Let’s not waste free education

You can’t begin to repair the education system from tertiary level.

Systematic reconstruction has to begin in Grade 1.

Attempting a surgical strike anywhere along the line is a waste of already limited resources.

The #FeesMustFall movement is a noble cause that has a valid basis because of the socioeconomic dysfunction affecting black people.

Yes, government should prioritise education in its budgetary strategy to help transform and eradicate the legacy of apartheid. But.

Not everyone requires tertiary education to succeed in their chosen career.

Not every individual has the acumen for university studies.

Not every student has the stamina, focus and discipline to finish a university degree.

Not every candidate follows the professional path they studied towards at university.

Not every matriculant who passes with exemption, who is given free education, deserves it.

In essence, government would do well to sift through all these adamant free education petitioners to assess who can actually pay the cost.

By cost, I don’t mean tuition fees. The price I speak of can be found in the principles of meritocracy.

Putting it bluntly, whites in South Africa have built sustainable systems and processes that we grudgingly enjoy today.

They did this by allocating their members social responsibilities according to merit.

That focused and somewhat clinical way of dividing their constituents into categories of competence – and then placing them into jobs that corresponded with these – built this economy, paralleled by no other country in Africa.

There were obviously plenty of nepotism placements and, since we are dealing with an ethically flawed human race, those lapses in integrity are inevitable.

Nevertheless, the eventual “white monopoly, capitalist, discriminatory, prejudicial, disempowering, unequal regime” we now speak of was a meritocracy.

That gave their race dominance in our own country for more than 300 years, and continues to do so.

I can imagine you think I am being simplistic, naive and a purveyor of further disenfranchisement of the African child. Noted.

Now it’s your turn to take note of the message that lies in my dialectical rationale.

After 23 years of democracy, together with its innumerable efforts at transformation towards an equitable society, how far has rhetoric gotten us?

Within the education landscape, how many black children have been equipped to become self-sufficient citizens?

Have you noticed that the overwhelming majority are those who come from former Model C and Independent Examinations Board schools?

Why?

Because they were victims of the “coconut” syndrome? I beg to differ.

Products of meritocracy

These black children who went on to become qualified professionals, proactive entrepreneurs and astute leaders in society were taught the same lesson the white child enjoyed.

Self-determination, initiative and competition. They are products of a meritocracy.

I happened to work for an education trust fund last year and saw first-hand how free education is wasted on children who cannot pay the price for it.

As we drew up the list of candidates for five scholarships to a private school, I proposed that the recipients be selected from top achievers.

As a mere manager of the process, I was overridden by the trustees.

They insisted that the ones with the greatest challenges – which even saw them failing their grades – needed the opportunity more.

My reasoning was inspired by American media mogul and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey’s criteria for her girls’ leadership academy.

Abject poverty on the part of the candidate was the one pillar for consideration, but this had to be accompanied by academic excellence right where they were – in their under-resourced and unstimulating school.

Surely a dollar billionaire could afford to build schools all over South Africa and fill them with every single poor black child in the vicinity.

But she did not.

As someone who understands how to make a tangible difference, she chose students who had the best chance of success and could later pay it forward.

Last year, Winfrey celebrated several university graduations of the first pool of students.

Facilitating survival of the educational fittest

Coming back to my five students contending for the R1.5m scholarship over five years – they were all older than their peers by one to three years, they could not speak and read in the English medium of instruction, and they left their provinces for the first time to come and study in Johannesburg.

All the above personal circumstances certainly did not disqualify them from receiving free education.

It was their inability to ask the teacher for additional assistance after class as they could not follow all that was said.

In addition, they could not to grasp that daily homework had to be done.

Furthermore, their parents played no role in monitoring and facilitating their progress.

Their term reports inevitably consisted of F symbols in most of their subjects.

One of them was sent back home after the third term because the teachers could do nothing more for him.

By the end of the year, I had moved on from working for the trust and don’t know what became of the rest.

The gist of my argument is that I have heard every available proposal for overhauling the education system.

What appears to be lacking is the understanding that this can happen most successfully from the formative years onwards.

Inadequately trained and delinquent teachers are already the broken oven of this half-baked cake.

To then throw fiscal budget at the leaves of the problem, rather than its roots, smacks of an emotional capitulation to mass psychology.

The unfortunate, but very essential, ingredient for effective, outcomes-based free education at university is accepting that not everyone qualifies for it.

I am not talking about disqualification based on sufficient household income – natural evolution operates on natural selection and survival of the fittest.

Facilitating survival of the educational fittest will evolve black children as a demographic into the educational equals of the white.

Nature uses merit successfully for its own sustainability.

Perhaps we should start by embracing the free education that nature provides.

Setlaelo is an author, writer and personal development practitioner

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