The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed structural weaknesses and widened inequalities across the world. Even before the pandemic, the rise of automation and innovative technologies were transforming the world of work, resulting in an urgent need for upskilling of talent.

This is according to a commentary issued by PwC on whether South Africa’s education and development of skills is meeting the requirements of the digital world.

Barry Vorster, PwC’s HR technology and culture leader, summarises the report:

South Africa needs to build a nation-wide culture for upskilling, an endeavor in which all stakeholders from all parts of society have a role to play – from government, non-government organisations, to businesses and educators, and to individuals themselves. This call to action starts primarily with basic education.

Education is a fundamental human right that helps individuals exercise their other human rights such as the right to work. But as we celebrate Human Rights Day in South Africa on 22 March, we must reflect on the achievement of the right to education in South Africa. Is South African education and skills development meeting the requirements of the digital world?

Understanding the problem

Since the country’s post-Apartheid democratic transition in 1994, South Africa has spent between 5,8% and 6,3% of GDP on education, one of the highest in the world.

This expenditure was necessary to redress Apartheid inequalities in which the black and coloured majority received low quality education in an under-resourced system, while the white minority benefited from a well-resourced, high-quality education.

Despite the large expenditure, the country has not seen the envisaged economic returns. According to the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI), an average child born in South Africa today will not even reach half their productive potential which they could have if they had full health and education. Comparable middle-income countries spend less as a percentage of GDP, but consistently achieve much higher HCI.

Overall, upskilling initiatives for South Africans to meet the requirements of the digital world will not move to the next level if education fundamentals are not strengthened. Despite great progress in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education and some innovations in basic education (such as introducing a coding subject), literacy tests show that 78% of South African learners ages 9 to 10 are not able to read for meaning. Spending millions in coding is ineffective when students lack basic literacy and maths skills.

Poor academic achievement is in part the result of under-funding and poor quality of the education system. In 2018, 19% of public schools did not have proper toilet facilities; 86% had no laboratory, 77% had no library, and 72% had no internet.

A 2014 study of teachers showed that 79% of Grade 6 mathematics teachers have a subject knowledge below the level they are currently teaching.

Expenditure in education is high on paper, but in reality, much of the government’s education funding is lost due to mismanagement and malfeasance in public procurement processes.

Formal on-the-job training has also been ineffective. By law, South African organisations allocate 1% of payroll to SETAs, yet their expenditure has had little effect on productivity or employment as they continue to offer training on current skills, not skills needed for the digital future.

Celebrating our progress

Good progress has been made on education and skills development:

* Access to public education has improved, at least from a financial point of view. At Post-School Education and Training (PSET) level, access to TVET colleges and universities is now free for students from poor and working-class families (since December 2017).

* Basic education is also adapting to the needs of the digital world. Targeted interventions to ensure school learners have the basic literacy and math skills to succeed in STEM have been put in place, such as a bursary programme offering funding to teaching students on condition that they specialise in mathematics or literacy.

* Access to lifelong learning opportunities is also widening. Initiatives such as the government’s drive for mobile operators to cut data prices, provide a free daily allocation of data, and free access to educational websites are an important step to improve access to online learning.

Finding solutions

Nevertheless, to really improve the quality of and access to education and training, a change in culture and behaviour is needed, not just funding. South Africa needs to build a nation-wide culture for upskilling, an endeavour in which organisations can play a key role.

Every organisation should undertake robust workforce planning in which they seek to understand the impact of technology and automation on jobs in their industry and what this means for the skills needed by their workers in the future.

The private sector can also provide funding, support and services toward scaling societal upskilling initiatives – there are examples of this from the telecommunication sector, which provides mobile data for online education and contributes to its own education platforms.

On-the-job training is the main formal vehicle for people to continue acquiring skills after completing their education. That said, a great part of learning continues to be acquired informally from experience. Employee experience metrics can help keep organisations focused on accelerating the culture of learning and upskilling, which can lead to valuable return on experience.

Wider solutions to skills and employment will need a holistic plan in South Africa that coordinates across sectors. The creation of good jobs arises when technological innovation is geared toward increased demand for workers.

This does not happen naturally in a free market system but requires governments to fund education and research for new technologies, plan priority sectors of the economy, and put in place labour regulations that are both protective enough for workers and flexible enough for employers.