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Can private schools save South Africa?

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When I was an Economics student 12 years ago, the academic literature we read, by South Africa’s leading economic thinkers and social scientists, were lamenting the poor performance of the then South African school system. There was little doubt that what needed to happen was to improve the quality of the schools for the 80% South Africans who were still stuck, despite massive transfers of resources to these schools, in a system that had been crippled by apartheid-era policies.

Fast-forward to today.  A generation has now passed through the system, and there has been almost no improvement. Of 100 Grade 1-students that go to school, only 37 can hope to pass matric. With teacher trade unions opposing policies that might improve teacher quality, our Minister of Basic Education seems paralyzed. Corruption often means that budgets are either unspent or spent inefficiently. There is little hope that things will soon improve.

But there is an alternative. Over the last few years, private schools have become an alternative for middle-income families that want a better future for their children. Take Northern Academy in Polokwane, run by the JSE-listed Curro Group. Despite school fees that are around R21000 per year, with a similar amount for boarding, the school has more than 5000 students, 111 classrooms and 66 hostels. In the 2016 matric exams it was the top-performing independent school in the province.

Curro now has schools across all nine provinces. In the last four years, its share price has tripled. Its profit motive means that it must satisfy its client base: if it performs poorly by employing poorly-qualified teachers, its clients will go elsewhere. That is the miracle of the market-system that Adam Smith identified: profits are a way to signal that a firm is doing something right. If profits fall, the firm better improve its products or services or it will go out of business. If profits rise, like in the case of Curro, other firms will notice and enter the market, offering their own product and service which they hope will eat into the profits of the dominant firm.

One fear is that Curro will monopolise the market, charging fees that allow them to earn monopoly profits. This is unlikely in the education sector, though, as there are few barriers-to-entry. Consider the SPARK schools, with tuition also around R21000 per year, that have opened since 2013 in Gauteng and the Western Cape.

A second fear is that a well-run private school system will create further divisions in a country characterized by high levels of inequality; those that are able to afford the high school fees of good education will stand to benefit vis-à-vis kids from poor households forced to attend poor-quality public schools. This is likely to happen if private schools are limited to those that can afford to pay for them. But they need not be.

In Sweden, where equality-of-opportunity is almost a religion, more than 10% of kids are enrolled in private schools. A major education reform in 1992 allowed primary and secondary schools to receive public funding based on the number of students they have enrolled. These schools are not allowed to discriminate or require admissions exams, and they are not allowed to charge parents additional school fees. (They are allowed to accept donations, which are often used to expand school facilities or offer financial support for the poorest students.)

Anyone can start a for-profit school in Sweden. Many offer an alternative curriculum, or provide a service to international, religious or language groups. Others are designated sports or artistic schools. The point is simple: if a public school is not providing the services its community wants, an entrepreneur with the ability to identify a gap in the market will step in to deliver a better service.

This is what we need in South Africa too. The 2017 Budget allocated R243 billion to the Department of Basic Education, which is 16% of our total consolidated spending. With 11.2 million school-going kids in South Africa, that is slightly more than R21000 per kid.

What if every parent in South Africa received a government voucher of R21000 per student which they could deposit at any school they want, public or private? A larger amount could be given to those living in rural areas, and possibly those living in previously disadvantaged areas. This empowers parents to choose the schools which they believe will serve the interests of their kids best.

There are concerns with private education too, of course. One would want to make sure that facilities are of good quality, that teachers and curricula meet certain standards, and that there is some security that students’ interest will be served if a company that provides these services goes into liquidation. But those concerns pale in comparison to the atrocious outcomes of the current school system, where facilities are often non-existent and teachers unqualified.

Imagine the opportunities this will create for entrepreneurs. A community leader in an area with poor public schools can now take the initiative, appoint educators from within the community and use the vouchers to pay their salaries. Imagine Cricket South Africa partnering with an entrepreneur to build a chain of elite cricket schools, with CSA providing the facilities and coaches and the vouchers paying for high-quality education.

An important research literature suggests that mother-tongue education is critical for student success: with a voucher system, if there is a demand for secondary education in Sesotho in a specific community, expect an entrepreneur to spot the gap. Another concern for the near future is the dearth of university-trained teachers: private school chains will have an incentive to fix this, either by training their own teachers on the job, or by investing in teacher training colleges.

We need a new plan for education. I’d hate to see my colleagues 12 years from now write papers still lamenting the poor state of the South African education system. We keep throwing money at a problem that cannot be fixed by money alone. The Basic Education budget grew 7.3% in 2017. If we continue doing this, we are likely to fail a second post-apartheid generation.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 23 March.

