What if a good pass at grade 12 – a ‘matric’ – was all most people needed in life?
I’m being a little controversial, here. I may even seem hypocritical, since I work in higher education, and in fact recently graduated with a doctor of philosophy degree, the result of 10 years’ post-school study.
I love higher education. But many feel forced into it.
I think the problem starts when employers see many of the skill sets that the average young person coming out of our schools brings to the table.
They see, too, that our education system, still reminiscent of the one that we imported from South Africa in the 80s, which they in turn imported from Britain in the 50s, has failed to keep pace with the modern world.
(I’m not some fuddy-duddy hankering after the old days of ‘spare the rod’ apartheid schooling; in many, many ways it was even worse than now.)
Anyway, employers see this and say say, ‘good Lord, this won’t do, let them go to university’. And so, the whole academic inflation game begins.
Jobs that once, one could enter with six months on-the-job training, now require a bachelor’s degree. It amazes me how many young people are now being asked for a master’s, for jobs (corporate communications officer, general-assignment reporter) that I did just fine with a BA.
Some jobs do require a degree, and some a higher degree. One’s performance at most jobs could be improved through having a degree. But most jobs should be doable, in their basics, with a good grade 12 pass.
The problem is, except for a few outliers - the Windhoek International School, St. Pauls, Delta – our schools don’t produce these kinds of grade 12 graduates.
And what, you ask, should a ‘good grade 12’ graduate be able to do?
He or she should be able to think for him or herself, so as to, for example, tell the difference between a reasonably likely news event, and a social media hoax.
He or she should be able to write well enough a letter to a politician or the local paper, complaining that a service is not being provided. And a press release or email to a lawyer or protest poster design should that fail.
They should know political processes, so as to navigate their government. That to ‘table a bill’ means not to ask how much your meal cost, but to introduce a draft law for discussion in Parliament - and that the ‘Chief Whip’ has nothing to do with corporal punishment.
They should know basic biology and ecology. Not of the wrote-learning type (‘the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell’) but practical knowledge that means they are not fooled by the online scare story du jour on abortion or toxins or STDs. So they know what an urgent pressing crisis climate change really is.
Enough basic history that they know where they come from, and can see our country’s struggles as a part of an ongoing effort to recover from crimes against humanity. So they know what is meant by ‘power’, ‘privilege’ and ‘prejudice’ beyond the Twitter buzzwords.
At least, knowledge of what computers and networks are, and one or the other system to code information into them. I’m old enough to have taken my first computing class on an, ahem, Acorn BBC Microcomputer, with a keyboard bigger than a whole modern laptop, but it was enough of a base for me to self-update to the point of teaching web design for journalists today.
Some way to use the body, as well as the mind: dance, drama, sports, woodcarving, metalwork. We laughed at people who were good at that stuff in my school, but these are the most resilient industries: my cerebral government job is one angry finance ministry official away from the axe.
How we get to the point of every grade 12 graduate having all these skills, I’m not sure. I do know the experts talk about massive investments in rural and township schools, paying more attention to the earliest years of schooling, and involving the whole family in the education of a child. The experts ought to be listened to.
As a university lecturer, one of my greatest pleasures is to teach students who want to learn for the joy of gaining knowledge, rather than those who are only there because without it they’d be unemployable. Help me get more of those.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses here are personal. Tweet him @ellis_hugh