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

The dreaded F-word

FUNDING. What else did you think I meant?

Finances are possibly one of the biggest concerns for a student, whether undergraduate or postgraduate.  Fees must be paid, research costs have to be met and often times we are unable to do it on our personal account (I get anxious just thinking about it). The #FeesMustFall movement has sparked many debates surrounding the cost of tertiary education, there are many opposing views but there is something we can, and should all agree on, there is a funding crisis – amidst a national and local financial crisis.

Student-Dept_t580When I was an undergraduate, I was ill-prepared for university, not in the sense of my academic skills but the associated administrative skills that accompanied it. I did not know about funding calls and applications, how to fill them out, what they meant and if I qualified. When preparing our matriculants for university we have to ensure that we prepare them for the full ride, warts and all. Part of this preparation includes bridging the knowledge gap and ensuring that students are aware of all possible funding sources and other vital support systems.

Before you even begin grant searching and writing, it is important to ask yourself what type of support you are looking for, you do not want to spend hours of your time writing a grant application for a program that does not fit your needs. You can think of it as one of those flow chart quizzes in your favourite magazine, someone asks you a question and based on your answer, you can proceed to the next relevant question.

Some important questions to ask yourself before searching for funding are:

  • What type of degree do I intend on pursuing (if you are starting/ completing an undergraduate degree)?
  • Do I intend on studying full time or part time?
  • Do I require research support or financial support for living expenses while completing my degree?
  • Do I want to apply for a more generalised grant? Or one that is specifically tailored to my field?
  • When would I need the funding? This one is important, grant calls open and close months in advance, you need to know when you would ideally like to be funded so that you can start applications in a timely fashion.

Once you have an idea of what you’re generally looking for, it’s time to start searching for appropriate grants! Here are a few links to local and international grant opportunities.

  • The National Research Foundation (NRF): Funding calls are posted regularly, the NRF funds a variety of research programs and grants for students at different stages of their careers. Be sure to check the NRF deadlines as well as the internal deadlines for various institutions (these could differ). In my experience, calls close quite early in the year so go check out the page after reading this! (Also, your funding flow chart will really come in handy here!)
    • The National Research Foundation Centres of Excellence: Under the DST-NRF banner there are also 15 Centres of Excellence that span a variety of fields and offer financial support among other things! The link to each Centre is provided on the NRF website and you can learn more about the Centre that best suits your academic trajectory
  • The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS):  NSFAS offers financial assistance to students who would otherwise be unable to afford it, applications typically open in the second half of the year.
  • Bursaries South Africa: This website is AMAZING and provides a comprehensive list of government and private bursaries. These are applicable for undergraduates and postgraduates.
  • Scholarship Positions: Another great website for finding local and international funding, search “South Africa” or browse the extensive collection of international opportunities.
  • University Financial Aid: Most South African universities have a page on their website dedicated to keeping students informed about available funding. Check out your university page for more information or Google their financial aid. Don’t be shy to call enrolment and ask for guidance.

Now that you’ve found a grant that fits your needs, get cracking on the writing! If you’re tired of reading at this point, check out the Nature Careers podcast, “The Working Scientist” by Julie Gould which is packed with a ton of grant information. If you’re still with me then read on for a few of my personal tips!

  • Keep track of your deadlines. Make notes and reminders and schedule them so that you are not panicked the day before submission. I find that I work better if I can see the deadline, so it’s written on calendars and in diaries and on my phone. Here is a great (free) online short course on Udemy to teach you how to manage your time!  These are important applications and often take a while to compose.
  • Read the funding guidelines thoroughly. I am guilty of this, in a rush to start writing I often start without reading through this very important document. Please do not do this to yourself, most times it creates more work for you as you must go back and revise or reformat! It is important to abide by the guidelines, who would review an application if the applicant hasn’t even bothered to do it correctly?
  • Don’t procrastinate! I know, again I am guilty of this, and all it ever gave me was anxiety and a loss of sleep. Try to finish your application in a timely manner! If you need a few tips on procrastination cures, check out an earlier post by my fellow blogger Joyful Mdhluli.
  • Be concise– adding a ton of jargon or trying to meet the word limit by waffling on is not a good idea. Get to the point, summarise and be clear. This requires some thinking and a lot of reworking. Sometimes it is difficult to pen down all your thoughts and plans on the first go, this is why multiple drafts help. It is always good to look at it with fresh eyes when possible!
  • Ask someone to review it, someone you trust or who you think could provide good feedback. I find that it is even better when it is someone from outside of your field of research, this is a true test of how understandable and clear your application is. This feedback can help refine before you hit submit!
  • Apply again, even if you are rejected. Rejection is difficult, knowing you invested so much time and effort in an application only to have it turned down is crushing. Do not be discouraged though, apply again even if it means changing your approach or formatting the application. You won’t get every grant you apply for, but you also won’t get any grants you don’t apply for!
  • Apply to multiple sources. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Apply to as many potential funders as possible (if you fit the criteria!).

imagesThis is by no means an answer to the crisis facing tertiary education but can provide a few people with an opportunity. We must continue to communicate and engage with policymakers in order to ensure that students get a chance to pursue their dreams without a cap and gown that come attached to a lifetime of debt.