High-skilled migrants matter – and we’re not winning

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One of the baffling things in explaining the Industrial Revolution is that education, that pillar most economists believe to be critical for economic growth, seems to have played a relatively minor role. Universal public education was a consequence rather than a cause of the Industrial Revolution. Eighteenth-century England did not first have a skilled population before they had an economic transformation; the uncomfortable truth is that it was the other way round.

This uncomfortable truth does not suggest that formal education was completely unimportant. It suggests, instead, that much of what caused the Industrial Revolution was the scientific knowledge obtained by an elite group of highly skilled artisans, inventors and entrepreneurs. It was not the average level of education of every Brit that mattered. Most of the breakthrough technologies of the era – the Spinning Jenny, the steam engine – came instead from upper-tail tinkerers who had hoped to make a profit from their innovations.

A wonderful new research paper by economists Mara Squicciarini and Nico Voigtländer in the Quarterly Journal of Economics confirm this. They use the subscriber list to the mid-eighteenth century French magazine Encyclopédie to show that knowledge elites mattered in explaining the first Industrial Revolution: in those French towns and cities where subscriber density to the magazine was high, cities grew much faster in the following century, even when controlling for a variety of other things, like wealth and general levels of literacy. Their explanation? Knowledge elites (engineers, scientists, inventors) raise the productivity at the local level through their piecemeal innovations, with large positive spill-overs for everyone around them.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. High-skilled workers are the stars of today’s knowledge economy. Their innovations and scientific discoveries spur productivity gains and economic growth. Think, for example, of the immense contributions of Sergey Brin’s Google, or Elon Musk’s Tesla, or even Jan Koum’s WhatsApp. It is for this reason that the mobility of such highly talented individuals has become such an important topic – consider that all three individuals mentioned above are immigrants to the United States. There is little doubt that the most prosperous economies of the future will be the ones to attract the most skilled talent.

Which is why understanding the push-and-pull factors of current global talent flows are so important, and the subject of an important new article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The four authors begin with the facts.  High-skilled elites are more mobile: between 1990 and 2010, the number of migrants with a tertiary degree increased by 130%; those with only primary education increased by only 40%. More of these high-skilled migrants depart from a broader range of countries and head to a narrower range. While OECD countries constitute less than a fifth of the world’s population, they host two-thirds of high-skilled migrants. 70% of these are located in only four countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

The United States, unsurprisingly, dominates all rankings. Since the 1980s, of all the Nobel Prizes awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Economics, academics associated with American institutions have won over 65%, yet only 46% of this group was born in the United States.


One fascinating and underappreciated fact of global migrant flows is the role of highly educated women. Between 1990 and 2010, high-skilled women immigrants to OECD countries increased from 5.7 to 14.4 million; in fact, by 2010, the stock of highly skilled women migrants exceeded male migrants! As the authors note, ‘Africa and Asia experienced the largest growth of high-skilled female emigration, indicating the potential role of gender inequalities and labour market challenges in origin countries as push factors.’

And what about South Africa? The authors calculate the emigration rates of high-skilled individuals by country for 2010, and plot these on a graph. South Africa is a clear outlier: emigration of high-skilled individuals is the sixth highest of the countries included, and by far the highest for countries with more than 10 million people. This is worrisome. True, some of this emigration is made up by high-skilled immigrants from our African neighbours, like Zambia and Zimbabwe, who also have high emigration rates. But the fact remains: our economic outlook will remain precarious if we continue to shed high-skilled individuals at these exorbitant rates.

Is there something to do? The authors mention various push and pull factors that affect the decision to migrate, from gatekeepers that pull the best talent by giving citizenship based on a points system to repressive political systems that suppress freedom of speech and scientific discovery and push the best and brightest to emigrate. If South Africa is to prosper, high-skilled individuals should be recruited and retained – not pushed to find opportunities elsewhere. Protests at universities do not help; providing residency to graduates, as the South African government has proposed, will.

In the knowledge economy, knowledge elites are the bedrock of success. If we are to learn from history, cultivating them should be our number one priority.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 3 November.

How a pair of glasses – and a cup of tea – can change the world

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Cup of tea 4

I got my first set of eyeglasses at the age of 16. I vividly remember sitting at the back of the physics class and squinting to read the formula on the board, and the embarrassment of having to move to the front. I also vividly remember the joy of facing my friend in the nets when, wearing new contact lenses, I could finally ‘read’ his spinners.

Invented in Italy in the 13th century, eyeglasses were initially used by scribes to allow them to remain productive long after their natural eyesight had deteriorated. But the technology improved over time, and has allowed me and many generations of young and old, male and female, doctors, soldiers, clerks, truck drivers, computer scientists and athletes with hyperopia (farsightedness) to remain productive members of society.

