Revisit skills formation system while rolling out higher education access

The opening of the doors of learning and culture in higher education in South Africa is long overdue.

But several questions have been raised since President Jacob Zuma committed the country to providing free higher education for poor and working-class students.

These include the timing of the announcement; the readiness of universities and other institutions of higher learning to accommodate a flood of students; the physical infrastructure and human capital who provide pedagogy; and how universal access will be funded given an increasing state debt to GDP ratio estimated at 52% and budget deficit estimated at 4.9% in a faltering economy.

However, there has been very little discussion on the link between education and the economy, specifically South Africa’s system of skills formation. Did insufficient employment growth in the economy to fully absorb new entrants into the labour market play a hand in the decision?

The official unemployment rate of 27.6% for a third successive quarter in the third quarter of 2017 calls for decisive action. So does the dismal year-on-year growth in labour productivity in the formal non-agricultural sector, which slowed further in the second quarter, while growth in the nominal unit labour cost accelerated to 6% – the upper limit of the inflation target range.

Given these structural macroeconomic rigidities, why is the ANC government hastily embarking on universal access to higher education when the labour market is tight and productivity is falling without any other policy measures or interventions?

How does this policy relate to South Africa’s system of skills formation, which could drive GDP growth to 6% and above as envisaged in the National Development Plan?

Listening to Higher Education Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize, I cannot help but assert that the story being sold to the public – that Zuma has placed education at the centre of social justice – is nothing but a political act. Unfortunately, the EFF bought the story lock, stock and barrel without analysing the relationship between universal higher education and a national framework of skills formation.

The relationships central to understanding the process of skills formation are those between the state and its apparatus; the education and training systems that deliver skills; capital in the form of private and public-sector employers through which the demand for skills arises; and the workers and their organisations that influence the supply of skills.

The inefficient ANC government, its ideology that arguably is populist and class interests of the governing elite – some members of whom are allegedly captured by private interests – should regulate the relationship between capital and labour and shape the institutional relationships that determine the delivery of education.

The relationship between the government, capital and labour varies in accordance with the balance of forces during a specific period. For example, during apartheid, the state and capital worked hand in glove in growing the economy by exploiting the majority of black South Africans. However, after 1994, industrialisation has been spearheaded by private capital with the involvement of the government and its apparatus in directing the economy.

The governing party and the EFF believe that universal access to higher education could be the equaliser in the reduction of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Perhaps South Africa needs to revisit the national system of skills formation while slowly rolling out its universal access to higher education over the next five years. But for the ANC government, with the support of the EFF, going it alone is bound to fail.

Lumkile Mondi is a senior lecturer at the Wits School of Economic and Business Sciences. His piece first appeared in Business Day.

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