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How we can get to a successful education system post-Covid

Social investment specialist Sibusiso Lukhele talks the inequalities of SA’s education infrastructure.

NOMPU SIZIBA: The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the inequalities in the South African education system, with the haves able to make a plan by moving to e-learning, while the have-nots have had to just wait until schools reopen, because they don’t have the means to afford the gadgets and technology needed to work online from home.

The exact same inequalities have evidenced themselves in the tertiary education sector as well. What can we learn from the Covid-19 exposure of these realities, and what needs to happen for the education system to produce better outcomes to furnish an ever-changing and demanding economy? Well, to share his thoughts with us, I’m joined on the line by Sibusiso Lukhele. He’s a social investment specialist at Tshikululu, which is South Africa’s largest social investment fund manager.

Thanks very much, Sibusiso, for joining us. Covid-19 has really laid bare some of the inequalities that we often take for granted in our society. I know you wrote a paper specifically on inequality in the tertiary sector, but it’s equally been true of the primary and secondary school sectors as well. Just take us through some of your observations on the impact of Covid-19 on the education system.

SIBUSISO LUKHELE: Well, as you rightly mentioned, it hasn’t only been in the tertiary sector where we see this inequality, but we’ve also seen it in the basic education space. One example that I can give you, which I think is very relevant is that I was in Soweto last week, just driving there to go drop off my daughter, and I saw a number of young people of school-going age who are most likely in school, playing in the streets and not participating in any form of online learning, or the learning that has been availed by TV or radio stations. Primarily 80% of the learners within the schooling system who live in townships and in rural areas generally attend quintile one to three schools. So those learners, since the lockdown commenced in March, have largely been out of school and not studying – not because of their own doing, but because they don’t have the resources to participate in online learning – while you find that 20% of learners who are in quintiles four and five schools or private schools, are continuing with their studies and have been writing exams.

So what are we seeing is just a widening gulf in inequality within our education system. Some of these learners are starting classes on June 8, as the Minister of Basic Education announced, and I think I noticed that all of them will return to school in August.

So you have leaners who would have missed five months of schooling, which essentially is going make it difficult for them to catch up in any way. The biggest problem within our education system is that some learners have really been left behind by the pandemic.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. And even when these kids do get back to school, because teachers are overwhelmed and overstretched, they can’t very well help with their catching up.

SIBUSISO LUKHELE: That’s true because, if you listened to the plan that the department has, it is that the curriculum is going to be cut. But cutting the curriculum doesn’t guarantee that next year, if we do resume normal schooling, teachers will be able to catch up some of the content that has been lost, the CF code. Experience and research have shown us that, even in a normal schooling calendar, the chance of all learners completing the curriculum on time doesn’t happen. So I think, even with everyone saying that they’re going to catch up the curriculum for this year, there is actually no guarantee that, even when we do return to schooling next year, what the learners have lost will actually be made up next year. There’s no evidence that that will happen. And again, that will just widen the inequality in the current education system.

NOMPU SIZIBA: We know that what are described as the “rich universities”, like Wits University and UCT, have ensured that poorer students are furnished with the necessary gadgets through NSFAS, and data as well to fulfil their tasks, as they won’t be going for contact learning for the rest of this year. But what’s been the experience of so-called poorer universities, like the University of Venda and Fort Hare, for example?

SIBUSISO LUKHELE: Those universities, unfortunately, because they don’t have the financial resources that a Wits or UCT or the University of Pretoria has, it means that, if you look at Wits, Wits started online learning on the April 20, UCT followed on the May 4. And then when you look at historically advantage to institutions, the Minister of Higher Education has given them until June 1 to recommence with online learning. It’s blended learning, because some of those institutions actually don’t have the online capabilities of a Wits or a UCT. So what you find is that what those universities are doing is that they are posting some of the material to the students. So, even for those students in historically disadvantaged institutions, you’re finding that they’re not actually able to meaningfully participate in online learning at the moment because they don’t have the resources that the other universities have.