But many millions are not so lucky. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 20 million Africans are visually impaired, and hopes to reduce this figure by 25% by 2020. Many of these are children in schools, struggling to read the board or their prescribed books. This is an example, it seems, where developmental efforts should be focused: an inexpensive solution with long-term benefits for the recipients.

A new study published in the Journal of Development Economics attempts to measure the gains from just such a programme. Paul Glewwe, Albert Park and Meng Zhao report the results from a randomized control trial in Western China that offered free eyeglasses to rural primary school students. Almost 10% of primary school students in these areas have poor vision, but very few of them wear glasses. The authors find that wearing eyeglasses for one academic year increased the average test scores of students with poor vision by an amount equivalent to 0.3 to 0.5 years of additional education.

That is a massive economic return to a small investment, which should raise the question: Why don’t parents make this investment themselves? For poorer families, it seems that eyeglasses are still too expensive. But other factors matter too: parents often lack awareness of their children’s vision problems, and it seems like girls are more likely to refuse wearing glasses. Maybe it’s time to introduce more glasses-wearing female characters in children’s programmes. (Apart from 78-year old Carl in Up, I can think of few Pixar/Disney movies with a lead character with glasses.)

This type of research allows policy-makers to identify the low-hanging fruit of development. Whereas more textbooks, or higher teacher salaries, or even deworming programmes (all policies that have been tested in schools) can be expensive, free eyeglasses will, with a small initial investment, yield large returns for the (often marginalised) individual and society.

Initiatives to improve health can have many other benefits too. Randomized control trials have been done on the impact of everything from washing hands and better toilets, to home-visitation programmes for teenage mothers and promotion programmes aimed at reducing open defecation. (Eliminating open defecation in rural villages, it is found, can increase child height significantly.)

South African researchers are making progress in identifying the low-hanging fruit for local communities. Ronelle Burger and Laura Rossouw, two researchers at Stellenbosch University, are investigating the impact of the Thula Baba Box, a box filled with baby products, clothes, information brochures, basic medicines, toys and other items, and given to young mothers. If the results show a large, positive impact on maternal and child health, there is no reason why the Thula Baba Box cannot be provided, free of charge, to all mothers in the country. Not only is it morally just, but it is a clever investment strategy too.

Sometimes, though, the low-hanging fruit can be as basic as a cup of tea. A new study by Francisca Antman of the University of Colorado-Boulder investigates the custom of tea drinking in 18th century England. One of the unintended consequences of tea drinking, which happened even among the lower classes, was an increase in the consumption of boiled water. She finds that regions in England with lower initial water quality had larger declines in mortality after tea drinking became widespread. This ‘accidental improvement’ in public health, she argues, happened at the same time as people were moving into cities, thus providing a healthy pool of labour needed for industrialization.

The next time you sit down with a cup of tea and a good book (remember those glasses!), remember the profound effect those simple ‘technologies’ have had, and, with the help of researchers and government funding, are still likely to have in much of the developing world.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 30 June.

How to decolonise an Economics curriculum

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The economics curriculum at South African universities is in crisis, claims Ihsaan Bassier, an honours student at UCT. He writes that UCT’s curriculum is ‘largely abstracted from South Africa’s economic crisis and reinforces an anti-poor understanding of policies’. He explains:

Economics is presented as an amoral subject, only examining mechanistic questions and optimising efficiency. If it is amoral, why is so little attention given to heterodox thought? Capitalism arbitrarily privileges those with money over others in the most violent form possible, through a system of class protection, marginalisation of the poor and gross injustice. Rather than being amoral, undergraduate economics in fact promotes a horrible moral: that “rationality” is defined as profit-maximisation and that the point of departure is our violent system. Students are trained to be apologists for capitalism and alternatives are marginalised.

It is both bad economics and anti-poor for students to be bombarded with arguments that government intervention and minimum wages are “bad”. Social benefits are blamed for unemployment, as if it is preferable to allow people to starve; regulation is demonised, as if unfettered business would solve South Africa’s economic problems. Some attention is eventually given to market failure, but only as a token.

Why do we not learn more seriously about other systems and behaviours, about technical aspects of socialism and redistribution, about power, about how racism interacts with capitalism, the pervasiveness of rent and out-of-equilibrium dynamics, or an endless number of alternatives that my education has not exposed me to?

UCT’s curriculum is quite similar to that of Stellenbosch, where I teach. So let me respond to these rather big accusations, and then make a suggestion.

