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From the editor's desk: A pyramid built upon sand

November 2022 News


Brett van den Bosch, Editor

In his monthly column (http://www.instrumentation.co.za/17903r), Johan Maartens, CEO of the Society for Automation, Instrumentation, Mechatronics and Control (SAIMC), discusses the state of tertiary education in South Africa, and the flaws inherent in how institutions are ranked.

These flaws are so multi-faceted and so systemically ingrained in our education system that it’s impossible to do them justice on this page alone. However, with the adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ in mind, I will attempt to break things down into a semblance of a hierarchical structure (as I see things) and touch on the shortcomings at each level.

Starting at the top of the pyramid, a Department of Higher Education and Training report released in March 2021 (see www.instrumentation.co.za/*nov22-dhet) shows that over 1,2 million students enrolled at public and private higher education institutions (HEI) in 2019, while roughly 265 000 graduated during the same year. Curiously, the majority (29,1%) of these were in the science, engineering and technology category – in stark contrast with the dire lack of skilled graduates actually being deployed into industry.

HEIs occupy the next layer, and without rehashing what Johan covers, it is indeed the case that the criteria for their global rankings are primarily focused on research output (great for tenured academics), reputation and financial income (fantastic for management), and self-propagated, back-patting news headlines for cracking the list (which reassures boards of directors that all is well). The conversion rate of students into graduates is apparently not deemed significant.

As for the bit-part actors in this tragic comedy – the students themselves – things don’t look nearly as rosy. With a national unemployment rate that’s currently nudging 34% making it unlikely to get any job at all, numbers from a 2019 OECD report (www.instrumentation.co.za/*nov22-oecd) dampen prospects yet further: “Tertiary attainment in South Africa is the lowest across all OECD and partner countries, with the majority of the population having an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary qualification as their highest level of education. [...] While tertiary education is not widespread in South Africa, the country spends a larger share of its wealth on the public funding of primary, secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education than most OECD and partner countries.”

Although it’s often (rightly) said that statistics don’t lie, in my experience they very seldom tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I openly confess to cherry-picking the statistics above to back up my argument, but numbers aside, we all know that our education system is broken. I do not claim to understand the full puzzle and I am certainly not qualified to put the pieces together, but that is not unfamiliar territory for me – what really worries me is that nobody knows how.


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