Youth want more than education

Jun 18, 12 Youth want more than education

Youth Day 2012 in South Africa was thoroughly hijacked by the education activists. June 16th was about more than education access. Sure, education was, and still is, an important issue but the contribution of youth to the liberation of South Africa had to do with a whole lot more than just schools – it had to do with the bigger goal of a free country where opportunities exist equally for all.

To reduce the challenges facing the youth to “education” is disingenuous. It is also a misrepresentation of the youth. Not least because education has so far failed the youth of South Africa. In the past 18 years, South Africa has invested an inordinate amount of money in education. Beyond the millions government invests, private sector dishes out CSI money to education projects at an alarming rate. Private citizens spend disproportionately on school books, uniforms, transport and fees. Parents and all too often grandparents sacrifice health and wellbeing to pay for tertiary education, often paying exorbitant prices to fly-by-night colleges. Even those attending reputable higher educational institutions, put significant resorces into an extremely high risk investment. There are stories of whole villages pooling their funds to send the one top performing child, sometimes one in four or five years, to university. Of course, given the inequalities of the system, a poor child from a rural, under-resourced school with no support system, often no proper accommodation and poor school-level preparation has an extremely limited chance of success. Especially in a tertiary education system where even those who could afford good schools don’t make it.

The return on investment in educational opportunities in South Africa is far from guaranteed. I’m not talking here about the whining whites who think the only reason they don’t get offered a senior management position straight out of varsity is because of their race. Getting a matric or a diploma in South Africa does not translate into any job. An awful lot of people won’t get a job until they’re over 35, if at all. Investing household resources in improving the education level of children should have a return. The return doesn’t need to be that everyone gets rich. But it stands to reason that a successful system would mean that a least school-leaving education would produce a 50:50 chance of earning at least the equivalent of the cost of that education.

Of course, education theoretically has other benefits – educated parents provide a better chance for their children; an educated labour force drives economic growth; women with an education have healthier babies; etc. But are all of these results assume that an educated person can enter the workforce and access the improved services. A better life for children is contingent on having the money to invest in things like books, so that the children can capitalise on the improvements. Knowing that your baby has a better chance of survival if delivered at a hospital is meaningless if you can’t afford the transport to the hospital.

Perhaps most importantly, the youth aren’t just talking about education. Some young people, particularly in places like the Eastern Cape, are (understandably) protesting the lack of schools and teachers. But other young people have other issues. Healthcare, shelter, insufficient access to capital, lack of mentorship and support for young entrepreneurs. And jobs. Almost all young people seem to agree that the lack of economic opportunities and jobs available to the youth is a serious problem.

Education is important. But nearly 20 years of investing heavily in education has not produced results. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider whether education is the best use of that money. The youth needs more than education, especially when the education “silver-bullet” has failed.