Johan Fourie's blog

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Posts Tagged ‘study

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

What can you do with only matric?

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Of the 1 252 071 South African students who entered Grade 1 in 2003, only 150 752 (or 12%) matriculated with access to a Bachelors degree at university. That single statistic encapsulates the sad reality of the South African education system. Even worse, a large proportion of the 12% won’t ever make it to university, either because they have alternative plans or, more likely, because they cannot afford it. Those who make a success of their university education will go on to find well-paying jobs; those without access (or who fail) will have to compete with the 88% remaining 18-year old’s for a job in a country with a broad unemployment rate of close to 40%. The severe income inequality in South Africa today is perpetuated by the inequality of our education system.

In addition, fewer unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are being created. Mechanisation and computerisation mean that robots are increasingly doing the jobs of unskilled workers; walk into a motor vehicle assembly plant, or visit a maize farm, or go to a supermarket in a developed country and you can easily see how robots and machines are replacing human labour. I even get phone calls from electronic telemarketers (surely, those can’t be successful?). So, given the large supply of unskilled labour in South Africa and the dearth of demand for such workers, what can those matriculants without access to university do?

A lot. Although there are many jobs that are becoming redundant because machines can perform them better, technological innovation can also be complimentary to unskilled labour, i.e. robots can also create jobs for poor people. In contrast to the first phase of industrialisation – when poor, unskilled (blue collar) workers worked on farms or in mines and (manu)factories and rich, skilled (white collar) workers had cosy desk jobs in the services industries like banking and insurance – the trend is reversing: the highest paying jobs are now building and programming the robots who do all the farming and mining and manufacturing, while poorer, less-qualified workers work in the services industries. Yes, some service industries, like lawyers and accountants and dentists, are still incredibly well paid, but other service industries that provide work for unskilled labourers are also flourishing.

Consider cellphone repair shops in townships. A decade ago, only fixed-line pay phones were available in poor areas, and they were serviced by technicians of Telkom. Now, with a little bit of ingenuity and experience, anyone can be a cellphone (or laptop) repair man (or woman). Smart phones are not only connecting companies with clients, but also with a work force they would never have had access to. As The Economist writes this week, the future of work will increasingly be outsourced. That is true both for skilled occupations, like lawyers and HR and management consultants, but also for unskilled labourers. Consider Uber, a car service which was founded in San Francisco in 2009 and which already operates in 53 countries including South Africa. Technology allows anyone with a decent car to act like a taxi service, creating jobs for people that only need a drivers license. It will certainly injure the existing taxi services. But it is generating far more new jobs than it is destroying, simply because far more people will use the new (cheaper and more efficient) service. (Unfortunately, government regulations are very slow to adapt to new technologies, and it is incredibly disappointing that Uber cars are now being pulled off Cape Town roads simply because government officials are unwilling, or unable, to understand the immense benefits of the new service, killing jobs for those who need it most.) Or consider Handy, a company where you can find someone to clean your house, or do small plumbing jobs, or paint, or fix the paintings to the wall. Technology (such as smart phone apps) now allow the providers of such services to be matched to the suppliers of such services at very low cost, creating jobs for the unskilled.

What can be done to encourage more of this behaviour? Governments could ease regulation to make such exchanges legal and less complicated. Entrepreneurs should build apps that allow people to match their needs (dog sitters, electricians, massage therapists, tattooists, midwives, house cleaners, snake catchers, whatever) to those who can provide it. What we need is a Gumtree for the service industry, with an interface like Uber.

But kids leaving school can help themselves too. They can start by acquiring basic skills that will be needed in a future where robots are our friends. A drivers license can still get you a job (especially working for yourself through Uber), but perhaps Google’s self-driving car will make that obsolete in ten years’ time. So here is my advice: think about what services cannot be done by machines. Sport coaches. Au pair services. Beauticians. Chefs. Wedding planners. Gardeners. Music teachers. Barbers. Paramedics. The best thing is that none of these require a university education. And these jobs will be in-demand for a long time to come; in fact, chances are you are more likely to find a job qualified in one of these professions than if you were to leave university with only a Bachelors degree. Often they will require extremely hard work and long hours, but in most cases you will be able to work for yourself, which means you determine the lifestyle you want.

