Friday, 23 October 2015

6 Steps to Free Education in South Africa ... & the Price of Failure

If education had been made free, at all levels in South Africa, early on in the post-1994 democratic dispensation, we would be reaping the benefits right now. We would not have the highest levels of inequality in the world and a schooling system that ranks second last in the world in mathematics. We would have a more agile and capable citizenry who are able to create and exploit opportunities more confidently and keenly. We would also have created a larger middle class, and significantly lowered the potential for socio-political instability in the country. Our drastic levels of inequality - the highest in the world - would be significantly less.

Instead, we wasted large amounts of taxpayers’ money on corrupt arms deals with spiralling costs, outdated and defunct energy infrastructure (Medupi and Khusile), enriched a small elite and entrenched inequality, and created a whole generation of useless BEE shareholders and tenderpreneurs who are incapable of contributing to the productive economy in a real and meaningful way. The Apartheid bureaucracies that the new, democratic government inherited proved to be the real winners, as they have ‘carried on regardless’ of the new political realities that have emerged with democracy. South Africa remains a police state, where indiscriminate force is used against democratic protesters, whether they are workers, communities or students. The systems of exploitation that existed under Apartheid still exists today, and that lies at the core of the continuation of the struggle today.

On the plus side, we have a whole new generation of youth who have now demonstrated that they are willing to take the fight to the doorsteps of the national institutions and government, even parliament. Soon, they will constitute the voting majority in the country, and their voices will be made even clearer.

The burning question today, however; is how do we free up the resources to make education free?

Over and over again, we hear the voices of outdated pragmatism stating that there simply aren’t enough funds to achieve this. However, one only needs to do a little bit of research to understand that there are many countries, some of them with even more drastic funding challenges, who have managed to provide free education in their countries. The issue is not about the extent of government funds; it is about how we administer funds.

It is also a matter of how capably our leaders are able to understand the future that is emerging and to innovate new offerings. It does not follow automatically that what worked in other countries will work in South Africa. Moreover, there are a range of opportunities that exist today to improve and free up education that did not exist even 15 years ago. A wise strategy for freeing up education in South Africa would look to exploit these emerging opportunity spaces as well as reallocate funds. It may be possible to reap considerable benefits from such a strategy, benefits that extend far beyond issuing qualifications.

So here are a few key steps that can be taken to free up funds, and overhaul the education system so that no child is denied a quality education:

1.       Transforming bloated bureaucracies: Institutional bureaucracies for education in South Africa dismally fail the people they service. Whether school-children whose textbooks do not arrive until half way through the year (if at all), or the bloated and inefficient systems at tertiary institutions are concerned, there is a clear and evident opportunity to overhaul the bureaucracies so that they work simply, efficiently and at minimal cost to users. One direct observation that I can make of universities is that they have not made good use of ICT to streamline their operations. Instead, they recreated electronic trails alongside paper trails and doubled the bureaucratic requirements, creating complex webs for simple tasks to be executed. This requires decisive leadership, systems experts and technocrats who are proven competence in reducing bureaucratic inefficiencies, while providing improved service at the same time. This is perhaps the simplest step that can be taken towards free up funding in the education systems in the country; it needs to directly target the administrations of institutions and organisations of education in South Africa.

2.       Harnessing innovations in education systems and technologies: There is ample room to harness innovations in systems and technology that contribute to education, so that the educational model that prevails – whether at school or tertiary education levels – can be made more broadly accessible, affordable and effective. Re-thinking how education is conducted, and harnessing innovations to achieve a revamped system, is a necessary and important step in the right direction. The current form in which education systems function is largely a continuation of outdated and defunct institutional and organisational education systems that have historically serviced elites. Distance learning, electronic learning and tutorials, interactive knowledge and information portals etc. have the potential to vastly transform the educational landscape and are doing so elsewhere in the world. The South African fear of innovation, and desperation to mirror Oxbridge styled institutions, is the main obstacle in this respect.  

3.       Community service: Paying back to communities and the country through public service (e.g. in education, civil engineering, social services etc.) is an employment creating strategy that can – at the same time – ensure that young graduates have secure employment after their education instead of large student loan debts, and can contribute to national priorities of government at the same time. This also has the potential to significantly improve our public service institutions and organisations by ensuring that fresh talent is regularly brought into these institutions, along with new skills, ideas, energy and potential for innovation. Instead of a being lumped with a student loan, students can move into civil service positions where they earn income, gain experience, and get the opportunity to build up savings, while paying back to the society that they belong to. This has the potential to significantly increase the relevance of the youth to society, and to curb selfish, individualist aspirations that are fuelled by the financial insecurity they experience in an uncaring system.

