South Africa’s tertiary education system – and the country along with it – is in the throes of a crisis much bigger than the #FeesMustFall student protests revealed last year. The current government policy works under the assumption that the majority of South Africans enter either tertiary or further education and training (FET), or at the very least, have access to these resources. However, only a small number of students will get the chance to enrol at adult education and training (AET) centres. At the same time, these institutions are under immense pressure and are straining to keep up with a growing population, and a fast changing work environment.

This has, on the one hand, resulted in a great skills shortage in the job market while at the same time, graduates are entering the job market with outdated skills. While it doesn’t seem that this situation will change in the near future, it means that a greater burden has been placed on employers to train and educate their employees. With companies themselves under economic pressure, the resources that currently go into training and education can be crippling.

If the rules of supply and demand were to hold, then much more people should get access to education to address this need in the market. But the system, in reality, is structured much differently.

A broken system

Based on enrolment numbers, higher education institutions carry a disproportionate burden of educating the country’s over-18 population, making up nearly half the numbers of those enrolled in tertiary education in any one year. FET colleges make up only about 15 percent of enrolment numbers and AET colleges make up a third. Considering that only 18 percent of matriculants make it to university, this paints a dire picture. These institutions simply do not have the capacity and/or resources to take in more students. Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane pointed out last year that funding per student head has declined from R20,187 in 1994 to R16,764 in 2014. There simply is no investment in infrastructure expansion.

The majority of South Africans do not even get the chance to study further. We either don’t have the means (the middle class is deemed to earn between R1,400 and R10,000 per month according to the 2013 Goldman Sachs report on the state of South Africa – not nearly enough to afford tertiary education), or the time to take three to four years off without earning an income. A meagre 13 percent of our population have tertiary education degrees.

Of the students who get in, we find that many are unable to deal with the new context, are under immense academic pressure, while putting a lot of financial pressure on their families. This, amongst a myriad other factors, means that less than half of the enrolled first years in any year will go on to have a university degree, according to research by Council of Higher Education.

This means that a large number of young people are jobless, or competing in a highly competitive job market (where even those with tertiary education are struggling to find work). One of the social economic implications of this is that South Africa has a low entrepreneurial rate, where people struggle to start and maintain their own companies because they simply do not have access to key skills. And the burden of training and upskilling employees has therefore greatly fallen on employers.

Online education is one solution. Online education is the umbrella term referring to a range of online education solutions, including eLearning and MOOCs (massive open online courses). These courses can be done on-demand or within a set schedule, it can be short (1 hour, 6 weeks etc.) or part of a longer degree (6 months to a year). They can be solely digital, or in a blended format with some bricks-and-mortar component.

Digital innovation offers a way out

Digital innovation has had such a profound impact on all of our lives that its effects are beyond the realm of doubt. Nowadays, the smart question is to ask how every industry on earth will be disrupted, and what new opportunities might spring up as a result. We are creating information at an exponential rate, thanks to the World Wide Web that fosters global collaboration and exchange of ideas. This means that the business environment is changing rapidly too. Twenty years ago, working as a taxi driver was a clearly defined job. Today, Uber has changed the way we define and use “taxi” services. On the flip side, app developers did not exist, yet today it is one of the fastest-growing online jobs out there.

According to Thomas Frey, a top-rated speaker and futurist at the DaVinci Institute, two billion jobs will disappear worldwide by 2030, rendering the skills and knowledge students of today are paying education institutions to provide, obsolete. We’re already seeing the potential for this in the form of driverless cars, which will likely decimate jobs in the transport industry.

Online innovation has made it possible for education to be provided online for a fraction of the cost – no longer is knowledge from top experts the privilege of few. These courses are designed for collaboration, and to accommodate hundreds of thousands of students at the same time. The most recent education research shows that the old, lecture-hall model of teaching is not as effective as collaborative learning that allows students to study at their own pace. In fact, the low levels of engagement that students face in (typically) large brick-and-mortar classes is increasingly less effective – especially with youths today who are used to interactive technology. According to Daphne Kollar (founder of Coursera) students simply don’t learn by passively sitting and listening – they need to engage with the content. Digital technologies allow us to now do this

Rather than the old way, where students took three to four years out of their lives, spent an inordinate amount of money on one-size-fits-all qualifications in tertiary education and had to forego the opportunity to earn a living at the same time, online courses offer an opportunity for government and the private sector to reimagine tertiary education.