Capitalism arbitrarily privileges those with money over others in the most violent form possible. Economics equips students with a set of tools that allow them to explain the world around them. One of those tools is statistical analysis, which means we can test a hypothesis – like the above statement – with evidence from the real world. And unfortunately for Ihsaan, the real world evidence is pretty clear on this one: capitalism, a system based on the principle of individual rights, has created remarkable economic freedom for humanity over the last three centuries. Consider this: the real income of the median person in the world doubled in the period between 2003 and 2013, a period that included a financial crisis. In 1981 more than half the people in the world lived in absolute poverty. Today, it is less than 20%. It is simply wrong to declare, without proof, that capitalism arbitrarily privileges those with money. Millions of Indians, and Chinese and, yes, Africans too, have higher living standards than their parents did, and that is highly correlated with more market activity, not less. (In fact, privileging arbitrarily is exactly what communism does, by removing people’s individual freedoms and choices. Just ask the Latvians or any other Eastern Europeans who suffered its consequences.)

Global poverty the last two hundred years

Global poverty the last two hundred years

That is not to say that everything about capitalism is great. Capitalism is not one thing – it morphs into different forms depending on the political and social context. Capitalism in America is certainly more unfettered than capitalism in, say, France. And there is certainly space for more debate about the type of capitalism we need in South Africa.

But those debates need to be based on sound theories and falsifiable evidence. Economic policy arguments – Is a higher minimum wage better for the poorest? Do social benefits lead to unemployment? Does regulation impede growth? – are all empirical questions, one that economists’ statistical toolkits can answer. Yes, we have theories about how the world works, but as Dani Rodrik explains in his excellent new book, Economics Rules, there is not one single (better) theory, but a menu of theories that economists can use to understand their world. Think of a theory (or a model) as a map. There is no single map that explains everything. Sometimes you need a world map just to look at countries. Sometimes you need a street map to take you to your destination. Other times you need a map of the soil quality if you want to sow for the coming season. Economists’ models are the same. We use different models in different contexts, and what makes a really good economist is picking the right model for the right question.

EconomicsRulesHere, Ihsaan’s critique is valid. In first and second year, the emphasis is too much on a single theory (or model) of the world, the standard, neoclassical theory. There are good reasons for this, of course: it is mathematically tractable and provides a solid base for understanding basic human interaction. And that is exactly why it is a good platform for understanding why it does not work in every setting: the assumptions are strong but they are also explicit. Relax some of those assumptions, and the results change. This is exactly how we come to improve our understanding of the world. (In my class, I discuss these assumptions in the South African context and ask the students whether they may or may not hold. That is, I’ve found, how students actually gain a better understanding of the complexities of the problems we have in South Africa, and an appreciation for the tools of economics, of modeling and statistical testing, to solve them.) But a more explicit treatment of the menu of theories economists have at their disposal is necessary.

Ihsaan offers three solutions to solve the curriculum conundrum: 1) admit that we are in a crisis, 2) allocate time to a topic in proportion to its importance in our context, 3) include topics such as poverty, unemployment and inequality from the first year. He fears that too many students leave Economics after only one or two years, without understanding the nuances of the models.

What undergraduate Economics begins to do is equip students with the analytical tools to investigate the important topics of our era. Students need the basic skills of mathematical and statistical analyses to be able to empirically test the questions we are all concerned about. To make it more practical: Debating poverty in South Africa is very difficult if your opponent has no idea how to calculate a ‘poverty line’ or ‘median income’. Or the impact of a higher interest rate with someone who has no idea what the monetary transmission mechanism is. Or the impact of an increase in VAT with someone who has never heard about tax incidence. That is why we need those first three years.

And yes, many students leave after only two years. True, they will have a limited understanding of Economics. But no one expects me to be a psychologist with just Psychology 1, or fluent in French with just French 2. This is why we need to encourage more students to enroll for Economics graduate degrees, and why we need to expose them to more analytical tools, not fewer. We cannot afford to have a society where economic policy is not informed by sound economic analysis undertaken by well-trained, analytical economists. Undergraduate Economics – with the emphasis on rigorous analytical training in microeconomics and macro-economics – needs to stay. This not only gives a solid toolkit for those who want just the ‘essence’ of Economics, but it also allows students to continue with graduate Economics, not only in South Africa but elsewhere. And as I’ve said before, to get into US universities requires a lot of analytical skills.

But I also understand the need for more context, for thinking and discussing the very real material problems that South Africans face. So, I have another solution for Ihsaan, one that betrays my biases: We can look to the past to help us understand today’s problems, and we can look to what the brightest minds have thought about solving these complex problems. In short, we can do more to encourage Economic History and the History of Economic Thought as analytical tools of their own to make sense of today’s development problems.

