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.