Does Census 2011 tell the full story?

Daniel Ackerman.
According to Census 2011, the state of education is in an upward arc towards a greater number of pupils in education institutions, a greater number of pupils passing through the education system, and a greater number of tertiary applicants. Although, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of persons who have completed secondary or higher education, this figure is purely a quantitative one, with no indication as to the quality of that education.

With as much as 28.9% of the population aged between 15 and 34 years, the importance of education cannot be understated. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Country Report 2010 for South Africa states: “An educated population remains the fundamental platform for meeting most of the other MDGs”.

The Census figures deal with the educational levels achieved by those over 20 years old. To assess how this translates into current statistics, one can have regard to the most recent figures to emerge from the MDG Country Report 2010 for South Africa. It affirms that in 2009, 98.8% of the primary education aged population was enrolled in educational institutions. The gross enrolment rate for secondary schools increased from 74% to 92% between 1994 and 2008.This increase can be attributed to a greater reach in education institutions for all racial groups. University enrolments increased by as much 50% of their 1994 enrolment figure to around 759 093 in 2007.

Despite the increase in enrolment, if one focuses on mathematics and science, two of the most vital subjects for an industrialised and successful economy, the results are worrisome.
In 2009 only 45.9% of the students writing mathematics and 36.8% of those writing science passed. Fewer than half of the 2011 Grade 12 students wrote mathematics last year, with only half of those candidates achieving the 30% pass rate.

These abilities can transform the labour force but the present low success rate impacts negatively on the country’s economic growth. Greater mathematics achievements result in a greater number of science-orientated degrees, which is a requirement to transform the country into a technically advanced nation.

Mamphela Ramphele is a vocal critic of the South African education system. For Ramphele, the descending pass rate to achieve a Grade 12 pass of 30% is “politically based and degrading” to the education standards. She went further to voice the fact that the pass rate was consigning thousands to a life without the possibility of further education or employment. This minimal pass rate is a further indication of an education system more concerned with showing increasing numbers than increasing abilities.

Notwithstanding being the biggest and most advanced economy on the continent, South Africa has a much lower proportion of university attendance – when compared to other middle-income countries. Only 16.7% attend university in South Africa. Employers express frustration that university graduates are largely “unemployable”. The 18 – 24 year olds pose the biggest concern for South African education and economic development. The private sector in South Africa in 2012 had up to 800 000 vacancies for suitable applicants. However, with as many as 70% of the young population having no qualifications at all, the employment sector has few options.

To assess this lack of quality education in South Africa, one can look to the South Korean model for comparison. South Korea similarly emerged from oppression by the Japanese.  South Korea’s Park Chung-Hee’s approach to education and economic growth propelled South Korea towards being one of the most powerful economies in the world.  The country aligned itself with the notion of “Confucianism”, which pits education as being more vital than wealth and believes that only educated and moral individuals should be placed within the governing body of a state.  Vitally important in South Korea, was the attitude towards education by parents of South Korean children, who believed that only through education will their children have future social success. South Koreans regard education as the most reliable indicator of high status. South Africa, unfortunately, does not share the same obsession with education. Role models are not the educated but the “tenderpreneurs” and connected, quite contrary to the South Korean and Confucian model.

In the 14 years of Park Chung-Hee’s regime, the importance of education and the emphasis placed upon education by the government was overwhelmingly successful. However, despite the immense increases in the quantity of students in the educational system, there were also strategies in place to increase the quality of education. Political and social stability were heightened by job creation and the establishment of educational institutions that allowed learners to develop skills that the country needed. Teachers received improved training and the profession became highly attractive for empowerment.

In the 2010 World Economic Forum rankings for education, South Africa placed 130 out of 139 countries, and 137 out of 139 in science and mathematics, in comparison to South Korea being ranked 25th for mathematics and 17th for science. Overall, South Korea is ranked 24th in the Global Competitiveness Report for 2011 – 2012, whereas South Africa is ranked 50th. Thus, one can clearly see how, through the power of quality education and a societal self-respect for education, a country can emerge from oppression into a flourishing economy.

In order for our society to grow successfully, and develop into becoming the rightful hegemonic economy in Africa, our education system needs to be more focused on quality, as literacy, mathematics and science are vital to industrialisation.

South Africa is a special and determined country. We have overcome a history that has made us a beacon of hope to others across the globe. Our education system cannot be allowed to fail us, as we have fought for the quality of life and the quality of education that we deserve.

Daniel Ackerman is completing his honours degree in International Relations at Wits University and has written a thesis on the Millennium Development Goals, focusing on education.