Robots are not the evil things that will destroy the jobs of the poor. They may destroy some jobs, yes, but they will create far more jobs in other places; in fact, they may be the saving grace for our faltering education system. To identify the opportunities new technologies offer, matriculants without a university access will have to innovate, experiment, be entrepreneurial and dedicated. They will also have to learn to work with robots, not against them.

*If you want more advice on what to study, click here. If you want more advice on what to do when you get to university, this might help.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 11, 2015 at 07:08

Smart people should build things

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Because CNN says so: Kobus Ehlers and his team at FireID are building something:.

Because CNN says so: Kobus Ehlers and his team at FireID are building something.

Smart People Should Build Things is the title of a new book by Andrew Yang, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Venture for America. Yang shows that most graduates from top US universities become bankers, lawyers, consultants, or doctors in one of the five main metropolitan areas of America: New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Washington D.C. Why is this? Because smart people want to achieve, ‘and that’s what achievement looks like’ in America today.

In short, Yang’s story goes like this: The smartest kids go to the top universities, are recruited by the largest corporates and funnelled into fancy offices with high paying salaries where they perform routine, uninventive tasks. The reason they choose this path is because it is the road of least resistance: while it is arduous and challenging to study to be a doctor, or lawyer, or economist, the risk is low if you have a certain academic ability. Jump through the necessary academic hoops, and a high-paying job is assured.

To Andrew, this is a bad thing for America. Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg, known to be one of the top students of his generation, had decided to accept a job at a prominent New York consulting firm. Instead he founded Facebook, to the benefit of the American economy (including the consulting firm, who now advises clients to invest in Facebook) and billions of people around the world. And it’s not only the economy that benefits, Yang argues, but also the entrepreneurs themselves; Zuckerberg is not only fabulously wealthy, but he actually enjoys what he’s doing.

So is this also true for South Africa? What do South Africa’s top talent choose to study, and what do they end up doing with their lives? Are they building future Facebooks, or accepting cosy jobs in Sandton or Canary Warf? To answer this question, I tracked down the top 20 matric students on the Merit Lists for 2001 to 2010, published by the Western Cape Department of Education. A friend and I could find degrees and current job descriptions on 77% of these students (174 of the 226 students on the list; for several years, the List included the names of more than 20 students).

(Incidentally, 115 of these 174 matrics (66%) decided to study at Stellenbosch. The second most popular university is UCT, which attracted 20%. Only one student studied at the other Western Cape university, UWC. 61% of these students are female.)

At Harvard in 2011, 29% of graduates went into finance and consulting, 19% into Law School and 18% to medical school. Table 1 shows the choice of the Western Cape’s top talent: similar to Harvard, 18% of students studied to become medical doctors. Far fewer of our top students study Law (5%), while a significantly higher number went into finance and consulting – 36% when we add the two categories of Accounting, and Maths, stats and finance (which is dominated by Actuarial Science).

Field Freq. Percentage Upstarts Abroad




















Maths, stats and finance










Natural and Earth Sciences











We should ask the same question of South Africa that Yang asks for America: how many of our best students choose the paths of least resistance? To test this, I also include another variable in Table 1: ‘Upstarts’ show the percentage of students from the various fields that now work in small to medium-sized firms (I only included students that finished school up until 2007). The story is quite clear: those in Math, stats and finance, and in Accounting end up working for big, established corporates: for example, nine former students now work for PwC. It is the engineers (57%) and especially the scientists (71%) that end up working for small, South African start-ups. (Students from the Arts also end up in small firms, although the sample size here is tiny; we could only find information on four individuals.)

Students in Engineering and the Natural and Earth Sciences are more likely to start their own thing, or join another small start-up. Unfortunately, many of them do so in foreign countries. ‘Abroad’ denotes the share of students that are situated outside South Africa. Close to half of all the students with a Natural and Earth Sciences degree end up abroad. While some are continuing their studies at top US and British universities and will hopefully return to South Africa, many seem to have relocated permanently. How many of them might be a future Elon Musk?

