In October 2015 the higher education sector was brought to a standstill as students across the country took to the streets to protest against fee increases. The protests rapidly expanded to include a call for free education and a demand that universities insource workers engaged in services like cleaning and security.
These actions were unprecedented and, some argue, overdue. As the gap between rich and poor in the country continues to widen, it is clear that urgent action needs to be taken to build a more just society and economy.
It is also clear that there is a hefty price tag that comes with meeting these demands. What is not so clear is where the money will come from.
In innovation terms, this is something of the perfect storm. And as the dust settles, South Africa is going to need its brightest and best to step forward to figure out how to increase inclusive access to education while at the same time ensuring the high quality and relevance of that education.
That we get it right is beyond important. The link between quality education and economic growth and development has been shown repeatedly. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) shows a clear correlation between level of education and an individual’s propensity to start and run a successful business that employs others, for example.
Of course, quality education starts way before tertiary level. The entire education ecosystem from Early Childhood Development to professorial level and everything in between needs to be pulled apart and put back together again to ensure that it is delivering what it is supposed to.
Across the country, many are already doing just this. Ironically, in the same month that the protests broke, the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a specialised unit at the UCT Graduate School of Business, published the Education Innovator’s Review. This little booklet catalogues 120 initiatives that have demonstrated success in addressing the challenges in the education sector in innovative ways. The stories range from a project to develop talent through creative play using LEGO for Grade R through Grade 7 (by Hands on Tech in partnership with the LEGO Foundation), to an initiative from educational technology company Siyavula (meaning ‘we are opening’) to produce open-source, curriculum-aligned math and science resources under the Creative Commons copyright, allowing learners and teachers to freely access the content.
The researchers behind the Review want to identify the components of these models that have helped them to make a difference. The hope is that they can be replicated and scaled up to make an ever-widening contribution to fixing the problems. And there is not just a social purpose motive here. There is evidence that the development of low cost, transformative education tools is becoming big business globally, with Said Business School in the UK setting up an edtech accelerator last year and venture capital interest in this sector on the upswing.
But before we get there, there is considerable work that needs to be done to change the mindset of those working in education in South Africa. As Professor Jonathan Jansen points out in the forward to the Review, there is an urgent need for a paradigm shift in the way we approach education. “South Africa will fall ever further behind in the global competitiveness stakes unless we invest in quality education for all our children, built around innovative cultures of open-minded, inventive, and courageous thinking,” writes Jansen. “Innovative cultures do not emerge from teaching and learning environments that are risk-averse, test-driven, teacher-centered, authority-based, and that value rote learning over experimental thinking.”
It takes courage to create the kind of space that will make innovation possible and this approach requires strong leadership that is grounded in ethics and values. There must a clear WHY this is important and a strong call around which to rally.
Currently there is not a culture of bravery in the education sector. The student protests have done much to shake some of the key role-players out of their complacency. They have also shown us the value of unity in addressing these challenges; one of the most striking things about the events on campuses across the country was the amount of support from the university administration, as well as staff and faculty.
Let’s hope that innovation will flourish in the space created by the students. It is only through innovation that we can transform education and build a more inclusive economy and society for all.