Education is profoundly political, and behind politics there is always economics. in South Africa, and throughout the world, herein lies the paradox. Good education creates skills, makes people employable, creating at very least a less unequal society. At its best, it creates middle class societies where the income gap narrows considerably. Poor education creates the opposite. in our case we have an economy where the vast majority of people are badly educated, with limited to no prospects of employability
the recent events in the ongoing ‘fees must fall’ protests at South African universities are but a very public reminder of the ongoing crisis in education in South Africa—which is itself a reflection of a continental and global problem. this entails not just fees, but also the nature of education itself and contributes to the growth of disturbing political trends, namely xenophobic populism and nationalism. Above all, the focus of the ‘fallists’ is slightly off: the education crisis starts at kindergarten. the recent United States elections is informative. (other examples abound, but i use it as a case study because, to paraphrase an old saying, when the US gets a cold the world contracts bronchitis). Despite narrowly losing the popular vote, right-wing populist Donald trump won the election that played on prejudices, anger, fear and confusion of mainly white working-class voters. He did not win on policies—to call them half-baked would be generous. noticeable to me was the geography of voting: on the highly-educated, middle and upper middle class coasts of continental USA he was soundly beaten. in the poorer and less well-educated centre and south (especially the fundamentalist bible belt), he was successful. Populism appeals to the latter—simple (actually, simplistic) solutions, the politics of blame and hostility. it worked. Here in South Africa, the ‘fees must fall’ movement represents a somewhat different aspect of the problem of education. there were genuine issues—massive levels of poverty blocking both access to tertiary education and the ability of poor students to continue their studies; the mismanaged and inadequate nSfAS, the state student assistance programme, tainted as the whole state is by massive levels of corruption. once again, however, the campaign with its simplistic demands were—are—based on a wholly unrealistic and, using current models of doing things and the broader economic prospect, unrealisable reasoning. one can only conclude that those leading the challenge are either naïve or see behind it a broader populist political programme.
GOOD EDUCATION FOR ALL
Let me be quite clear. free universal tertiary education, excluding no-one on the grounds of poverty, should be our long-term goal not just in South Africa but in the whole world. A well-educated humanity, not simply in ‘employable’ skills but in humanities, political science and above all critical thinking is essential. People with good education see through the nonsense of religious fundamentalists of every type, the blather of pseudoscience (not least that of climate change denialists) and the rhetoric of populist politicians. Well-educated people see the logic of the common good (including as Pope francis has recently reminded the environmental common good), while the uneducated see things only from the perspective of survivalism—and this excellent free education needs to start in kindergarten.
We must, however, never forget that education is profoundly political, and behind politics there is always economics. in South Africa, and throughout the world, herein lies the paradox. Good education creates skills, makes people employable, creating at very least a less unequal society. At its best it creates middle class societies where the income gap narrows considerably. Poor education creates the opposite. in our case, we have an economy where the vast majority of people are badly educated, with limited to no prospects of employability. this in turn means a small section of the population provide a tax base for the country, which means more limited state opportunities to provide better education, which means…
I think you see my point: poor education weakens the economy, which reduces the prospect for generating education opportunities that traps millions in a cycle of poverty. this is further exacerbated by mismanagement (the result of poor education) and corruption, the latter wasting— stealing—public resources that could be put into education.there is a cynical political logic to it: keep people poor, make them dependent on state hand-outs (patronage) and so keep them voting for you, and play a populist, nationalist, xenophobic ‘blame’ line to them to keep them on your side.
Everybody wants to have a higher education, but the big investment must be made at kindergarten level, where the brain begins to be shaped.
NO SHAME IN TECHNICAL SKILLS
Unfortunately, this logic wears thin quickly. moreover, others can play this line: new populist opposition parties and movements like ‘fees must fall’ can arise, using the same tactics and making inroads into the same constituency. this is true of Zuma’s South Africa and trump’s United States.
What then needs to be done about education? the education system must be overhauled. by this i do not mean spending billions on commissions and white papers and other things beloved of bureaucrats and education theorists the world over. Curricula must be implemented. this means that teachers must teach and students must study. teachers must do their job, get to school on time, and teach. State obsession with lesson plans must always be secondary to getting good results. teachers unions must not be allowed to hijack education (as they do in many countries): teachers are public servants (even in private schools) who serve the common good.
Naturally they must be well rewarded; excellent results should be incentivised. bad teachers, especially absentees, child abusers and those who arrive to class drunk, should simply be fired and legal action taken against them. they should not be protected by their unions. Parents must also take responsibility for their children’s education—not, as we’ve seen in some school boards in the United States, by determining what their children learn or don’t learn according to some conservative religious or cultural agenda, but by seeing that their children do their job: learning. Parents are the first line of discipline. they should cultivate self-discipline in their children, including the discipline of study.
What students learn must obviously be negotiated between all stakeholders, but should be driven by criteria like best available knowledge, what will make children employable and will give them the critical skills to negotiate life as global citizens in this century. Above all students need to be taught problem-solving and critical thinking: i think the french got it right when they introduced philosophy as a school subject. Something like it—perhaps a general social sciences course—should be mandatory in all schools, academic and vocational. this brings me to another key point. At both school and tertiary level, we need to expand technical education. there is no shame in being a master of a trade that pays a decent wage, puts food on the table and contributes to the social good. Conversely, what good is their having a commerce or law degree and unemployed due to a glut on business graduates and lawyers on the market?
UNIVERSAL EDUCATION AS A TARGET
But what, you might ask, of the cost? this is undoubtedly true. the key here is gradualism: as we improve education and employability, we grow the economy and expand the tax base that increases the possibility of more, better and cheaper education—the dream of free universal education starts to form. the only way i see it here, leaving aside possible public-private co-operative schemes to ease the crisis in tertiary education in the interim, is to rigorously and intelligently use our existing state resources in education. this means jacking up efficiency—and firing those who are either incompetent or obscurantist. incentivise good results, punish inefficiency. Don’t waste energy on commissions and theorising—put it into getting results.
(not inflated nonsense results as we’ve done to plaster over cracks in the past, let me add). Clamp down on corruption in education at every level. extend this throughout the state system: imagine how many schoolbooks could be bought if public money wasted on politicians’ house renovations was redirected to where it is needed? let me repeat myself: the ‘fees must fall’ folks, and similar movements around the world, have a point, even if it’s presently an impossible dream—but such measures outlined above, at all levels of education, are doable. the question of course is whether the powers that be will let it happen.
My contention, and it is true for South Africa, the United States, britain and france (which seems set to elect another right-wing populist government in 2017), is whether the powers that be want it to happen. With an educated populace, the populists’ hold weakens. it’s not in their interests to improve education. once again, i return to the ‘fallists’ of South Africa. Perhaps the locus of their activity should move from the universities to state and provincial education departments and to Parliament.