South Africa needs more start-ups if it is to grow the economy. Most innovation (especially transformative innovation, like Facebook or, to use a South African example, Mark Shuttleworth’s Thawte) occurs in small firms, and this is also where most employment is created. And to lead such innovation and job creation we need the sharpest tools in the shed to start or join these young companies.

Because it is better for South Africa if our smartest students build their own companies or join young ones, perhaps we should offer them incentives to do so. Stellenbosch University already has excellent facilities for start-ups – the MIH Media Lab, for example, and InnovUS. Many Stellenbosch start-ups are already making their mark on the national and international stage, like digital payments app SnapScan, developed by FireID (a company founded by a top 20 Merit List alumni). But maybe we should do more, and Yang offers a number of suggestions like tax incentives, risk sharing or greater emphasis on graduate recruitment, like his own Venture for America.

Of course, we can’t all be innovators, scientists, and entrepreneurs. And not all start-ups will be successful. But what we should do is to create incentives that will reduce the risks for aspiring young innovators to try something new, incentives that will encourage smart kids to join an upstart rather than a corporate conglomerate. South Africa’s GDP – and their happiness – would be much better for it.

*A shortened version of this essay appeared in Die Matie, the student newspaper of Stellenbosch University (12 March 2014)

Written by Johan Fourie

March 12, 2014 at 09:49

A guide to your first year at university

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Thousands of students will arrive at campuses across South Africa in the next few weeks. It’s an exciting time for most: out of reach of over-protective parents and the disciplines of high school, the lure of freedom can be an academic and social nirvana. But it is also a time when tough decisions with telling consequences must be made: Should I study literature or engineering? Should I play cricket or join the student newspaper? How will I balance the many demands on my budget? Many students struggle to cope with such hefty decisions. These decisions cannot be avoided; ignoring to answer them immediately is also a decision, and probably the worst one. So I’ve decided to put together a short list of simple things first-year students can do to make their lives much easier, and give their future careers a jump start. You’re more than welcome to add suggestions in the comments section:

1. Consider your options

A university degree is not for everyone. Less than a third of students enrolling at South African universities this year will graduate by the end of 2016, and less than half will actually ever earn a degree. Don’t enrol because 1) your parents force you to, 2) all your friends do it or, worse, 3) you feel as though you don’t have alternatives. To study is expensive; to fail is even more expensive. If you are uncommitted, the costs of failure are severe, not only in financial terms but also psychologically.

Consider your options. There are several excellent training colleges around South Africa that specialise in a variety of trades such as gastronomy, carpentry, fashion design, nursing, welding, and graphic design. It’s not uncommon for students qualified in these fields to find jobs more easily than for students who leave university with the bare minimum. And if you have no idea what you’d like to do after school, why not take a gap year? Find a part-time job. If you can afford to, travel. It’s far better to use this year productively than to suffer the consequences of a rushed decision to enrol at university at all cost.

2. Do your homework (no, not that homework)

There is a famous story of a first-year student who arrived at the registration officer (when this was still done manually in the admin offices) on registration day. When asked what he intended to study, his reply was brief but memorable: ‘What do you have available?’ That’s not how you should make one of the biggest decisions in your life. Do your homework about what you want to study. There are many ways to do this, but often students (and their parents) go to great lengths gathering information that is at best trivial. Career councillors can provide helpful advice, but their advice can sometimes be very basic; they can help you distinguish broadly between medicine, engineering, or languages, but they’re not necessarily the best experts on subject choice and combinations. Instead, why not visit the university open day, talk to the university recruitment officers, or even make an appointment with a lecturer in the two or three programmes that interest you (see next point)? Another option is to have a beer with students that have just completed their studies, and ask them about their experiences. Or someone who has just entered the job market. Google and Wikipedia can help too. So too can blog posts, like my own one here. I’ve heard too many stories of students’ decisions being influenced by friends or family who later regret they didn’t spend more time asking advice from experts. I’d value the advice of a couple of lecturers and university administrators, or recent graduates, much higher than your well-intentioned father or friend who’s heard something from someone somewhere and whose opinion may be biased by their own experiences or priorities.

