Mr President, it's time to do something brave
Here's how to fix education in SA and leave a legacy which will forever carry your signature
Dear President Ramaphosa,
Like millions of South Africans I am hopeful again about the future of your country – in part because you essentially fired the corrupt and incompetent Jacob Zuma and in part because your state of the nation address seemed to promise exactly the opposite. Your choice of cabinet members will be the first test of your commitment to those lofty words that had even the opposition teary-eyed. Send me.
Naturally, I was very eager to hear what you would say about the education crisis. In fairness, you did not have enough time to come up with bold ideas and effective plans to turn around schools and stop the decline of our universities. So you relied on what different departments hastily forwarded to your speech writers for a cut-and-paste exercise.Even so, I felt you should at least have had enough knowledge to see through empty words and outright deception. It is absolutely meaningless to say there are a million children in preschool education. What you need to know is that a few have access to high-quality early childhood education and the majority are stuck in low-quality places of care. The result is that the achievement gap is significant by the time children enter Grade 1 and it does not close over the 12 years of schooling.
It really was concerning to hear you repeat the nonsense that the matric results improved: for most schoolchildren it did not because the majority did not progress to Grade 12, the pass percentage is shamefully low, and in the subjects that matter — like science and maths — we are the lowest performers in the world.
I will be honest with you — it scares me that you do not seem to have a grasp of the seriousness of the bankrupt education legacy of the last president and his government. You must fix this situation, and fix it urgently.
Rumours are rife in the education departments that you might merge higher education and basic education, as in the past. If you ask me, there really is no evidence that separate or combined departments deliver better results. It actually depends on the quality of the political leadership (the minister, in other words) that drives the education portfolio. My own view is that you should reduce the size of your cabinet dramatically and, in this context, education should be one department.
But please choose a minister who understands schools and respects universities—someone with competence and experience in both sectors; someone with skills to negotiate a political settlement with the South African Democratic Teachers Union to stop the disruption of schools; someone who leads the complete restructuring of the foundation years of schooling to ensure every child can read, write and calculate; someone who can at least acknowledge that the state of education is in crisis; someone who builds the system over time rather than play smokes and mirrors with the grade 12 examinations.Then you have a major role to play in settling down our universities. Do not lie to our students. Tell them there will not be free higher education across the board but that poor and talented students will be given full tuition support and that continued support depends on academic progress.
The fact that you claimed in the state of the nation address that there are a million students in higher education is also meaningless —most of these students drop out and the few that remain graduate two or more years beyond the minimum time. We have a highly inefficient system that is very costly even as you try to trim the national budget.
Once you have settled universities politically, make sure they are adequately funded. Then, do something brave for a change. Make 10 institutions research universities and 10 of them high-quality undergraduate teaching universities. This differentiation is long overdue.The only way this can work is if you offer substantial funding to these teaching universities to make them really world-class institutions. You should consider closing at least six so-called universities; they do our youth a massive disservice. If you call me, I will tell you which six. Then make sure the students are taken up in the high-quality universities. But we cannot continue to offer a microwaved version of “Bantu Education” to black students in some of our institutions.
Then you should stop the loss of some of our top scholars because of the turbulence in higher education. In fact, allow for special visas to bring in leading professors from around the world to teach and research in South Africa. A ruthless application of race-based appointments will destroy our best universities. There is no short cut to becoming a leading professor in the discipline and we should stop feverish attempts to make universities like the public service.
In sum, make education your top priority alongside the economy and you will leave this country a legacy which will forever carry your signature.