4.       Private sector involvement: Where private sector companies make substantial gains from educated members of society entering their workforce, a portion of their taxes can be allocated directly back into education systems. They can also become involved – and indeed many are – in directly funding efforts by educational institutions that either directly benefit their operations, or efforts that they feel are worthy of philanthropic support. A range of bursary, scholarship and internship programmes already exist, and these could be boosted through additional tax relief for such programmes. 

5.       Re-allocation of government funds: As a whole, however, the private sector cannot be expected to act as anything more than a gap-filler. Government needs to re-orient its priorities and restructure its budgets accordingly. Putting education before large global deals – such as the arms deal, the coal-fired power station deals and the nuclear power station deals – in response to public demand, is the responsibility of elected leaders. As a society, we should not accept that elected leaders negotiate developmental deals that fly in the face of what the citizenry considers as its highest priorities. Restructure the national budget to reflect the needs of the people. Spend a minimum of 2.5 per cent of GDP on education. Reducing government inefficiencies and wasted resources is key to this. 

6.       Harnessing opportunities in emerging sectors: The next wave of global technological innovation and economic growth is the green wave. Investment flows into green technologies (renewable energies in particular) far that going into conventional technologies and there is much room for establishing a strong national skills base by investing in training, education and internships in this sector. There are many global funds that could potentially be leveraged in this respect (e.g. Clinton Climate Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, carbon funding, as well as global banks and the new BRICs bank), to build a skills base that will enable the youth to participate and grow a new sector, as well as to vastly increase the national competencies and competitive leverage in the sector.

These are six simple steps that can be taken, in addition to others, to transform education in South Africa.

There is no equality without equal access to education. At the core of the struggle for socio-economic equality lies this simple, but critical truth. The potential of whole generations has been wasted due to this simple truth not being placed front and centre in the priorities of government and the state. It is a truth that my generation, who entered university just before 1994, were deeply concerned about. However, at the time the prevailing narrative was not trust our leaders and not to destabilise the fragile new democracy. We complied, and we regret it greatly. Neoliberal values set in, and many of my generation forsake the struggle for the sake of the desire for wealth instead of paying attention to what was unfolding in the new democracy. Quite clearly, that failure has come back to haunt us today, as the next generation have revived the struggle for freedom and equality.  

We paid for this apathy; the result was that most of my generation were saddled with student debt. In my case, my mother spent upwards of 16 years in exile as a member of the ANC’s military wing, so she has precious little financial security herself. My father’s pension went to funding my first degree. Years later, after giving 8 years of devoted service to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) due to a strong desire to contribute to “rebuilding the nation”, I too had to draw my pension to fund the final year of my PhD in 2009. 

I had secured funds internally to complete the final year of my PhD, but was told by the acting director at that time that “The CSIR is not in the business of producing PhDs!” He declared null and void the agreement I had with my main line manager (who supported me) to use the funds I had won to focus on writing up my PhD, away from the office. Instead, my acting director wanted me to focus on money-earning projects (this despite the conditions of my employment requiring me to do a PhD). My white colleagues were treated differently when they were engaged in PhD studies; granted permission to work from home. I wasn't asking for any favours, just the same privileges I had seen others enjoy. I saw the writing on the wall and quit. Without a PhD I had no future in my field, and would never enjoy the same status as my white colleagues no matter how hard I worked, or how much funds or awards I won. No exit interview was granted to me; I filled out a form and left, my dreams in tatters but my determination intact. 

I still don’t have financial security at the age of 41, and now have a wonderful 3 month old child to care for, whose future I fear for. I am blessed, however. I have a good career as a consultant, and work globally. My first book will be published by a UK publisher in January 2016. It is a book born of the reflections of living 20 years under apartheid and 20 years free. I have been made offers to join the ‘get-rich-quick’ BEE networks, but I searched my soul and decided to go my own way. I am contributing, in my small way, to building a future for humanity that I believe in.

I have rarely spoken of why I left my job to complete my studies, and have never written about it. I felt too alone in my fate, but the events of the past week have reminded me that I was never alone. I share this last personal note publicly as a message to the students who are marching on the Union Buildings today to confront the president. The price of failure is high; do not back down, do not give in. Don’t stop until you attain free education for all, for it is only that which can lead to equality and dignity for you, and for the generations to come. Without this victory, your empty hands and pockets will stay empty, and your children will face the same struggles that you, your parents and theirs before them did. It's time to break the cycle. I am so full of joy to be alive to witness your bravery, solidarity, compassion and resilience.

Aluta Continua!
#FeesMustFall #NationalShutDown


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