Oh, and after a few months, if you realise that another programme fits your interests and abilities better, make the switch. It is far better to take an extra year to finish something that you will enjoy doing for the rest of your life, than to force yourself to finish a programme only to please a parent.

3. Don’t follow the crowd

There are certain programmes where your choices are strictly limited: medicine, accounting or engineering, for various reasons, have a fixed course list with little room left in the programme for extra subjects. But in most other programmes, you will have a range of subjects to choose from. My advice is to not follow the crowd. Choose a combination that works for you, but that also challenges your comfort zone: if you’re studying B.Comm, why not enrol for Philosophy or History or Ethics? Or if you are a Physics major, why not also do Economics, or Geography or Spanish? If it’s not available within your programme, consider taking it as an extra subject. There are several reasons for doing this: 1) it’s fun to do something that challenges a different part of your brain, 2) the subjects can often be complimentary, and lead to deeper insights in your primary areas of interest, 3) you get to meet new people in different networks (see bullet 7), and 4) most importantly, after three years, you, together with hundreds of your fellow students will (hopefully) walk away from university with the same piece of paper. Except, yours will show that you’ve invested more, and have obtained a different skill set that distinguishes you from your peers. An employer would be far more likely to appoint someone that has shown initiative to expand their horizons and to think outside the box.

4. Go to class (and ask questions)

Usually a week before exams start, students begin to arrive at my door. It’s often the first time I see these students outside class and although I’m happy to help, I am hesitant to repeat things I had emphasised in my lectures. More shockingly, for some of them, it is the first time they see me, having not attended one single lecture throughout the semester. That’s not the way to make a success of your academic life. Class attendance is critical; studies undertaken in our department show that students who attend class regularly attain significantly better marks than their compatriots who don’t (controlling for observable things like high-school marks, degree choice, type of accommodation, etc.). Think of it this way next time your alarm goes off and you’re too lazy to get out of bed: every class you miss knocks about 1.5 percentage points off your final mark. Miss 10 of them, and instead of earning an honourable 65, you may struggle to pass.

Once you’ve made the effort to attend class, participate. Universities are places of inquiry. Thus, inquire. Your lecturers are not there to repeat what’s in the textbook, but to expand your horizons. And the only way you can expand help them to do so is to push them to the edge of it. Ask questions until you have the answers.

5. Meet the profs

But you can do more than to simply know who your lecturers are. I still remember the few students who, after our first class, have come up to me, introduced themselves and said that they look forward to a semester of interesting lectures. I also remember many of their names (and I’m bad with names). It just makes an excellent impression, and I would be very happy to help them should they need assistance later in the course. I’m not saying you should become BFFs. But a friendly introduction and a casual chat every now and then with your lecturer will show you (disappointingly, perhaps) that they are not as formidable or fearsome as they appear in class. And that they sometimes have interesting ideas (outside of the textbook). And that, surprisingly, they are also interested in your interesting ideas. Also remember that after three years you will probably be required to obtain reference letters for things like job, bursary or graduate study applications. It helps if your referee can actually identify you when a recruitment company calls.

6. Become a lecturer

What? Yes, you – give a lecture. We all have different ways of studying, and that is a good thing. But in my experience, there is no better way to learn than to teach the stuff yourself. Find a roommate, an imaginary friend, a distant relative or a pet, put them in front of a computer screen, open PowerPoint, and walk them through your lectures or old exam questions. Even if you cannot find a willing helper, one of the best ways to learn is to say your answers out loud (don’t do this in the library: you’ll get some unwelcome glares). Do the same with essays; there is no better way to identify your own bad writing than to read it aloud. More formally, university’s often offer tutor programmes where students can help mentor younger students. This is a great way to relearn what you’ve forgotten, and earn some extra money.

