectations and high aspirations. The perfect recipe for success.

It is that recipe that South Africa would do well to consider seriously in its current agonising about education, particularly accessibility to higher education. The student unrest of recent times has sharpened the focus on this undeniably critical issue but has also created some blind spots that we may ignore at our peril.

Much has been said about affordability, and funding will no doubt be central to the debate in the foreseeable future. The issue of whether we can afford “free” or at the very least low cost access to higher education, can easily be answered with the question of whether we can afford not to. Education as part of state expenditure should be reassessed to be viewed in the same light as infrastructural and not current expenditure – because the benefits of skilled and productive labour are felt some years later.

This makes the expectation by Higher Education and Training Minister, Blade Nzimande, of greater private sector involvement in meeting these costs disingenuous and a deflection of accountability. Apart from the fact that the various forms of government and state-owned enterprises are the largest employers in South Africa, what benefits the private sector ultimately also benefits the government.

While matriculants are writing their final exams, we should be reminded that access to higher education is the smallest part of wasted potential. This loss is far greater at secondary level, and even more at primary level. Funding for education generally is not the primary issue; we have one of the highest proportions in the world of budget allocations to education. Dismal returns on that investment are the real issue.

But at the outset, we have to explode the myth that education on its own will promote growth. All it can do is remove skills shortages as an impediment to growth. The same can be said of capital: availability on its own will not promote growth, only remove an impediment to growth.

Certificates are never proof of competence. We have an obsession with diplomas and certificates in South Africa as an end in itself and not a means to an end; to the point of risking fraudulent claims at the highest levels and irrespective of subjects covered. There is an assumption that the certificate alone is the final decider of the holder’s destiny. Yet low economic growth and a global trend towards lower labour participation have led to a relatively new problem of graduate unemployment.

The latest quarterly labour bulletin puts graduate unemployment at about 9%. It is a moot point whether this will not increase further as the supply of graduates increases. In some emerging economies, such as China and India where there has been much emphasis on higher learning, graduate unemployment has been estimated at about 30%. In many developed countries such as Europe and North America, graduate unemployment at about 7.5% is often higher than the general unemployment rates. These figures increase significantly for youth unemployment.

As an analysis by economist Mike Schussler shows, education is needed for economic growth, but on its own does little to promote growth. He points out that there has been a significant increase since 2002 in the number of adults with matric or more, yet there has been no notable increase in economic growth.

All of this points to an urgent need to introduce a touch of realism in student expectations and to counter the display of entitlement, supported no doubt by lofty aspirations entrenched in the constitution and political rhetoric. The ultimate victims will not be those who made the promises, but those who expected them to be met. It has become fashionable and arguably very counter-productive, to shame into silence those who use terms such as ‘entitlement’ and ‘unrealistic expectations’, with responses such as ‘trans-generational privilege’ and ‘legacies of the past’. Whatever the merits of those responses are, there is no greater destroyer of self-accountability than finding someone or something else to blame.

The often argued “mismatch” between subjects covered and skills required in the workplace is, in my view, also exaggerated. All knowledge should be empowering and indeed apart from highly technical and specialised fields, many find theoretical knowledge obtained in academic pursuits of limited value in practical application. Witness too the number of self-made men and women with either limited or irrelevant academic achievements.

If students apply the same fortitude to self-help as they did in their protests they will be assured of a much brighter future. There are three main components to self-fulfillment: academic qualifications; skills and experience, and willingness and self-accountability. It is the latter that defines us and has by far the greatest effect on our destiny. It is the ultimate determinant of success. It is also an essential component of entrepreneurship.

Shame on those who blunt that in our youth for popular appeal and political expediency. Even greater shame on those who fall for it.


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Jerry, a good article as always. Also, I am jealous of your place of residence – too late to keep it a secret, unfortunately.

I however do have to take issue with this statement:
“The often argued “mismatch” between subjects covered and skills required in the workplace is, in my view, also exaggerated.”