And also what you find, not only with students who at historically disadvantaged institutions, is that the student at a Wits at UCT or UP, is that a lot of students from those universities are actually from rural areas or from townships. What you’re finding is that some of the students are also struggling to connect to online learning, because there’s no connectivity either in the townships where they live or in the rural areas where they live.

So yes, we are seeing inequalities among the universities, but we also see inequalities within the universities that have resulted because of Covid-19.

NOMPU SIZIBA: The picture you paint is pretty much a nightmare situation. This has to serve as a wake-up call for the government about how it deals with education in the future. What do you see as some of the solutions needed to ensure that, going forward, no student is left behind?

SIBUSISO LUKHELE: I think in coming up with solutions, one thing that you have to be careful of is that we can’t rush coming up with solutions, because the pandemic is still unfolding and it’s changing every day. It’ll change every week going forward, and every month. So I think you just need to realise that, yes, we do have a crisis within our education sector. But in addressing this crisis, we don’t need to rush into it and try and come up with solutions.

I think at the moment we need to see what’s not working in our post-schooling sector, because we speak about universities. There’s also a big problem with the TVET [Technical and Vocational Education and Training] colleges. So how do we reimagine this whole higher education sector – from the universities to the TVET sectors?

If you look at some of the degrees that the universities offer, which of those degrees can actually be taught online? How do you develop the systems within all the 26 universities and all the 50 TVET colleges so that all of them are able to offer quality education going forward? I think one of the things is that it can’t be done by universities only. It can’t be done by government only. We also need the private sector to come in and assist in addressing the challenges and come up with innovative solutions, because that’s what the private sector does best.

So it’ll have to be a public-private partnership that we implement going forward. How do we have functional TVET colleges, because there are so many opportunities for young people at TVET colleges. We have a critical shortage of artisans within the country, and that’s one thing that the TVET colleges can actually help us to address.

So how do we improve the quality of education within TVET colleges so that a lot of the young people who are completing basic education can actually enrol in those TVET colleges and help the country to resolve some of the critical skill shortages that we have in the country.

NOMPU SIZIBA: You’re asking these very interesting questions but, of course, this is the space that you work in – the social investment space. You work with the private sector. What sort of interventions have you actually been involved with, or observed happening in terms of trying to address some of our educational gaps?

SIBUSISO LUKHELE: As I mentioned, the private sector has strong innovation skills. So we’ve actually used that with some of our clients with universities funding students. So with a lot of our clients who fund students at universities, one of the big things that they’ve done is that all of their students have access to laptops. So, while a lot of students currently in the sector don’t have laptops – I know that the departments and the universities are scrambling to get laptops to those students – what our clients have done is that they have ensured that each and every student of theirs, when they start university in first year, has a laptop. And that helps because the quicker those students get the digital skills that they need, [the better] they’re able to succeed in their studies.

One of our clients is partnering a programme in one of the TVET colleges in Mpumalanga. They’ve partnered with a private TVET college and partnered them with a public TVET college in Mpumalanga. So there’s a transfer of skills between the private and the public. There are still a few learners that we’ll be working with over the next three years. And then the aim is that, with the required support, both learners will actually be able to complete their qualifications at the TVET college. And then, afterwards, they’ll can be employed in a particular sector. But, more importantly, they will be given entrepreneurship skills so one day they can have their own businesses.

NOMPU SIZIBA: One of the issues you’ve also talked about in reinforcing learning in communities is for municipalities to invest more in better equipped libraries. Tell us more about that.

SIBUSISO LUKHELE: What we are finding now, with a lot of students being at home, is that because of the environments that the students stay in, either in a rural area or in townships, primarily they’re not the only person at home. There are quite a lot of students actually staying in overcrowded areas. A lot of municipalities actually have community-based libraries. So, in order for online learning to be effective one day, these community-based libraries will have to be equipped with Wi-Financial, so that when the students want to go and study, there’s no issue of connectivity because the library will already be connected with Wi-Fi. Then they can participate meaningfully in online learning.

So municipalities, as well, will have to be roped in when online learning is rolled out, so students can have a good environment where they can study effectively.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Our thanks to Sibusiso Lukhele.

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