7. Build your networks

There is truth in the saying that it’s not really what you know, but whom you know. Universities are wonderful places to meet interesting and talented people, and there is never a better time to meet them than in your first year. In fact, nearly all social activities are designed to make it easier for you to do so. Take advantage of this, but be warned: not all networks are ‘good’ networks. We live in all kinds of social networks: close and extended family, friends you grew up with or went to school with, girl- or boyfriends, friends within your new university living quarters (in your hostel, apartment or even carpool), classmates, team mates, and drinking buddies. All of these can be ‘good’ in the sense that they broaden your horizons, exposing you to other individuals that share your passions and preferences. But it is also quite easy to get sucked into one of these networks, where all your time, energy and resources are devoted to a single group. Networks established at university can be extremely useful later in life. It’s best, therefore, to nurture wide networks, especially during your first year. As you grow older – and hopefully grow wiser – those networks that particularly appeal will become denser, and your friendships will grow deeper.

For some, meeting a lot of new people in a short space of time is the easiest thing in the world. Some of us are extroverts and find comfort in large social gatherings. Others will find this a frightening prospect; introverts would often rather enjoy the company of two or three intimate friends. For introverts, linking up to one or two extroverted friends can be a useful strategy to expose yourself to new networks. For extroverts, if you want lifelong friends, be nice to the introverts. (For a discussion on the varying roles of these two personality types, read Susan Cain’s Quiet – or listen to her TED talk here.)

8. Explore the neighbourhood and connect with its people

Don’t be afraid to explore parts of campus that are ‘off your beaten track’. I’ve heard of students who spend their entire university life in one of three buildings: their residence, the lecture room, and the study centre. Yet universities offer much much more. I’ve visited most South African campuses, and on each there have been wonderful museums, art galleries, architecture, boutique shops and sports infrastructure to explore. And go further: In Stellenbosch, where I teach, the town centre is about a 5 minute walk from campus, yet few undergraduate students ever take the trouble to explore its hidden gems (beyond the bars).

Getting to know your surroundings is an important first step, but I’d like to encourage you to also get to know the people in your new community. It is easy to live your years at university in a perfect bubble, isolated and blissfully unaware of what is happening on the ‘outside’. While this isolation is not always a bad thing – sometimes we need quiet to gain focus – it is vitally important to engage with the ‘real world’. Somewhere during the three years, you will have to confront the question: Why am I doing this? Why did I decide to study Political Science, or Geography, or Chemistry? It is difficult to answer these questions from within the bubble, because that world is radically different from the real one. Engaging regularly with life outside university allows you to maintain perspective.

But more than that, community engagement tends to have a positive influence on your studies. At the end of my first year, I joined a society that helped build houses around Cape Town. These experiences gave me new insights into the South African situation beyond the Economics textbook of the day; when every second person in the township would stop to ask for a manual labour job, I suddenly understood what a 25% unemployment rate meant. In fact, I’m pretty sure that these experiences influenced my decision to study Economics at the graduate level, and to select development economics as my initial area of focus.

There are many formal and informal ways to become involved in the community. Explore campus or the neighbourhood on your own or with a group of friends. (A pub crawl is a good start, but you can do more.) And join a residence project, or a church group, or a university society that is actively involved in the local community. There are many of these on all South African campuses, and it’s a great way to build a new network, have fun, and make a difference.

9. Travel

You will never again have the long, unfettered holidays that you will have as an undergraduate student. Use them. Travel.

Do it at least once a year. And I’m not thinking of a Contiki tour of Western Europe (although they can be fun too, if you can afford them). Instead, head north across the Limpopo and see more of the continent. Go ultra-cheap and use public transport (you can do a four-week holiday with less than R2000). Swim in Lake Malawi, safari in South Luangwa National Park, scuba in Mozambique, or trade in the markets of Dar es Salaam. (Cheap flights to Dar have recently been introduced, so if you’re really fussy about public transport, there are alternatives.) Or why not find a part-time job in Angola, Kenya or Ghana? South African companies eyeing African markets are increasingly in search of employees who have ‘African’ experience.

Or explore our diverse country. Get a group of friends together and take a road trip to Namaqualand, Nkandla, Newtown (Johannesburg) and Naboomspruit. I don’t remember much from my second-year, but I do remember an epic road trip with four friends through the Northern Cape. (Read more about why I travel.)

