Pali Lehohla: Why our education system fails

Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor has been troubled by the inability of the National Student FinanIn the last year, the difficulties of Nsfas were dramatically displayed in the scandalous R14m wrongful payout to one of its beneficiaries; it begged the question of what systems were in place.

I am reminded of the two decades of development I led as we resolved the vexed question of payments of enumerators – people who undertake a census. Our payment systems in Census 1996 were amateurish, depending entirely on cheques. Imagine having to pay within a day of the first layer of checking, receiving questionnaires from afield. Worse still, having to pay a census taker in exchange for receiving the census questionnaires, lest they withhold them. A cheque-based payment system was very difficult to use. We ended up flying cash all over the country to make payments.

Everything was high pressure, given that the people we employed were mostly from the young and unemployed. By definition, they were the unbankable part of society.

Like the Nsfas R14m scandal, we had ours in the Census where a programming glitch would have cost us R36m in overexpenditure at a time when then finance minister Trevor Manuel was shaving expenditure with shears. After I received the first print my curiosity caused me to scrutinise the first cheque and there was a queer amount on it – R1 200 instead of R1 100 or R1 300. I dug deeper and the amounts were all up by R100 – either R1 200 or R1 400. At that point I informed Mark Orkin, then head of Stats SA, of the problem and we recalled all the cheques and had a new print run two days before Christmas. Orkin had to call the head of expenditure at the finance ministry from a party to help us solve the problem. At midnight, after I satisfied myself that the cheques were correct, I pressed the button for print, and they were dispatched to provinces the next day. Despite recalling the R36m worth of cheques, Treasury said we still overspent in the financial year by R36m. I thought this was dumb.

In 2001, thanks to the finance ministry’s introduction of the Mzansi policy, banking was made possible to almost all. But even then our payment vendor in partnership with the SA Post Office had failed spectacularly. We had to use Standard Bank to solve the problem. In 2011 the payments went smoothly. Only two problems arose. First was that the spike of 150 000 payees descending on ATMs potentially caused system problems to Absa bank, but the engineers were quick to resolve the pressure. Second, the problems associated with electronic access to money for those who had never interacted with the technology. This was the most intractable; the unemployed were savvy with mobile devices, but they had never worked with ATMs.

The challenges confronting Nsfas are probably several, and include corrupt practices that might have found their way into the system. As the decibels of discontent grew recently, Nsfas chairperson Sizwe Nxasana resigned. It was regrettable for a person of his calibre. He had successfully served our nation in different capacities in his heyday and at the dusk of his career he dedicated considerable energy and time to education, especially its resourcing. I have been in several education debates with Nxasana and he cares deeply about education. He was keenly aware of the requirements for urgent solutions to the malaise of our system while not forgetting that real solutions are generations into the future.

As a statistician, I became curious about the coincidence of high stakes of Nxasanas in the public space and the probability of this happening to someone else of the same surname. A week after the one Nxasana resigned, another, Mxolisi, the former National Director of Public Prosecutions was vindicated by the Constitutional Court, however, lost what was expected by a good part of society, for him to possibly resume work as such director.

Back at Nsfas and the transitional challenges that students face from basic to higher education are how I frame the problem of Nsfas specifically and our education system generally. The question that comes to mind is one of colonialism, which students on #FeesMustFall, among other trails, bandied about. The fact that, the world over, the transition between high school and university is at least eight months, except in South Africa where it is three, may reveal some of the systemic pressures.

Universities across the world open their academic years in September/October, with sophomores possibly arriving in August for orientation. This is 10 months after writing matric exams and gives enough time to sort out admission, for financial requirements, for supplementary exams where required and to embrace the right of passage. In South Africa this period is compressed to three months and thus the unfortunate incident some years back at the University of Johannesburg, in which a young person died while queuing for admission, was one waiting to happen.

Apartheid South Africa had whites registered at birth and they could know who was ready to come through the doors of the university – the system was ideal. However, even in the Scandinavian countries where people are tracked and traced from conception to death, the universities open eight months after matric exams are written. This is for good reason – to shape and manage rights of passage by giving matriculants time to reflect before taking the next big step in their lives. It also gives time for institutions of higher learning to manage logistics, financiers to ascertain who can be financed and families to make the choices on the big step their children are taking.

Problems abound and we need the best brains with foresight to diagnose root causes and resolve them. That Nxasana resigned is regrettable; what is worse, though, is our systems have hitherto not addressed the root cause of our unending challenges. This is a notion in part well captured by students regarding the concept of colonialism.

- Lehohla is the former Statistician-General and former head of Stats SA

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