Please humour me and do the following:
Go to the Department of Basic Education’s website. It is educationdotgovdotza.
In the column on the left, hover your mouse over the third item from the top: “Documents Library” and click on the first item: “Reports”.
The second section on the list of reports is: “Assessment / Examination Reports”
Click on the latest ANA report: ”Annual National Assessment 2014: Report on the ANA of 2014” – it is about the twelfth document from the top.

The significance of this document is the following:
It provides a snapshot of the overall outcomes achieved in SA’s basic education system.
It tells us how learners perform at grade 9 level, at the end of the phase when everyone has supposedly been following the same curriculum, and before they select subjects to “specialise” in. Or more accurately, pick the easiest subjects that will enable them to just pass matric.

The data relates to the most recent three years (2012, 2013 and 2014 in this case).
Go to table 4.23 on page 61 (63 in the pdf). The average score, countrywide, for grade 9 maths is 11%. No, this is not a typo, it really is eleven percent. In Limpopo Province it is only 6%.
Now go to table 4.41 on page 71 (73 in the pdf). The percentage of learners who achieve 50% and more for grade 9 maths is 2,9% In Limpopo Province, it is less than 1%. All professionals and white collar workers in the country will have to come from that three percent.

Also note that the ANA report makes the (grossly mistaken) assumption that a score of 50% or above would be “adequate achievement” in any subject, including mathematics.
My own (contrary) assumption is that if one achieves only 50% for grade 9 maths, any meaningful career whatsoever will forever remain beyond one’s grasp.

Those grade 9’s from 2012 are writing matric as we speak and the 2013 and 2014 grade 9’s will be the 2016 and 2017 matriculants. So the one thing we can predict with absolute certainty, is that more than 90% of all those matriculants are going to be very disillusioned and hungry once they have left school. Arab (EFF?) Spring, anyone?

Which brings us back to the statement that I quoted from your article. I don’t care what profession or vocation we are discussing – even ones where maths supposedly does not play any discernible role. People without the most basic numerical skills are unable to function in a workplace. Or in life, for that matter. Our education system is producing almost exclusively such deficient products.


“Super” doesn’t do it justice, it was so good I had to read it twice.
Splendid work Jerry.


Holy Jeepers, can you imagine what the average scores would be if we had a functional education system ?
Given that our standard of education bar is as low as can be, these ‘difficult’ subject would’ve been done away with by now.

I say or type this with caution and sensitivity, Jerry and many many other authors have avoided saying this, (though Marc Ashton has cautiously dabbled in this topic) but it is something that needs to be said…
Maybe folks, just maybe, it’s high time we all acknowledge and own-up to the fact that ours is a country abundantly blessed with not-so-smart (or smart-in-a-different-way) people for whom conventional education is not suited.

Our standard of education has gone to the doldrums to accommodate as many people as possible, and now it has come back to bite us in the ‘you-know-what’
How long will this be allowed to continue ?
We all continuously lament our standard of education, but we all know that, improving it will result in less people getting educated, so guava-ment is and will remain stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Alternatives to conventional schooling, anyone ?
Or maybe an integration of more alternatives into the current system, maybe an overhaul of what is Grade 9 onwards ?
Someone out there has ideas…..

One would need to be honest and be able to be honest to answer the last part of your post.
We live in an age and a world where coming out and stating that some ways of doing things and somre professions etc suit some people better than others could lead to you being villified and called all manner of x-ist.
My suggestion would be to identify which students ar better at some things than others and guide them to focus on that. I am in finance/assurance. Because I love it and because I am good at it. I am not an electrician or mechanic or fitt because I am not good at it, even though I believe that trades will alwasy be needed and if you have some business savvy you should be able to make a ridiculous success of it.
How to go about doing this is tricky of course. Many people don’t know what they want to do or what they love but if the kid can’t do maths or hates attending the class but loves metalworking for example why not encourage him to follow that path?

I have suggested on other posts as part of suggestions to fix the country to bring back conscription. If the troep has no reasonable varsity prospects have them do 1 year basic followed by 1 year skills training – electric, plumbing, fitters, mechanicshell even cooking or cutting hair if that is what it comes down to. Then get companies to sponsor, provide bursaries, post conscription employment to these men and women instead of paying Cyrill and co to sit on their boards to have the right certificate on the wall.

