Monday, October 17, 2016

Why the revolution?

Many university students in South Africa are rising up and trashing their places of education with all the zeal of those who conducted the Soweto uprising 40 years ago.  Back then, students were objecting to the unilateral imposition of Afrikaans, "the language of the oppressor", for all teaching purposes in black schools.

But here we are, 22 years into a stable democracy.  The government is the one chosen by the black majority.  Who is oppressing who?  If there's a problem, why can't it be resolved through the ballot box?

Ever since minister Blade Nzimandi announced on 19 September that well-off university students will pay 8% more in fees next year, and the others no more than this year, thousands of students have been waging a low-level revolution against the government.  They are demanding free education now.  They have directed their rage against their universities and security personnel, even though these are powerless to grant their demands.  But they are accessible targets.

If education is so important to these students, why are they seemingly happy to throw away the large investment that each has already made in this year of study?  And why do they destroy the property that their universities require to give them an education in the future?  There must be far more at stake than meets the eye.

We have to concede up front that the students' concerns about the rapidly rising cost of a tertiary education in our country are entirely justified.  A decade or so ago our government invested about 1.5% of GDP into this area.  This was in line with what many other countries did.  But other priorities have arisen in our land, and that investment rate has dwindled to half of its old size.  Students and their parents have had to cover the shortfall.

Economic theory holds that if the price of goods are services is increased, demand for them will fall.  But that hasn't happened.  Demand for tertiary education in South Africa keeps growing.  Why?

Here's the ugly truth.  Every year the South African schooling system delivers about 1 million new school leavers to the formal economy.  And each year the economy absorbs only half of that number.  Every year about 500,000 people transition smoothly from school to the ranks of the unemployed.

And then what happens?  For a while their families support them through an informal welfare system called "black tax".  But then more kids leave school, and there are more mouths to feed.  Sooner or later the unemployed youth are pushed out of the home to fend for themselves.

Some go out and pick through rubbish bins looking for recyclables.  Some get unpaid "jobs" as car guards, waving their arms at reversing cars and hoping for small change.  Some write pitiful messages on squares of cardboard and stand at street corners with black plastic bags, hoping for handouts.

Most of these unemployed people sleep rough, often in public parks.  They are at the mercy of the weather and roving gangs of ruffians who rob the poorest of the poor.  There future is uncertain, somewhere between a life sentence and a death sentence.  This is a pretty terrifying prospect.

Our society has betrayed its school leavers, and they know it.  We bring up our children to believe in the great social contract - that if they go to school, study hard, do their homework, and pass their exams then one day they will get a job and be able to afford a home, transport, a family, and they will live happily ever after.  They believe us.  They devote up to twelve years of their lives in hard labour to get their schooling, and then only half of them get jobs.  The rest get pretty much nothing.

This sordid state of affairs has become obvious to our youth.  They are aware that a school certificate offers no guarantee of employment.  They are scared spitless by the prospect of unemployment and poverty.  They know that those who get university degrees on top of their school qualifications have a better chance of securing employment than those that don't.  So they are desperate to get a university degree.  Even if their chosen field of study is of little interest to them.  Any degree is better than none.

We need to note that there is a limit to the number of university graduates required by our economy.  A business doesn't need an accountant if there's nothing to count.  Churning out extra graduates does little to create extra employment.  It just changes the positions of work seekers in the job queue.

This insight helps us to understand why desperate students who can see that they have little hope of completing their own studies would rather see the universities come to a complete stop until they can afford to complete their own education.  Other students who graduate while they cannot will join the job queue ahead of them, and simply reduce their already slim chances of finding a job.

So what are we as a society do?

Minister Blade Nzimande has explained over and over that reducing university fees to zero would mean that poor tax payers would end up subsidising the education of the children of the rich, who can afford to pay fees.  This doesn't make sense.  The minister actually came up with a quite practical way of funding the education of the poorer and the "missing middle".  But it was based on the assumption that government spending on tertiary education would not increase by much.  Other priorities came first.  So the total package didn't look good to the students and their parents.  They started out by demanding a zero increase in fees next year.  When they didn't get that, their position hardened.

It seems pretty obvious that we need to re-prioritise our national budget, and invest as much in all levels of education as do other countries.  Because ultimately we have to compete with those other countries when we try to sell goods and services in international marketplaces.  And we will not succeed if our people are under-educated.

The next thing we need to recognise is that no economy can function if all of its workers have university degrees, and none have practical training in how to make things and fix things when they break.  South Africa used to have an extensive network of technical training colleges, but they were regarded as a second-rate form of education, and faded into obscurity.

We also had an extensive apprenticeship network.  "Appies" were taught valuable skills on the job.  They started earning immediately, even if not much.  As they gained skills and certifications, their careers and incomes progressed.  This system has also been largely dismantled.

We need to get technical training and on-the-job training up and running again.

And finally, we need to use new technology to make our education affordable.  The old model where students gather in lecture halls to watch and listen to a lecturer is very expensive.  It's also obsolete.  We could revolutionise the way we impart knowledge to students by using modern off-the-shelf technology that is already in the hands of most students.  How do you think they organise their demonstrations?  By social media, which they access through cellphones.  They could use these same devices to access online course material from wherever they live, rather than having to relocate to expensive campuses.

Internet-based education isn't just a wild theory, it's a practical reality.  The Khan Academy has been offering free online education materials over the past ten years (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khan_Academy).  And they have added interactive quiz functions based on gaming theory that can help to assess the students' knowledge levels in the various subjects that they are studying.

Researchers like Jane McGonigal (see https://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world) have shown that the insights that we have gained from building computer games can be used very effectively in other fields of human endeavour, including education.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested extensively in new schooling models based on gamification principles (see http://www.gatesfoundation.org/What-We-Do/US-Program/K-12-Education).  It isn't just a theory, it's a practical reality.

Some will say that Internet learning is all very well, but that students require large format devices like tablets to access the material, and these are expensive.  Most of the people who make these claims are middle-aged.  If you meet one, invent a pretext to get them to read something off their phone.  Ask for someone's contact details, for example.  You will notice that they hold their phone at arm's length, and squint at it.

Now ask the same sort of question of a teenager.  You will observe that they hold their phone several inches from their noses as they navigate to the answer.  For them, phone screens work just fine.  And it is the youth who are in desperate need of cost-effective education.

The adoption of Internet-based education for education does not mean that existing schools and universities will become obsolete overnight.  They will still play an important role in the new paradigm.  Science and engineering students will still need access to labs in order to carry out experiments.  Business management students will still need to work together in syndicates to learn the various skills that they need.  Art students will still need to practice their skills and gain useful criticism form staff and other students.  But brick and mortar institutions can play a smaller role than they do now, and the overall cost of education can be substantially reduced.

Our universities are burning.  Many schools have been burned too.  We need to start fixing our complete education system right now.  Others have shown us how it can be done affordably.  We don't have time to waste.

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