Tech, innovation industry underserved by SA education system
Sadly, the answer is unlikely to come from government, which is facing a crisis of its own: spikes in the matric dropout rate.
In South Africa, the decline in education levels and its inevitable effects on youth employability have been a reality for years now.
More than ever, students are dropping out at alarming rates from programmes of all kinds, and it’s not an old-world problem that digitisation has been able to transcend.
Government statistics show since 2000, computer and information sciences have seen the lowest growth of all education programmes. This shouldn’t be the case, what with the growing demand for technologically-proficient employees from companies, which are making fervent pushes towards everything online.
But why are these programmes not growing, when the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is so widely touted as the answer to all our economic ills?
The knock-on effect of poor education cannot be underestimated. The low level of educational attainment and the extremely high dropout rate are creating a situation where the much-hyped saviour of our time, 4IR, is seeing the lowest growth of all enrolments in private and public institutions, against a backdrop of joblessness, youth unemployment, and a precarious financial position for our youth looking to pursue higher education.
There needs to be a shift from teaching children how to use technology (basic computer skills) to teaching children how to essentially build technology.
Just last month, it was announced that the unemployment rate in SA hit 29.1%, the highest rate to date. Worse yet, youth unemployment is skyrocketing. Over half (55.2%) of all youth aged between 15 and 24 are unemployed. What’s more, these youth can’t even afford to get the education they desperately want so that they can be employable.
Government stats say that of the youth not attending educational institutions, more than half (51%) do not have the financial means to pay for their tuition fees. People need jobs, and people need an education in preparation for the workforce. South Africa is in a precarious position that needs bold and determined solutions to address its problems.
One of the many answers might lie in education far earlier than university level. A scholar starting in grade one in 2020 is likely to graduate university around 2035. We’d need a crystal ball to adequately forecast what the requirements from employers will be at that time, but it’s likely to be vastly different to our needs of today.
At a school level, there are pockets of institutions that are building coding and software skills into their curriculum. However, for the most part – if you were to walk into a classroom, it’s likely to be a time warp back to your own years in front of the chalkboard. The curriculum itself is not built to support the workforce of our time now, never mind in 30-odd years’ time.
There needs to be a shift from teaching children how to use technology (basic computer skills) to teaching children how to essentially build technology. Concurrently, the skill of problem-solving and creative thinking outside of the traditional art environment is required to dream and innovate even further. The current status quo relegates computer science to after-school extra-curricular groups and clubs, but it should be brought into the classroom for all to experience and learn.
Although few countries have mandated computer science classes in senior years of high school education, the number of countries offering this has been growing steadily. In the European Union (EU), 15 countries have already integrated computer science into their senior curriculum in some form, while nine countries in the EU have integrated or will integrate computer science education at a primary school level.
In the UK, the subject of ICT has recently been replaced with ‘computing’ across schools and millions of pounds put forward by the Department for Education to work with a group known as Computing at School to head up the retraining of UK educators in the field.
Then there are upskilling programmes offered by the private sector. Companies like my own have a clear space in the education sphere given the growing global tech skills gap, and the insufficient efforts of other sectors to address that skills shortage.
Given the time and money commitments required by traditional education providers – time and funds that people don’t have – there is a clear space for bootcamp models which teach practical, job-ready skills at a fraction of the time and cost investment.
Sadly, in South Africa, the answer isn’t likely to come from government, which is facing a crisis of its own: spikes in the matric dropout rate even as the Department of Education cheers its reported 78.2% pass rate.
In a country where there are schools without plumbed toilets and adequate classroom facilities, it’s not surprising that integrating computer science into the curriculum is not a top priority. Added to this extremely limited connectivity, inadequate upskilling of educators and resistance to new technology, and you have a problem that will only be exacerbated by time.
Thankfully, there are answers out there, and the government’s focus on 4IR shows the growing recognition of alternative educational models that aim to take advantage of the opportunities created by widespread digitisation.
It’s my hope that the youth of South Africa realise there are alternatives out there that will help them to build a brighter future for themselves.
You don’t necessarily need to spend a quarter of a million rand and four years of your life at University to perhaps find a job in the SA technology sector.
Riaz Moola is CEO and founder of HyperionDev and CoGrammar, which specialise in bringing programming skills, jobs and code review services to hundreds of students, and upskilling professionals in South Africa and across the world. www.hyperiondev.com