“How long will this be allowed to continue ?” Until such time as we rid ourselves of a communist approach to education – Nzimande being a prime example. He simply wants to dumb down education to the lowest common denominator. No-one must be “better” at anything than anyone else. His dismissive comments are indefensible. He must know better but prefers to put the commie spin on it. What for – hasn’t the “success” of communism dawned on him?


Sorry, this writer is equally as clueless as the gubbermunt.

Firstly, we don’t have a separate “educational problem” sitting in its own silo. And that can be somehow fixed in isolation separately in this silo.

Same story with the “crime problem” in its silo. And the “jobs problem”.

They are ALL symptoms of the SAME problem. And that is the problem that no black “leader” wants to admit to.

The education problem, the crime problem, and the jobs problem (the list is actually much longer – health, farming etc) is really just a black problem.

The Indians don’t have these problems. Nor the Whites. Nor the Chinese. Nor the Martians.

Why so?

It’s because these problems arise from – and are directly due to – the culture within the black community. In these communities, children are raised without proper parenting. Motherhood often begins at too-early an age in a girl’s teens. The father is usually nowhere to be seen afterwards. These young mothers are hopelessly ill-prepared to bring up their children – emotionally immature, financially distressed, and without proper leadership or assistance from an extended family that possesses REAL parenting and family-building skills, the results are a foregone conclusion.

The real strength of a good educational system is NOT the teachers or the schools. It is a dedicated mother AND father who sit their toddler on their laps and read to them, and instill a love of books and reading in their children.

Teachers and schools may teach kids to read, but LOVING to read comes FIRST from the parents – not the schools. Teachers only re-inforce this love – they can’t create it if it is not regarded as important in the home.

Contrary to popular belief, being able to read won’t get you very far. But if the pupil LOVES to read – THEN there is no stopping their further education. Think of Zuma and his cabinet. They can all read. But the clever, able ones are the few that actually ENJOY reading. Going through a stack of reports – and properly understanding what they have read – is no problem for them. For those that struggle to read, like Zuma, this becomes an immediate problem they would rather avoid, and so they fall behind.

Most (not all !) of the children born under these impoverished circumstances are not clever, and struggle to get through school.

In adolescence, the boys start spinning out of control and quickly fall into gangs and bad friends and worse habits. With no father to help the mother discipline boys, criminality quickly develops. The jails are full of, and the streets are teeming with young males who have become dangerous to society because their fathers absconded from their parenting responsibilities.

No education or school system or “jobs” can fix this problem.

This is a SOCIAL / CULTURAL problem that arises from deep entrenched attitudes of how to raise children.

The secret of white success (and Chinese and Indian, and the Martians too!) lies in having small, close-knit, loving families.

Look at ANY community – rich or poor, advantaged or disadvantaged – and you will quickly see that the most successful members are most often (not always, but definitely mostly) those from a strong family background.

And the converse is equally true!

My point is that the solution to SA’s problems lies in promoting – and actively rewarding – small cohesive families.

“Education” is not the first thing we should get right. It is the second priority – AFTER the family. Get the family right first, and they will take care of education. And everything else will follow naturally.

That was the secret to Singapore’s success. Now they are the most highly educated nation on the planet.

And cut out Manuel’s dangerous hare-brained schemes for incentivizing stupid young girls to get pregnant “so they can get a grant”.

Manuel has done UNTOLD damage to this country with this stupid scheme.

Agree with most comments mentioned. Education is and always will be a pursuit of knowledge which commences at a cultural, social and need to know basis. (survival, intellectual inquisitiveness and inventiveness and economic realities etc). Far too many blacks in this country and on this continent have never been inspired by great black philosophers authors, inventors etc. History shows Africa has was lack intellectual capabilities. This needs to change fast and it is up to black leaders like Obama to inspire blacks to achieve and reach their potential. Too many black icons are either sporting, political (good and bad) or entertainment aficionados . There is an apparent lack of black professionals like doctors, engineers and scientists – to name a few to help inspire the next generation/s to come. Stop aggressive protesting and start with aggressive learning! This is how you change your life and shape the world around you.

End of comments.



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