Ihsaan is fortunate: UCT does have a good undergraduate economic history programme, and a wonderful third-year class in the History of Economic Thought. Global and African economic history provides us with an understanding of the historical roots of poverty, inequality and unemployment; the past does not only explain the present, as one colleague notes, but it is analogous to the present. The History of Economic Thought is concerned with philosophers’ (or theorists’) ideas about solving the economic problem, including philosophers that were very much in favour of socialism. If the neoclassical model is a country-map, the History of Economic Thought is a map of the world, showing how neoclassical thinking evolved and why it became the dominant model.

At Stellenbosch, we have created an entire course in the second year to investigate past and contemporary economic development. One semester of Economics 281 starts with the Neolithic Revolution (circa 8000 BCE) and ends with the Economics of Apartheid. The other semester considers all kinds of current development policies, with a specific focus on South Africa. I see Economics 281 as complementary to the standard Economics courses. You cannot have the one without the other.

You do not decolonise a curriculum by removing content. If you do that, you deny students the opportunity to participate in global debates and the global job market. You decolonise by adding more context and diversity. We advance science by standing on the shoulders of giants. Decolonisation done right can add more shoulders to stand on.


Can South Africa’s empirically-minded public intellectuals please stand up?

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Much has been said about South Africa’s economic situation in recent months. Even more has been written about the underlying ills that explain everything from protests at universities to the persistent poverty in the former homelands. This piece by Raymond Suttner, a principled intellectual who paid a heavy price – seven years in jail – for his political activities during apartheid, perhaps best exemplifies the tomes of op-ed pieces trying to make sense of the situation.

And then Dan de Kadt*, an MIT student in Political Science, wrote the following on Facebook in response to the Suttner piece:

In my opinion this is the type of article we need fewer of in South Africa. Not because Raymond Suttner is fundamentally “wrong”, but because this article is a platitudinous summary of what we already know. And somehow it even gets the summary wrong, by being deeply non-empirical.

1) Pretty much everyone who is not a racist bigot (e.g. all those white folks posting on “White Genocide” groups or commenting on News24) knows that South Africa is still living through the legacies of Apartheid – political, sociological, economic, geographic, etc. The structural challenges facing people in South Africa clearly cut along race lines, and the consequences of that are deeply troubling. Egregious inequality, limited inter-generational mobility, social violence, state violence, etc, all following racial lines. It is anecdotally obvious, and empirically obvious too, if you bother to look at actual data.

But understand that the racist bigots aren’t going to change their opinions because of the nth article stating these facts, no matter how well written or persuasive it is. Trying to convince Apartheid dinosaurs is a fruitless (and actually unnecessary) enterprise.

2) While the above claims are undeniable, they are also stylized – they are generalizations and simplifications. As Suttner points out, a lot of progress has been made since 1994. But then he turns around and says things like “Black people’s life opportunities are little different from that of their parents.” On average, that’s simply false for any reasonable definition of “little different”. And it’s obviously false if you just look at the (slow, but real) emergence of the black middle class, a group that tends to be young and upwardly mobile. There’s ample census and labour force data that backs this up – for black South Africans there is better inter-generational mobility now than before, and income and wealth are slowly (far too slowly) being redistributed to the emerging urban black middle class.

The same is true of many many things in post-1994 South Africa. Electricity, water, sewerage, refuse collection access? Virtually non-existent for black South Africans in 1994, much more existent now. If you actually bother to look for it, we have the data needed to examine where the country is failing and where it is not, where Apartheid persists, and where it does not. That is what we need from our public intellectuals, rather than endless repetitive platitudes about how “things are essentially the same”.

3) The failure to recognize this subtler empirical reality means that Suttner fails to capture emergent intra-race class cleavages. There are indeed many young black South Africans whose opportunities/lives are as limited/horrifying as their parents’ were. But these are, for the most part, not students at universities (certainly not UCT). They are, for the most part, not the people participating in RMF or FMF. They are the children of some 17 million exclusively black (read almost half) South Africans who are still forced to live in, essentially, Apartheid-era Bantustans, the only parts of the country where service provision is systematically worse now than it was in 1996. They are the children who eagerly went to school in grade 1 only to find their teacher absent 3/5 days a week. They are that young man on the trash heap while Gareth and Dali walk by laughing. An entirely contrary reading of the RMF/FMF movement is that it is an expression of the emergent black middle class, and its ignoring of (not to say dislike of, or indifference to) the plight of those who remain “below” them. Free university? For whom, the 5%?

4) What this country needs is intellectuals who write articles that explain how to FIX the legacies we’ve inherited. Suttner gives us a brief paragraph about how “we could have done better” on NSFAS because “other places have”. Like where!? Tell us!? That’s valuable f*cking information! Problems in the education system limit black South Africans prospects? No sh*t! Now, please tell us how you think we should fix it, or at least start a debate about how to fix it, preferably one based on actual evidence.

