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Bleak future awaits Class of 2022

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Picture: Chris Collingridge/African News Agency (ANA) Archives In October 2022, the Department of Basic Education said the Class of 2022 was the largest cohort matric. Those sitting the examinations have made it against severe odds, says the writer.

By Edwin Naidu

Except for a select few, perhaps, tens of thousands, the majority of the Class of 2022 faces a bleak future. At least half of them will join the ranks of the unemployed.

One does not need a crystal ball to come to this alarming realisation. This is clear from South Africa’s youth unemployment rate for 2021, which was 64.18 percent, a 4.56 percent increase from 2020.

According to Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), youth unemployment refers to the share of the labour force aged between 15-24 without work but available for and seeking employment. This figure has gone up since 2017. Of the 7.2 million unemployed people in the first quarter of 2021, 52.4 percent had education levels below matric, followed by those with matric at 37.7 percent.  This means there were 2.6 million matriculants in the unemployment queue, says Stats SA.

Only 127,000 places were up for grabs at the country’s public universities in 2022. This year, the Department of Higher Education and Training said first-time entering enrolments were projected at 196,324 nationally. But the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) estimates that the figure is likely to be around 156,080 and has budgeted R12 billion to fund first-timers.

In October 2022, the Department of Basic Education said that the Class of 2022 was the largest cohort matric. Those sitting the examinations had made it against severe odds. This includes learning hurdles brought about by the national lockdown regulations disrupting the schooling programme as Covid-19 wreaked havoc when they were grade 10 learners in 2020.

Combined, this was 921,879 pupils in the class of 2022, made up of 753,964 full-time and 167,915 part-time candidates.

With around 156,080 set for tertiary studies, what future is there for the remaining 765,799 pupils?

NSFAS estimates that NSFAS projects that 337,224 students will qualify for bursaries compared to 227,110 it funded in 2022 for training in the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector.

That means 428,575 pupils will not attend university or TVET colleges. Drawing on the Statistics SA data of matriculants since 2017 joining the ranks of unemployed, it means that 47 percent of the Class of 2022 will be twiddling their thumbs without hope of doing much in the New Year. Their fate implies that the next time you hear from Stats SA, there will be more than three million matriculants in the unemployment queue. The education system equips most who come through it for unemployment.

In August 2022, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international organisation that promotes policies to improve people’s economic and social well-being worldwide, wrote that the Covid-19 crisis had weakened an already fragile economy.

Unsurprisingly, OECD points out that South Africa’s growth underperformed during the past decade. Unemployment remains high, at around 35 percent, and youth unemployment exceeds 50 percent, while spending pressures are mounting to close the financing gap in health, infrastructure, and higher education.

According to OECD, South Africa needs to step up its reform efforts to avoid its economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic losing steam. Persistent weaknesses in productivity growth and the negative impact of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine on purchasing power through the rise in food and energy prices continue to weigh on economic activity.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of South Africa says that improving the tax system and reducing spending inefficiencies would help to put public finances on a more sustainable path. “Without a strong and sustained recovery, South Africa risks losing some of its hard-earned social progress in areas like education, housing, welfare, and healthcare”, OECD Acting Chief Economist Álvaro Pereira said.

After a rebound of almost 5 percent in 2021, GDP growth is seen slowing to 1.8 percent in 2022 and 1.3 percent in 2023, and inflation is projected at 6.3 percent this year, with risks remaining from future Covid-19 outbreaks and the global repercussions of the war in Ukraine.

Electricity shortages remain the most pressing bottleneck to economic activity, with firms hit by worsening power cuts following several years of deteriorating energy supply.

Later this month, when Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga performs what some say might be her farewell public relations salute to the class of 2022, spare a thought for those who have been 12 years through a schooling system that has equipped them without the skills for the 21st century.

Annually, we celebrate those, mostly from private schools, that soar with distinction, while there are stories of those in impoverished public schools who rise above the odds.

But Motshekga should make way for fresh thinking for a new incumbent who will work holistically with fellow cabinet ministers to ensure a better pipeline to the future with skills for all that contribute to the economy, job creation, and pupils committed to finding solutions for everyday problems. Though necessary, the matric certificate is not worth the paper it is printed on when only a few are celebrated – and the majority consigned to the scrap heap.

While the OECD does not have all the answers to African problems, it is correct that educational performance has improved in recent years. Still, progress has slowed since 2015, and the supply of graduates is limited. Therefore, our education policy should focus on increasing the quality of primary and secondary schools and further developing vocational training and adult learning.

But this is cold comfort for those students whose matric certificate gives them a future filled with potholes.

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.