Universities across South Africa increasingly offer international exchanges, often for third-year or graduate students. Try to do at least one of them. Not only will they distinguish you from the crowd (see point 3), but you will return a more inspired and patriotic South African.

10.  Leave a legacy

As a student, you will have ample time to devote to meaningless things. Don’t just spend it watching series or playing games. Instead, start something new. Why not start a movement, a novel, a new tradition, a trend?

Or a business? The close proximity of like-minded individuals with exceptional skills makes universities a hotbed of innovation. Find these people, tap into their knowledge and networks, and do something great together. It is no coincidence that many of the fastest growing companies of the last two decades were founded by undergraduate university students ‘wasting time’ together. Some of my friends are now working in very successful start-ups that they founded when they were in residence together. Not all ventures last, of course. But the fresh ideas and touch naivety of a first-year can be a powerful antidote to the hubris of the real world. Take chances. Fail. Adapt. Learn.

Nearly everyone that qualifies for university has the ability to graduate within three years. That should be your primary goal. But by itself, that little piece of paper you receive at the end of your labours is really just that: a sign that you have achieved the minimum of what is required. To really benefit, you need to extract more from what universities have to offer academically and socially. See your first year as the foundation of your future, and build it as strong as possible. Don’t waste chances to connect wider, to investigate deeper, to explore further. It’s an exhilarating ride. Make it a meaningful one too.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 6, 2014 at 09:31

Why and what to study in South Africa

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Career_LetsTalkAboutVarsityIt’s exam time at universities across South Africa, which means most students will suddenly have too much time to ponder the existential questions of life: Why am I here? What am I doing? Why am I doing this? (If you haven’t had these thoughts yet, try studying econometrics.) So I thought I’d provide some answers so that you can get back to thinking about the more pressing matters, like passing Ecos 2.

Why study?

A new research paper by two Stellenbosch economists provides the answer: South Africans (of all races) with a university degree (not a diploma or certificate) enter a labour market with an unemployment rate of 5.9% (in 2012), compared to the 25% unemployment rate for the total population. In other words, a university qualification reduces the odds of you not finding a job from 1 in 4, to 1 in 17. The more surprising thing is that this result holds across all universities and disciplines: a degree – no matter where or what type – makes a significant difference in your likelihood of finding a job.

From the existing data and research there is not much statistical evidence that either the type of degree acquired, or the university attended, leads to a greater likelihood of being unemployed for a graduate (although we still need better data and more research to understand these aspects fully). Unemployment rates are relatively low even amongst black graduates who currently are more likely to enrol for courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences and attend ‘formerly disadvantaged’ universities. While the composition and quality of a degree may play a role in black graduate unemployment being higher than for white graduates, black graduates still experience lower graduate unemployment than in the European Union, for example.

What to study?

So what you study doesn’t seem to matter? No. The above study measures your likelihood to get a job. And even though an art historian is as likely to get a job than a chemical engineer, their remuneration (salary) is likely to be different. Few of us are only concerned about getting a job; most of us care about the financial rewards (and auxiliary benefits) that that job offers.

A recent list by PayScale, a US company, ranks the top-paying degrees in the United States. I think this is a pretty accurate reflection of South Africa too, with one exception (which I’ll get to later). If you want to earn the big bucks, engineering is a good place to start, occupying six of the top seven highest paid degrees. Only Actuarial Mathematics – Actuarial Science in South Africa – can compete. An obvious feature of the top thirty top-paying degrees is that they require a heavy dose of mathematics, and one could argue that, given the poor performance in maths at South African schools, the premiums on these degrees would be even higher. The point is this: if you get an A for Matric maths, your best option is to enrol in an undergraduate degree that further develops your math skills (Engineering, Physics, Actuarial Science, Statistics, Applied Mathematics, Computer Science). Studying mathematics is an excellent core skill to have; it opens up doors (at the graduate level) to many other applied fields, from the medical sciences, to software programming, to game theory, to managing your own business.