There are so many brilliant minds in this country, and so many brilliant ideas worldwide about how to address the kinds of problems we face. Our problems are not unique. But all we deserve, it seems, is yet another article from a celebrated public intellectual telling us what’s wrong (and with little empirical evidence to back it up, to boot).

Diagnosing the ills of South Africa in broad strokes is, to be honest, extremely straightforward. Apartheid makes it so. What we need are bright minds and public intellectuals leading empirically grounded debates about policy and about how to fix the problems we (smart/not-bigoted people) know exist.

Yes, yes, and yes! First, this is why South Africa’s best and brightest students should study fields (and equip themselves with tools) that will allow them to address these serious questions. Second, we need to expect more of our public intellectuals. A research paper or policy document or even an op-ed cannot simply be a few bundled ideas and theories without empirical proof. Third, there is way too much emphasis in South Africa on who says something, rather than what is being said. Science should be anonymous. Regardless of the nationality, gender or religion of the scientists, if results are falsifiable and repeatable, then they are all that matters. This is not entirely the case in the social sciences, because the real world is not a laboratory. But empirically-grounded research where social scientists analyse large data sets of household earnings, voter behaviour or race relations, for example, depend less on who is doing the research and more on what is being done. To use one example: we don’t care about the nationality, gender or religious orientation of the researcher who showed that less than 9% of South Africans use state-sponsored public transport (trains and buses) to get to work. Instead, we care about what this finding tells us about the inefficient transport system in South Africa, and the policies that could best fix it. I accept that not all research is quantitative, and that not everything can be reflected in numbers. (I’m an economic historian; sometimes numbers just don’t exist.) But what we should be cautious of is opinion (i.e. arguments not grounded in empirics). The ease of publication these days means that opinion often gets more attention than it deserves.

Dan’s last sentence is therefore indeed very important, so let me repeat it: What we need are bright minds and public intellectuals leading empirically grounded debates about policy and about how to fix the problems we know exist.

Can South Africa’s empirically-minded public intellectuals please stand up?

*I asked Dan’s permission to quote him. I tried to cut, but it was all just very good, and very valid. Thanks Dan.

University fees: The impossible trinity of higher education

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Revolutionary actions at UCT taking its toll: Image tweeted this morning by RhodesMustFall

Revolutions at UCT taking its toll: Image tweeted this morning by RhodesMustFall

A few months ago, I had one of the most gratifying experiences of my academic career, as a member of an appointment committee at Stellenbosch University. We had two candidates for a tenure-track position in economic history within the Department of Economics. Both were  Masters students within our department, but the quality of the interviews would have suggested otherwise: the candidates were clearly passionate, eloquent and thoughtful in their answers.  I remember thinking afterwards of the story of Paul Samuelson’s dissertation defense at Harvard, when one member of the committee, the great Joseph Schumpeter turned to another member, Nobel Laureate Wassily Leontief, and asked, ‘Well, Wassily, do you think we have passed?’. And it’s true: the questions both candidates asked of us were often more grueling than what we asked them.

The point is, if we had the resources, there was no reason not to appoint both. In fact, that was the recommendation of several members of the appointment committee.

But we couldn’t. Because of something called the Budget Constraint.

This week, on campuses across South Africa, students will continue their protest against higher tuition fees. Classes at Wits University were called off for several days last week as students demanded that a fee increase of 10.5% for next year be rescinded. Similar protests are happening as I write his at UCT and Rhodes and Stellenbosch in the face of similar increases.

In some of the comments I’ve read, the increases are seen as a sinister way to exclude poor students, almost all black, from South Africa’s elite universities. (This is happening at other universities too: Fort Hare has proposed an increase in registration fees of 42% and an increase in tuition fees of 15%. As I write here, there are other serious issues at Fort Hare too.) But this sinister explanation is simply not true: universities are desperate to attract the best talent and ensure their success. What students often don’t know is that a university forgoes its government subsidy when a student fails, which covers about two-thirds of the total cost. Failure is expensive, both for the student and the university.

But it is also true that a 10.5% hike is close to double inflation. And attending university is already incredibly expensive. By my estimates, at least 95% of South Africans cannot afford to spend R100 000 a year to send their kids to varsity (which would include tuition fees, accommodation, textbooks, and spending money). To give some context, only 4% of South African households earn R500 000 per year or more. Most students need a loan, as I did and almost all of my friends. But we were the lucky ones. Many students’ parents simply don’t have the collateral to get loans. Some parents saved throughout their adult lives, forgoing many things to give their kids the opportunity of a better life. Here’s a story of one of our students:

My dad always reminiscences on the poverty of the 70s in KZN, when my grandfather couldn’t get a job in Johannesburg. My grandfather would sell one of his cows, so that all the children would at least have a pencil to write with and a book to write in. This meant that there was never any money left over for shoes. Dad always talks about the frost bites in winter and how he couldn’t feel his toes on his way to school. But, all he knew was that he had to get to school .

