The numbers tell the story: of every 100 SA learners, 60 will sit their matric exams, 37 will pass, 12 will go to university, and only six will complete their undergraduate studies within six years.
In business, this would be considered a hopeless return on investment. And it gets worse. About 45% of the workforce have skills unsuited to the jobs they are doing. The six students who do graduate enter a world where a quarter of the current jobs won’t exist in a few years — replaced by ones we can’t yet imagine.
There is only one conclusion: SA higher education is failing the people. The situation is aggravated further by the twin stresses of Covid-19 and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).
How do we change it? Not in the traditional way. For though the higher education sector has good people, the procedures, innovation and evolution of traditional institutions — universities and colleges — are too slow to adapt.
At my business school, the average age of MBA students is 41. They are business leaders and managers, yet many haven’t followed the traditional student route. They were denied higher education for a variety of reasons, including cost, age, lack of educational qualifications and the need to financially support their families.
A country the size of SA, with the worst income and wealth disparity in the world, needs only three internationally rated research universities. The rest should be developing the kind of people we need to work in and grow the economy. But our academic agenda doesn’t cater for that.
The world has changed. We need to constantly unlearn and relearn. It’s not enough to study once and qualify. We have to keep learning, all our lives.
A university must balance its role to support reason, philosophical openness and pure, independent inquiry, with a more pragmatic role of creating social mobility, transforming lives, building prosperity.
We haven’t found this balance in SA. We have neither enough high-level research nor an increase in wellbeing. We obsess with quality, but it’s pace we need.
We have to create an alternative educational system that will rescue people by ensuring that no-one is denied a quality education that gives them not just a job, but a better future. Now is the time to follow countries that live this reality, such as Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland — even Russia and China. They use technical and vocational education and training (TVET) for the national interest.
If we follow international best practice, we have to diversify the post-school education and training model away from one that is mostly government funded and university-centric, to one that encourages private sector participation, mobilises resources and aligns to the actual needs of the economy.
Today, technology and innovation allow us to do that for everyone — affordably. We just need the Wifi.
Beyond formal education
At Henley, we try to rescue those the system has excluded by creating a ladder of learning that takes candidates from post-matric all the way to the equivalent of a university degree, studying at their own pace and earning while they learn. We have to take appropriate education to people. Without it, and the skills it brings, there is no building of national prosperity or escape from poverty.
It’s not enough to study once and qualify. We have to keep learning, all our lives
First, though, we have to break out of the mental jail that tells us only our formal educational system can deliver what we need. The statistics show us it can’t. It’s not delivering adequate public or private good.
SA’s clone of the Western education and university system is out of step with our needs. It’s not sacred and it’s not an asset unless it’s delivering. It’s time to evolve universities for our needs, repurpose the TVET system, and release and invigorate the online digital system.
We carry on as we do because we don’t trust ourselves to be brave enough to change. We have to decolonise education, not just racially but also intellectually. We also need to de-columnise campuses, by replacing grand academic colosseums with a vibrant, smart network of decentralised partners keen to experiment and celebrate fast, marginal improvements that, combined, build national capacity for an economy that needs skills that are radical and complex.
The state can use the existing network of 50 TVET colleges, with their R8bn annual budget. Or it can ask those partners that have the knowledge. Together, they can find the means. But between unemployment, Covid-19 and 4IR, we don’t have much time.
- Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa