The uncomfortable truth about finances and academia

Can an average South African afford an academic career?

Every time Stats SA releases the country’s economic statistics, it is always a harsh reminder of how bad and unequal our economy is. A shocking statistic found by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group shows that 55.5% of our population lives below the upper-bound poverty line, which is currently at R1,227 per person per month. The discussions sparked by the 2020 first-quarter stats made me reflect on how finances are one of the leading systematic barriers to entry in the academic field.

I have had a first-hand experience of how finances could lead to choosing a different career path, even when one is a passionate academic.

In the final year of my MSc, I was faced with a financial dilemma; my mother was unemployed and desperately needed to purchase a bigger house that could accommodate our family. Being the eldest daughter, I really wanted to help her. Yes, I had a scholarship, but banks would never consider giving me a housing bond. As passionate as I was about science, my upbringing propelled me to assist my mother. My job applications were successful, and hence I was employed. This would have been the end of my academic career; fortunately, my mother secured a job, which paid enough for her to be able to buy a house. As a result, I was able to resign and continue with my studies. Unfortunately, most people never make it back to academia. 

I was also fortunate to receive a scholarship for my PhD studies, meaning that I would be able to assist at home financially. However, some of my colleagues are self-funded; this is another harsh finance reality. Most of these colleagues are at an age where families expect them to contribute financially, or they have families to look after. Ultimately, they have to rely on the income from tutoring, teaching and lab assistances. The time consumed on preparation and teaching compromises the quality of their research while the privileged students are able to solely focus on their research.

A major highlight from the Black lives matter movement conversations is how the prevalent inequalities are deeply rooted in the systems. The Department of Science and Innovation’s White Paper lists various strategies on how the department plans to transform the field of science, but will their approaches be successful? The National Research Foundation (NRF) has played a significant role in diversifying the post-graduate space; currently, the bulk of their scholarships are received by learners coming from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. But does their funding model suit our economic climate?

The truth for this generation is that most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first to attend university. Families sacrifice a lot with the hope that an educated child is destined to improve their living conditions. This means that as soon as the student graduates, there is a financial expectation. Many label this as ‘black tax’ but I believe that the spirit of ubuntu that is engraved in our upbringing drives us to lift others as we rise. Unfortunately, current funding models do not cater for such students.

My ideal funding model would be one where the student signs an ‘employment’ contract which is recognised by South African financial institutions. The universities could also offer tutoring or lab assistance posts with an extended timeframe; not the usual annual contracts. This would allow post-graduate students to carry out similar responsibilities as peers in work environments. The major game-changer, of course, would be if financial institutions realistically catered for all the different economy populations. Countries like Colombia have been leading in the global financial inclusion rankings as their finance sector is able to equally cater for people at various income levels. A study showed that these were the main drivers for financial inclusion:  the government developed financial inclusion indicators and reports, the innovative establishment of bank access points, and custom-made products aimed at different segments of the population with a special focus on low-income individuals.

Transformation in the academic sphere is non-negotiable. However, it has to be more than just diversifying on the surface. True transformation is one that will change the current systems that are major barriers to entry. These changes would enable students to make career decisions that are based on passion and not biased by financial circumstances.

Can “Education” solve South Africa’s high level of unemployment? (Part II)

South Africa’s unemployment rate has sky-rocketed to a staggering 30,1% in the first quarter of 2020. This means that of the roughly 24 000 000 people in our labour force, over 7 million are currently unemployed. This unwanted statistic puts South Africa in the Top 20 list of ‘Highest unemployment rates’ globally.

The long-held notion that improving the level of education (and subsequently the standard of education) will be a viable and trusted way to lower the unemployment rate is a logical red herring. In this post I hope to provide evidence to show why “education” (or lack thereof) in its current form, cannot be blamed for South Africa’s high unemployment rate.

Clarifying Terms and Definitions

Firstly, a clarification must be made in terms of this articles main subject, Education. Education as we know it in a South African context, is considered a public good. However, the notion of education as a public good is based firmly within an economic framework and although it is considered a human right, the track record of education as a human right in South Africa clearly indicates otherwise[1].

Noting, now, that education is an economic public good, has economic characteristics (where the end goal is profit making) and that this form of economic education has as its main objective the development of very specific people for very specific economic roles (which have specific purposes), we must differentiate it from education as a human right. Education as a human right is fundamentally distinct from education as an economic public good and our understanding of education in this economic context should not be confused with education as envisaged in the Freedom Charter of 1955.

Human Capital Theory

Any discussion on economic unemployment cannot be fruitful without understanding the fundamental idea of ‘Human Capital Theory’. For this discussion, I will use as a definitional base, Professor Gustafsson’s[2] illustration on Human Capital Theory (HCT) used in his Economics of Education Course at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. I will then expand on this illustration using a range of readings.

HCT[3] is a theory in Economics that sees a high value (both normative and economic) placed on human capital and education. In other words, it is a view that the more a person is educated, the higher a person’s income will be. Rose argues that this understanding has been peddled by Capitalist governments and International Organizations such as the World Bank (WB), despite there being ample evidence to the contrary.

Briefly defined, households calculate whether or not they should educate their child by looking at the potential income the child will provide from being educated. They then subtract the opportunity costs that will be foregone if the child is educated as well as the direct costs (such as books, tuition, transport, etc) of educating the child. This is known, in Economic circles, as the Private Rate of Return. It is this equation that drives the education of children in households and helps to decide whether or not education should be undertaken. The same philosophy lies behind broader National Educational Systems influenced by Neoliberalism; South Africa included. The term ‘Rate of Return’ in Education is one that is synonymous with Human Capital Theory. It is this term that modern governments use to justify various policies and programmes. The basic premise is to identify which group of people will allow the greatest economic return on the educational investment. A brief unpacking of this term follows.

Education systems across the globe develop skills (also called learning outcomes) in its learners. For example, the South African CAPS curriculum has a host of skills at the various exit points[4]. These skills have been developed in order for learners to contribute to the economy. The skill of understanding numerical literacy is vital when considering that Economists and Mathematicians must be able to count, understand complex equations and calculate multifariously. These skills are then ‘rated’ accordingly to ensure uniformity. Educational Compliance Authorities have therefore developed structures that ‘rate’ the skills/learning outcomes obtained. These help to bring a sense of national (and even international) unanimity. In South Africa, the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) was introduced in 2012, which saw all forms of education in the country integrated into “a single framework that facilitated access to, mobility and progression within, education, training and career paths”. Interestingly, South Africa’s NQF levels have been exported and are now being used throughout Africa, which underlines the growing importance of HCT in Neoliberal Globalized developing countries[5].

HCT focuses on the skills obtained and uses the qualification framework as a means of accountability. These skills that have been obtained, are what Human Capital Theorists say promotes productivity and propels the Economy forward. The reasoning behind this is logical: better and improved skills mean the possibility of higher production output. Higher Productivity means higher GDP. Better skills in a country also means better ways of problem-solving issues in the country. As a nation improves its ability and skills, it can earn higher incomes (across the board for all inhabitants), which generally also means improved social development.

The problem arises when governments and organizations such as the WB, begin using what is clearly an Economic term ‘Rates of Return’ to define Educational outcomes and monetarize something that cannot be monetarized, i.e. education as a human right. The WB has become the biggest educational investor across the globe and also the main instigator and ‘educational expert’ of implementing ‘Rates of Return’ within governments. South Africa has not been exempt from this phenomenon. Our educational landscape has changed dramatically with the implementation of Neoliberal policies, which has culminated with the hijacking of the term “education”. Education is no longer truly seen as a human right, but only as a means to an economic end. The Freedom Charter of 1955 has been forgotten and replaced with Verwoedian’ Market Policies.

What are the implications of the HCT for employment in South Africa?

The most important implication has been aptly summarised by Dr. Mike Van Graan who says,

“In some ways it [the way the State sees education] is quite Verwoerdian[6]… people are essentially cogs in a capitalist machine.”