From those harsh experiences, my parents have instilled in us a deep sense of love, respect and appreciation for education. At some point my sister and I were both at Wits and UCT respectively and my parents definitely felt the financial burden to get us through school. It wasn’t easy, but all they knew was that they had to get us through varsity. We thank God that they could. I know that a 10.5% increase in fees would have compromised their ability to get us through school. Some of my friends were not so fortunate. I’ve seen many friends and colleagues being financially excluded in the middle of their degrees.

The #witsfeesmustfall campaign is legitimate. For some a degree is just a paper, yet for another that degree is a ticket out of poverty.

So how should universities balance fee increases with the need to grow their talent pools, specifically of black staff? There are only three other alternatives: 1) cut budget items elsewhere, 2) raise income from third party sources, or 3) greater transfers from national government.

The first is dangerous. The first item on any budget – for a university, but also for a country or a household – that is usually slashed in the face of pressure is new infrastructure and maintenance of existing infrastructure. Consider this: when your monthly salary suddenly falls, what will you cut first? Probably the new tires for your car. You can always do that next year, right? Governments do the same: we can always build that power plant next year, or skip the maintenance on those roads for when we have a bigger budget. Many campuses across South Africa already struggle with dilapidated facilities. Infrastructure construction has not kept pace with student enrollment, meaning that students often have to sit on the floor in lectures. The point is: there is very little scope in university budgets for further fiscal restraint.

Raising third-stream incomes is a better alternative. But this type of income is often a consequence rather than a cause of excellence. Only the top universities will be able to attract third-stream incomes, either from donors or in collaboration with the private sector. Donor money is also incredibly contingent: donors want to add their names to new buildings, or see their donations spent on sport teams, or pay for bursaries. Few want to donate money to pay salaries. Third-stream incomes through collaborations with the private sector can provide additional capacity in some industries – like engineering – but even here the effect on the total budget is limited.

The only alternative is to increase government funding, which in South Africa lags behind what other countries spend on tertiary education. Here is Belinda Bozzoli earlier this year in the Financial Mail:

The fundamental problem is that the anchor of it all, the government subsidy, is low in absolute terms, by world standards. SA university funding languishes at levels below those of dozens of emerging economies. At a mere 0,6% of GDP it is dwarfed by the levels in Saudi Arabia (2,3%), Russia (1,8%), Argentina (1,4%) and India (1,3%). Furthermore, SA’s expenditure on higher education is a mere 12% of expenditure on education as a whole, whereas for the rest of Africa it is 20%, for OECD countries it is a massive 23,4%, and for the rest of the world it is 19,8%.

To make it worse, the core subsidy for universities has consistently fallen in real terms in relation to student numbers, which have, in turn, risen dramatically. This has skewed the entire model. The fall began under apartheid, when many free-thinking universities were regarded with suspicion, and continued apace under the ANC, which continues to choose to place nearly all of its education funding into schools.

Given the difficult environment Minister Nhlanhla Nene will face this week in his Medium Term Budget Policy Statement, with growth slowing, tax income falling, and few prospects of a reversal, a sudden increase in higher education funding is unlikely.

So what to do? As Dan de Kadt, a PhD student in Political Science at MIT remarked on Facebook this week, universities face a new impossible trinity: appoint more black scholars, reduce student fees, or cut costs through outsourcing and maintenance on facilities. An impossible trinity means that you can only have two of the three: so, which two will it be? That is why university management is such a difficult task: there has been protests on campuses against all three issues this year, and I’ve seen a poster on Twitter this morning demanding all three. This is like asking for healthy food, a lot of food and cheap food, all at the same time. It is an impossible trinity. You can always only have two of the three. (I know which two I chose as a student.)

The Budget Constraint is a reality that we cannot wish away. We can label it elitist, racist, capitalist, colonialist, and neoliberal, but it won’t disappear, not for a university, not for a country (as Minister Nene will try and convince parliament this week) and also not at the household level. The Budget Constraint is the reason poor families struggle to afford sending their kids to university. We have to find solutions within the Budget Constraint.

So what is the solution? I don’t think we can afford to relax spending on maintenance while running university facilities into the ground. (If we do, we also lose the ability to collect third-stream incomes, which further exacerbate the problems.) There is a trade-off between hiring more black academics (i.e. transforming faster) and lowering student fees. My preference is for the first, because I think we can think more creatively about the second.

