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2022: A challenging year in education for SA and Africa

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Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA) – The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande Bonginkosi Nzimande hosts the inaugural two-day TVET Colleges Strategic Industry Partnerships Summit at the CTICC. The skills training offered at 50 Technical and Vocational Education (TVET) colleges throughout the country should not be discounted, provided they up their game in terms of quality offerings, the writer says.

By Edwin Naidu

Looking back, 2022 was a challenging year for education in South Africa and the African continent.

It began on a sad note for South Africa’s matriculants as many faced the prospect of a bleak future after being spewed out of a school system that continues to fail millions of learners. On the flip side, private schools have continued to get a lousy rap amid stubborn silence from the Independent Schools Association of South Africa (Isasa) on various issues affecting its members. If they care, it has not been evident.

As many as 45 percent of parents struggled to keep up with the exorbitant fees for their children at private schools. At the same time, Isasa’s puppet leadership allows its members to escape without transforming; their silence on bullying at several schools over the past year is shocking, along with other unsavoury practices that have no place in a democracy. Private schools must be on the agenda for government action in 2023, especially since the out-of-touch Isasa head does not give an iota.

Several of the country’s tertiary institutions have faced a variety of problems that have kept them in the spotlight throughout the year.

On the Continent, according to the Regional Education in Emergencies Working Group, there has been a sharp increase in the number of schools closed due to insecurity in the past year, particularly in West and Central Africa. By the end of the 2021/22 school year, more than 12,400 schools were closed in eight countries – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Niger, and Nigeria – because they were a target of attacks by armed groups or because teachers had fled. Parents were too frightened to send their children to school or were themselves in the process of repeated forced displacement to safer areas. The conflict has severely affected access to and continuity of learning. One hopes for better in the New Year.

One of the high points for education in Africa occurred in November at a meeting hosted by the University of Cape Town of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) and The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. In a challenging year in South Africa and on the continent, the summit of more than 30 university leaders from Africa and Europe was a bright spot as it looked at developing new types of institutional partnerships to build long-term research capacity in African universities. They discussed the formation of clusters of excellence with multimillion euros in funding, bringing the two powerful alliances together to tackle the grand challenges of the 21st century.

ARUA has previously established 13 Centres of Excellence, each focussing on the challenges the Continent faces. The centres have already played a significant role in fostering collaboration on the Continent and providing solid instruments that promote African-centred knowledge. Africa is only too aware of these global challenges, given the large, impoverished populations and limited resources to build resilience to, for instance, ensure food security or adapt to the ravages of global warming. Indeed, a favourable policy and funding framework will be vital to ensure the delivery of the ambitious goals in the AU-EU Innovation Agenda.

Research on issues of importance to everyday challenges is a welcome goal.

Inevitably, once the turkey is done and the News Year kicks in, South Africans will begin the countdown towards the annual public relations pomp around the announcement of the national senior certificate (NSC) examination results for the class of 2022. Last year’s pass mark for the class of 2021 was 76.4 percent. This year’s matric class should do better, given that pupils have enjoyed a full year of contact education in the classroom. Covid-19 disrupted matric preparations in 2020 and the next year.

As reported at the beginning of the year, the harsh reality is that a bleak future awaits most of South Africa’s matriculants. An estimated 450,000 matriculants have joined the ranks of the unemployed. Not everybody will get into university. Last year almost 900,000 pupils sat the examinations with only 127,000 varsity places up for grabs. The skills training offered at 50 Technical and Vocational Education (TVET) colleges throughout the country should not be discounted, provided they up their game in terms of quality offerings. Certainly, the government has pumped billions into TVET colleges to ensure that the country churns out the necessary skills to contribute to the economy and job creation. According to Statistics South Africa, of the 7.2 million unemployed people in the first quarter of 2021, as many as 52.4 percent have education levels below matric, followed by those with matric at 37.7 percent. This equates to 2.6 million matriculants in the unemployment queue. While essential, it suggests, unfairly or not, that a matric certificate is not worth the paper it is written on

Former vice-chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand and director of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Adam Habib, earlier this year, told this writer that only 30 percent of matriculants made it to university. Habib had more bad news. If you look at children in grade one, he says, there is a layer of people that don’t get [matric]; something like 50 percent to 60 percent don’t make it. “So you’re down to half of the original cohort. Of that, you are only getting a tiny percentage of people with a 50 percent pass rate, which means they get a bachelor’s pass that gets access to university. You can be the best university with the best grades in the world, but you cannot do in two or three years what the schooling system has failed to do in 12 years.”

It is pretty dire; however, many believe that the TVET colleges, if one removes one’s blinkers, can help prepare one for self-employment and job creation. Basil Manuel, the general secretary of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, advocates TVET colleges and says they should feature higher on the agenda given the skills shortage. However, he admits that the poor performance of these colleges currently makes them unattractive.

This year’s matric examination was not without controversy as it emerged that more than 1,000 pupils in six provinces allegedly cheated, possibly in cahoots with teachers, who accepted bribes for providing answers for pupils via WhatsApp groups. Just as it is difficult to find anyone who supported apartheid or near impossible to convict anyone who has benefited from State Capture, one cannot see the authorities making an example of the culprits. The education authorities failed to take a leaf out of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education, which launched a new system for one-million learners in grade 12 national high school, leaving examinations to write papers at university campuses instead of as per the norm at their schools to combat cheating.

One of the most horrific incidents in the past year was the Enyobeni East London tavern tragedy in July, where 21 children died. The same month, 16 people were shot dead at a tavern in Soweto. Something crazy is happening in our society. Children need parents and teachers to monitor them better and instil in them values that reinforce the importance of education.

As we bid goodbye to a long and winding 2022, one can be grateful it was not as worse as the previous pandemic-riven one. But there’s much to be done given the obstacles in the public schooling system, intransigence of Isasa and private schools, hurdles at universities, and safety concerns affecting children on the continent.

Edwin Naidu is the Impact Editor of SciDev.Net and heads Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up involved in education in South Africa and the African Continent.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.