This means that people are forced to conform into the economic mould that has prevailed in society. If a student does not show proficiency in any of the skills deemed as important by the state, he/she is deemed unfit and is either tossed out of the educational system or quickly regarded as dead weight (in an economic sense) and encouraged to apply for the meagre unemployment grant available by the State[7]. These people are what Prof. Badroodien refers to as ‘disposable youth’. Disposed of by society because they do not fit into the educational mould which ultimately has an economic purpose. Education in this economic sense can never solve our unemployment rate. 7 000 000 people are being tossed out of the system due to their unsuitability for the economy, or due to the fact that there are simply not enough jobs to go around.

What are some possible solutions?

Firstly, education should be more than just an economic public good. Basic Primary Education should be delivered as a fundamental human right of the highest quality to all learners. BottomUp theorizes this solution:

“ALL schools should be classified as “no-fee” schools, and that NO SCHOOLS should charge fees. This must also necessarily be linked to a revision to our tax system to raise the needed funds to improve school provisions across the board. To do so, is to reimagine schooling entirely and to establish a truly public system of education in South Africa, and this could include in-sourcing present SGB employed teachers and support staff (since they are needed).”

Undertaking such an endeavour will ensure that education is provided holistically as a human right to all learners. Finland undertook this costly approach in 1968 (when they were not in a strong financial position) and is now regarded as the best educational system globally.

Secondly, as Inglesi-Lotz and Gerlagh point out, government “should focus on creating an environment with policies that are supportive to economic growth”. One such policy, I suggest, would be to merge the manufacturing sector and the educational CAPS curriculum so that skill levels link directly into post-matric manufacturing jobs. This should be State-sponsored and State-run, with the sole intention of making use of ALL available human capital, irrespective of skills available. Linked to this idea would be the notion of making this paid “public service” mandatory for a minimum of two years. The experience and skills gained by the young labour force in these two years will, I believe, create an impetus and momentum to encourage entrepreneurship. This is education. Encouraging learners to excel without the notion of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps or the idea that they must conform in to certain pre-defined moulds to succeed. The biggest problem is an economic one where there are not enough jobs to go around. This economic problem can ONLY be solved by an economic response and there therefore must be some intervention by government to create long lasting jobs[8].

Lastly, looking at the WB’s Education Strategy 2020 document  it is clear to see that the WB is all about return on investments, despite the jargon of providing education and eradicating inequality in the educational sphere. The biggest return on investment for the WB is no doubt Primary Education, and is subsequently the area that is targeted amongst developing countries for investment. I suggest, however, that primary education should be funded solely by the State and that the educational sphere that should be inundated with funding and investment (from private sources if need be) is the tertiary sector. It is this sector that can make the biggest contribution to society (in the form of inventions, business ideas, medical cures, engineering feats, etc), when handled correctly and equitably.

In summary, the education system needs to re-imagined and re-ordered so that the narrowly focused idea of HCT is not the driving force of education and the economy. Instead, an approach that sees education being treated as a basic human right (across the board and equitably) joined together with other sectors where everyone can contribute something while benefitting, will I believe yield better results and lower the unemployment rate.


[1] There are numerous schools across the country that still do not have basic access to water and sanitation, textbooks, proper classrooms, adequate educators, etc. This denotes a basic denial of human rights to these people.

[2] Gustafsson is Associate Professor at Wits and focuses on Economics in Education – https://www.ekon.sun.ac.za/staff/gustafsson-martin

[3] Human Capital Theory has its origins in Adam Smith’s work, but it was Jacob Mincer and Theodore Shultz who popularized the theory.

[4] The Learning outcomes of the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) can be found on multiple pages within the document/s itself – https://www.education.gov.za/Curriculum/CurriculumAssessmentPolicyStatements(CAPS).aspx

[5] http://www.tourism.org.ng/national-vocational-qualifications-framework/

[6] Hendrik Verwoerd was the architect of apartheid and famously called for a controlled economic state in which only the white minority benefitted. See https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/hendrik-frensch-verwoerd

[7] The value of this grant has been included in the ‘Rate of Return’ calculation of education investment. It is therefore worth noting that it is currently cheaper for the government to continue paying out this meagre grant than to re-order the education system! Motive to continue with the current unequal and unjust system.

[8] This is evidenced by the fact that our streets are littered with educated people who are seen with street sign begging for jobs. See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36367703