But not everyone can or want to (or should) be mathematicians. As the PayScale list shows, there are many other rewarding fields. One underrated field I consider to be increasingly important is supply chain management (or Logistics). Coding and computer programming will become increasingly important. And, as an economist, I must recommend Economics (and History): if you don’t believe me, read Noahpinion on why a PhD in Economics is the best thing since sliced bread. (Michael Jordaan, CEO of First National Bank, recently retweeted Noah’s post…)

And, remember, it is actually really really really important to do something you enjoy doing. You will spend most of your waking hours at work. You don’t want to hate it. (I’m happy that Ben Bernanke, chairperson of the Federal Reserve, shares this view. See point 7.)

Accounting for accounting

At this point, let me say something about the study of Accounting. Advising brilliant students (students that has the ability to study anything), school councillors in South Africa would most often suggest a career in either Actuarial Science and Accounting. To become a Chartered Accountant (following four years of study and two board exams) is seen as a ticket to riches and the logical option for many high-school students. To give one example of the preference for accounting; the School for Accounting at Stellenbosch now constitutes a third of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, which also include Economics, Management, Marketing, Logistics, Actuarial Science, Statistics, Industrial Psychology and the Business School.

This is a peculiar choice, and is unique to South Africa. Accounting is not a career choice for the brightest students in Europe or the United States, as is also clear from the PayScale list (Accounting doesn’t rank in the top 50). There are historical and institutional reasons for Accounting’s dominance at South African universities: the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants sets strict guidelines as to what should be included in undergraduate and graduate training, determines the difficulty of the board exams, and can thus limit the supply of Chartered Accountants (CAs) in the market. A limited supply increases the price, meaning qualified CAs earn well, which makes it even more sought-after. It is also a well-defined career path: get your Honours, write two exams, and you’re set. Make no mistake: these are some of the toughest exams to write, requiring years of hard studying. Only the toughest survive. The pay-off is a qualification with nearly limitless job opportunities (at least until the financial crisis hit) and guarantees high incomes.

Well-trained accountants have certainly contributed to the quality financial institutions South Africa is known for.  But – and this is a question I have no answer for – at what cost for the individuals and for society? I have not met many accountants who enjoy their job; they enjoy the benefits, yes, but not necessarily the auditing. These are driven individuals (you have to be to pass those exams) and they often rise quickly in an organisation, but is it because of the knowledge they gained studying Accounting or is it because they are inherently intelligent, motivated individuals? Would they not have climbed the corporate ladder in any event – perhaps even faster – with some other degree? More importantly for society, what if the most brilliant of South African high-school students, instead of learning auditing rules and tax principles and accounting standards, were grappling with the Hodge conjecture (in mathematics), the Gettier problem (in epistemology), the Golgi apparatus (in cell theory), the Equity Premium puzzle (in financial economics), or supermassive black holes (in astrophysics)? Or instead decided to create something brilliant: as authors, as artists, as entrepreneurs?

If Einstein was born in South Africa, he would probably have studied accounting. I’m not sure that he – or South Africa and the world at large – would have benefited much from such an arrangement.

I’m still at school and don’t know what I want to study

The good news is that it doesn’t really matter what you study, as long as you study something and make sure you get your degree. That degree – regardless of what you know – is already a sign to potential employers that you can work hard. But there are a few things you can do to improve your salary and job satisfaction:

  • Learn a computer language at school. Coding will open many job opportunities that probably don’t even exist yet.
  • In a world of information overload, writing succinctly is a skill that will be prized in all professions. To write well, read. Why not learn another language while you’re at it? (I would recommend Portuguese (for the fast-growing markets of Brazil, Mozambique and Angola), Swahili (East Africa), Mandarin (China), Spanish (the Americas) or French (West Africa, and to impress girls).
  • Of course, the richest people under 30 in the world are not the ones who studied. They are the entrepreneurs that had a great idea and put in a lot of effort to make those ideas a reality. Entrepreneurs are the life-blood of society. I can think of nothing more rewarding than building your company from a small garage workshop into something that has a profound impact on society, employing dozens or even hundreds or thousands of people. The sooner you start, the better.
  • If you need more information of university life, please read this book. It’s available (for free) on Google Books. If you’d like a hard copy, I still have thousands in my garage. (I started too late.)

Written by Johan Fourie

May 25, 2013 at 10:19