Interview: Frank Thompson
Do you believe South Africa’s skills shortage is impeding economic growth targets?
FRANK THOMPSON: In my opinion, the skills shortage is a bigger impediment to the country reaching its economic growth target than the fact that it missed out on the commodities boom. To reach its growth aspirations, any country needs a smart and tech-savvy population. This does not just mean producing thousands of techies, as people also need to have drive, competitive skills, ambition and a desire to undertake lifelong learning.
Even in apparently unskilled jobs in industries like mining, you need advanced knowledge and the ability to deploy technologies to stay relevant in a globally competitive, post-industrial economy. Even potato farmers these days should be able to observe trends on the Chicago mercantile exchange as it affects future price swings and planting decisions. Some years ago, social media applications had to be switched off in classrooms, whereas today students are asked to switch them on with the realisation that even these skills count in the increasingly knowledge-based global economy.
How responsive is the skills development system toward labour market needs?
THOMPSON: While it is important to have people study liberal arts, in a country where around 20m-25m people live in serious poverty, only a small portion of the population can be afforded the opportunity to study liberal arts. People with high-level skills and knowledge shoot quickly up the corporate ladder into senior management because such people are scarce. But we don’t have nearly enough good doctors and teachers, for instance. In Finland, teaching is one of the most difficult professions to enter into at university, and in turn teachers there are of the highest calibre and it is one of the most respected professions. The system should be designed to influence choices and meet demands.
I am not an unbridled critic of the government educational establishment. There are some extremely hardworking people and institutions in the sector, and tremendous efforts are being undertaken. But the delivery, the implementation and the execution of the system could stand to be improved.
We are the “rainbow nation” with a huge variety of languages and cultures. So why would we develop a centrally mandated system that mistakes uniformity for equity? Students need more choice and more opportunity. We need a greater willingness on the part of government to recognise the role of the private sector. Even though we charge tuition, our objectives are the same: to provide a quality education. While the private sector may only now educate 5-15% of the population, it provides a different modality of education with greater choice and utilises innovative educational concepts.
What factors do you attribute to the rise in private secondary schools enrolment?
THOMPSON: The amount of money available in the middle class as a proportion of the economy has grown rapidly, particularly among the black population. Now people actually have the means to address their desire for their children to have a good education, and enrolment in all private schools has grown rapidly.
The second driver is that in many parts of the country, investment in education has not kept pace with the growth of the population. This is more because of urbanisation and migration than because of rising birth rates. The crisis in the national schooling system is evident, and people recognise that the key to staying out of poverty is through education. Parents will therefore go to great lengths to find better schooling.
Investments in private higher education are competing with other priorities for “share of wallet”. But we have found that a tertiary education is one of the last things people will stop paying for – the wallet must be at a complete dead end, to the point where there is no option but to stop paying. Hence, even in tougher economic times, demand persists. And although the state of the economy is a factor, spending on education is far less elastic than in other less valued categories.
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