Many South Africans argue that the country has a skills crisis. An equal number question why it can’t sort this out by “adopting the German or Swiss approach”.
The reason the country isn’t getting the right skills to grow its economy is because of the way it thinks about both the problem – and solutions.
There are two aspects to this.
First, in relation to the notion of “skill”, we to see it as expertise embedded in bodies of knowledge, as well as gained through practical experience. Expertise is used for and developed at work, but acquired through schools, vocational institutions, universities, short courses or workplace training. But this is misguided. A dominant idea is that if we just figure out exactly what it is we want learners to be able to do, designing education that enables them to do it will be relatively easy.
Unfortunately, this is only the case for very specific practical skills like riding a bicycle.
Second, we need to understand skill formation happens through a set of systems which are shaped by, and which shape, economies, institutions and social relations. “Skills” are not a variable that can be changed on their own to create desired changes in the economy. If we want to make changes to skill formation systems and get the right skills, we have to understand this complexity.
Our research at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour suggests that:
seeing skill as something to be separated from the knowledge and practice in which it is located leads to misguided and often destructive curriculum reforms. For example, the idea that “problem solving” can be taught as a standalone skill is nonsense.
education institutions are not the best or only places for learning skills like social skills
education institutions are the best, and perhaps only places for learning theories, concepts and practices that are very difficult to learn outside structured programmes
education institutions and systems are complex, difficult to build, require deliberate and extended support and focused cultivation, and are easy to destroy.
Where work requires expertise, it depends on education programmes that are broadly, not narrowly, vocational. That are based on bodies of knowledge in occupational areas, as opposed to teaching the narrow and specific tasks of a particular workplace.
Providing training to do specific tasks through formal education is usually a waste of valuable resources.
A second flaw in the current approach revolves around skill formation systems. Many interventions in skill formation assume that changing one ingredient – the skills of a group of individuals – will change economies and societies. This follows the logic of human capital theory, a simple input/output model which creates a virtuous cycle of more skills, more productivity and higher wages.
From a policy viewpoint, this leads to flawed interventions because it only looks at individuals and assumes individual effects can be aggregated up. Even institutions are theorised as individuals to be incentivised.
What we need instead of a neat causal system in which x causes y, and therefore if we incentivise x we will achieve y, we need to visualise a complex system in which changing any one part will have an effect on all the others.
The education system is part of society and the economy. It doesn’t exist outside of them, producing knowledge, expertise and skills in a vacuum. Societies, nationally and globally, are webs of institutions and institutional relationships that shape each other.
Research shows huge differences across wealthy countries in terms of the overall patterns of skill formation. These differences are not simple policy options, or models to be selected and adopted as education reforms, because they are intrinsic to different types of economies. Economic factors that shape skill formation systems include labour market regulation, collective bargaining, welfare and industrial policy and production regimes, political factors including degrees of federalisation, and election systems.
In low and middle-income countries, we see complex multi-directional relationships between education, poverty and inequality. All the evidence, even from those arguing that fixing schools is key to rupturing inequality, shows that poverty is the biggest cause of educational failure in South Africa.
Of course South Africa has problems with our curriculum, teacher training and other aspects of our schooling system. However, poverty is a factor constraining teaching, affecting who becomes a teacher and how teachers are trained, how schools function, and the ability of individuals to learn.
This complex multi-directional set of relationships then shapes what is possible in the rest of the education and training system. Education can’t make up for inadequacies in other policy domains that have and continue to cause mass unemployment and underemployment. The country has to look much more systematically at the different pieces of the system needed to support both the demand for and the development and utilisation of skills, and most importantly, we need policies for structural economic change.
South Africa will improve its chances of skill formation success if it can identify potential key policy levers, and look at how they interact with each other.
This article is based on the author’s inaugural lecture presented at Wits University on 9 November 2022.