Since the country’s post-Apartheid democratic transition in 1994, South Africa has spent between 5.8 and 6.3% of GDP on education, says Barry Vorster, PwC’s HR Technology and Culture leader.
“This expenditure was necessary to redress Apartheid inequalities in which the black and coloured majority received low-quality education in an under-resourced system, while the white minority benefited from a well-resourced, high-quality education,” he said.
However, despite the large expenditure, the country has not seen the envisaged economic returns, Vorster said.
“According to the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI), an average child born in South Africa today will not even reach half their productive potential which they could have if they had full health and education.
“Comparable middle-income countries spend less as a percentage of GDP, but consistently achieve much higher HCI.”
Overall, upskilling initiatives for South Africans to meet the requirements of the digital world will not move to the next level if education fundamentals are not strengthened, said Vorster.
“Despite great progress in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education and some innovations in basic education, such as introducing a coding subject, literacy tests show that 78% of South African learners ages 9 to 10 are not able to read for meaning.
“Spending millions in coding is ineffective when students lack basic literacy and maths skills.”
Poor academic achievement is in part the result of under-funding and poor quality of the education system, Vorster said.
He pointed to the fact that in 2018, 19% of public schools did not not have proper toilet facilities; 86% had no laboratory; 77% had no library; and 72% had no internet.
Furthermore, a 2014 study of teachers showed that 79% of Grade 6 mathematics teachers have a subject knowledge below the level they are currently teaching.
“Expenditure in education is high on paper, but in reality, much of the government’s education funding is lost due to mismanagement and malfeasance in public procurement processes,” he said.
“Formal on-the-job training has also been ineffective. By law, South African organisations allocate 1% of payroll to SETAs, yet their expenditure has had little effect on productivity or employment as they continue to offer training on current skills, not skills needed for the digital future.”
To really improve the quality of and access to education and training, a change in culture and behaviour is needed, not just funding, said Vorster.
“South Africa needs to build a nation-wide culture for upskilling, an endeavour in which organisations can play a key role.
“Every organisation should undertake robust workforce planning in which they seek to understand the impact of technology and automation on jobs in their industry and what this means for the skills needed by their workers in the future.”
Vorster said that the private sector can also provide funding, support and services toward scaling societal upskilling initiatives – there are examples of this from the telecommunication sector, which provides mobile data for online education and contributes to its own education platforms.
“On-the-job training is the main formal vehicle for people to continue acquiring skills after completing their education. That said, a great part of learning continues to be acquired informally from experience.
Wider solutions to skills and employment will need a holistic plan in South Africa that coordinates across sectors, said Vorster.
“The creation of good jobs arises when technological innovation is geared toward increased demand for workers.
“This does not happen naturally in a free market system but requires governments to fund education and research for new technologies, plan priority sectors of the economy, and put in place labour regulations that are both protective enough for workers and flexible enough for employers.”
The skills that we need
Studies and research into future skill needs for not only South Africa but also the world, also point to a focus on getting the basics and fundamentals right.
Local education group AdvTech says that it is no longer sufficient to focus purely on academics, and schools need to focus on developing skills which will provide learners with a strong foundation for the future.
A jobs survey conducted by the World Economic Forum in 2020 – taking into account the impact of Covid on global workplaces – found that many of the critical skills needed for the future have this strong foundation in mind.
Among the 10 critical skills, only two make a specific mention of technology – showing that core skills remain more of a priority than just knowing how to code.
- Analytical thinking and innovation;
- Active learning and learning strategies;
- Complex problem-solving;
- Critical thinking and analysis;
- Creativity, originality and initiative;
- Leadership and social influence;
- Technology use, monitoring and control;
- Technology design and programming;
- Resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility;
- Reasoning, problem-solving and ideation.
“As the world and companies move increasingly towards automation of a myriad of functions, traditional career paths continue falling by the wayside, which requires of educators to ensure their students are able to navigate that which lies ahead, rather than that which currently exists,” said AdvTech.
“This necessitates the development of skills which allow young people to navigate their environment intelligently, regardless of what that environment might look like,” it said.