Online education dematerialises education, allowing students to learn where they are and at their own pace. They can also learn specific skills as they need them. They allow conveners to deliver this education without a huge, upfront investment in infrastructure. There are additional savings in transport and living space, allowing students to study while earning money.

Online courses also improve opportunities for standardisation, ensuring that a course in, say, animation in one institution equips students with comparable skills and knowledge to a similar course in another institution. These can also be updated in real time, where in the traditional bricks-and-mortar format curriculum updates often only happen yearly.

This is not to say that physical buildings for tertiary education will no longer be necessary in future. Far from it. Reports from the United States on blended education, which combines in-person instruction with individualised online learning, show marked improvements in comprehension and test scores. This improved performance is largely the result of an increase the amount of time available in class to tackle the more challenging aspects of the subjects taught. This suggests that the immediate future of tertiary education has room for both in-person and online.

Online education, however, faces significant challenges in this country. Few people have a reliable, affordable internet connection and access to hardware such as computers and tablets. The choice of online courses available at present are also priced for the higher end of the market, which already has access to traditional forms of tertiary education.

There is also the problem of making the cultural shift to seeing online education as a viable alternative. Students, I suspect, might be more ready for this than tertiary institutions and the job market. South African students have a long-standing tradition of distance learning and younger people have shown a greater willingness to adopt new technology.

So for all of this to become real and attain the economies of scale to be sustainable, education institutions and employers also need to shake up their business models.

In the United States, some universities are responding to the online disruption by becoming niche, specialising in developing solutions to a specific industry problem – environmental issues, for example – or focusing on a specific sector. There’s room for that in South Africa, where the kinds of intractable social issues that we face – the social housing crisis, for example – require specialist knowledge that spans design, public finance and social science.

Others are experimenting with unbundling the curriculum and aligning courses to current industry demands. That way students have the option to move fluidly between the tertiary education system and the job market, often times straddling both, making education a lifelong, individualised experience. This also makes it possible to earn a living while learning instead of forcing students to choose one or the other.

At Educate24, a Media24 initiative, we’ve found that the unbundling model works well. It allows people to work while attaining online the skills that help the perform better at work immediately. It could be a short course in social media marketing, business management or even domestic work. Whatever the course, it is tailored for the South African market and provided at a fraction of the cost and available on demand.

Because of its unique pricing model, Educate24 also makes top South African and International educators available to a largely unserved market: The low and middle income market in South Africa. Mobile penetration (and specifically increased smartphone penetration) means that, unlike before, this market can be reached with the latest and best technology available. The focus on mobile also means that Educate24 can be delivered in a curated fashion, catering to the needs of each individual based on skill level, age and areas of interest.


Enter the student employee

For their part, employers need to re-think job profiles and their own roles in the education and training of employees. This is perhaps the most exciting opportunity for South Africa, as government cannot solve the issues in the tertiary education sector on its own. Innovative and front-runner employers have started embracing online education as part of their training approach.

The forms of partnerships vary. In some, employers use materials from existing online courses or online educators to train their own employees. Others run deeper, establishing specialist classes and courses in collaboration with online education providers. These companies, in other words, are themselves becoming education providers, education entrepreneurs, if you will.

Whatever the case, the skills and knowledge of these companies’ student employees end up becoming a known, quantifiable factor, which could improve the performance management process and give these companies an edge over competitors.

The results of such partnerships can, if done correctly, be quite profound. HackReactor, for instance, is a specialist computer programming school in San Francisco that has close ties with the big industry players. Because of the specialist, short-term training it provides, it’s said to have achieved a placement rate 99 percent.

Modular education, where students can exit at the course level rather than being forced to complete entire degrees, also frees employers from the burden of hiring employees with knowledge that may be obsolete as it was acquired up to three years ago. It also allows employers to tailor their employees’ basket of courses, based on their own needs.

It might soon be a thing of the past to have job profiles that list entire degrees as a requirement. Rather, innovative employers will allow their student employees to use online education as a skills-on-demand service, allowing them to acquire a new skill or knowledge as and when required. The flexibility this provides could radically alter human resource plans and improve productivity.

This article was first published in the SA Leader on 3 June 2016

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