I would argue for better targeted support for poorer students, instead of a blanket reduction in student fees. Here is my colleague, Eldridge Moses, on the topic:

Would bursaries and other forms of economic alleviation instruments not be more targeted interventions than the blunt instrument of blanket fee reductions or freezes? I would strongly suggest more progressive thinking on inequality reduction. A blanket freeze on fees benefits the rich way more than it does the poor due to access issues.

Eldridge is correct. Reducing student fees will benefit the wealthy more than poorer students because tertiary education is more accessible to the rich. So I would take a different approach and increase student fees by 25%. Yes, you read that right: 25%! Then I would use the additional 15% income from these fee increases to provide bursaries for students that come from poor backgrounds. A multi-tier or sliding scale system – where, for example, those with parents earning above R500 000 per annum pay R150 000, and those earning less than R50 000 pay R15 000 – is a far more equitable option than scrapping fee increases for all. And there will be additional funds to appoint black staff.

The sad reality is that the pressure to have a blanket fee reduction for all students will not only benefit wealthy students more than poor students, but it will inhibit universities’ ability to appoint excellent, young black scholars. In the job interview I took part in a few months ago, both candidates were female, black South Africans. Due to the Budget Constraint, however, we could appoint only one. The other candidate, equally brilliant, had a grandfather who struggled to get a job in Johannesburg and therefore had to sell his most prized possession to give his children, and grandchildren, the education they deserve.

I say: Let’s get a better fee system, and appoint his granddaughter.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 19, 2015 at 09:19

Fort Hare deserves a better future

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Two former graduates of the University of Fort Hare: Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela

Two former graduates of the University of Fort Hare: Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela

Imagine a university that trained most of the leaders of the largest political party of a country. A university which educated many past and existing leaders of several other countries. A university which trained thousands of doctors, lawyers and other civil servants. A university which educated a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

This university would be the flagship of any country’s education system, yet in South Africa it is not. Fort Hare, despite its illustrious history, is not ranked in the top 10 universities in South Africa. It barely makes it into the top 100 in Africa.

And, unfortunately, UFH seems poised to remain there.  The university has a R100-million deficit. It has reportedly used National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) money – intended to subsidise students from poor backgrounds – to pay staff salaries. And only last Friday it emerged that the university’s registrar, Prof Mike Somniso‚ was recorded saying to a colleague that he will unleash the ANC’s uMkhonto weSizwe military veterans on DASO, the Democratic Alliance’s Student Organisations that, surprisingly, won the Student Representative Council elections last year. Let’s think carefully about that: a university registrar calling for violence against students.

Here is Max du Preez on Facebook about the recording:

So how come this is not a scandal in South Africa? A senior administrator at a university planning violent attacks on student leaders to make it impossible for groups other than the ANC to operate on campus? Where is the reaction of the minister of Higher Education – this was revealed on Friday morning already. Have we written off Fort Hare as an academic institution? Isn’t it perhaps time to launch an ‪#‎OpenFortHare‬ campaign?

It is difficult not to become cynical about the attempts on other South African campuses to reform higher education when Fort Hare, a beacon of hope for many black scholars in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa during apartheid’s darkest days, is withering away. Just imagine, some would say, what the response would have been had a UCT or Stellenbosch or Wits registrar called for violence against students!

Instead, we find a deafening silence. No resignation. No national twitter campaign ostracizing the individual or institution. No call to appear before Parliament’s Higher Education Portfolio Committee. (To be sure, UFH was due to appear on the 23rd of September to explain the charges of fraud, but the meeting was postponed indefinitely.)

Those of us who care deeply about the state of higher education in South Africa are left bewildered. What will it take to transform Fort Hare (and many of the other formerly black universities) into a national asset that can deliver minds that can contribute to a more prosperous South Africa? Funding? Management? Student activism? I don’t know, but the many brilliant minds that go there – I know, one of my own PhD students is a former graduate – deserve better.

I don’t want to belittle the legitimate demands for transformation at South Africa’s top universities. But the number of classrooms and lecturers at these universities are simply too few to provide a quality education to all who want it. If we want to improve South Africa, we – the government, yes, but also civil society like the campus movements pushing for change – need to shine a light on all places that can provide quality education for thousands of students who won’t find places at (or cannot afford) the top universities. That includes Fort Hare.

This is currently not happening, which means that the financial mismanagement and the utterances of a registrar is not delivering on Fort Hare’s vision of In lumine tuo videbimus lumen (In Thy Light We See Light), a vision that had inspired the likes of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe and Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

We need to #LightUpFortHare. Their future students (and the legends of the past) deserve nothing less.

Written by Johan Fourie

September 30, 2015 at 07:33