6 August 2014

South Africa: Stop Blaming the 'Skills Gap' for the Unemployment Crisis in South Africa


The skills gap or skills mismatch argument blames education for the lack of jobs, when instead, it is a crisis of capitalism that has caused the high levels of unemployment in South Africa, and in many other parts of the world, including Southern Europe, argues Salim Vally, co-editor of a new book, Education, Economy and Society.

It's a false argument and an ideological hoax to say that we have the jobs but not the skills. Vally also challenges the conventional assumption that education must simply align itself to the needs of the labour market. Instead he calls for a system that is more responsive to the needs of society. He calls for greater emphasis to be put on grooming people for socially useful jobs.

Salim Vally is the Director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation (CERT) at the University of Johannesburg. Education, Economy and Society is co-edited by Salim Vally and Enver Motala.

Vally is interviewed by Fazila Farouk of SACSIS.

Transcript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I'm Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg.

We're talking about education this morning.

The kind of education that a government produces coupled with the kinds of jobs that an economy produces is intrinsic to the kind of society that is developed.

And clearly in South Africa we're not getting things terribly right. We have a country where there are masses of poorly educated people coupled with high levels of unemployment that combine to make a society that is highly unequal.

What we need to do is ensure that we align our education system with the economy to create a better society. And our guest today is someone who has thought about this a great deal. He is co-editor of a book titled Education, Economy and Society.

And we're talking to Salim Vally. Salim is the director for the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, also known as CERT.

Welcome to SACSIS Salim.

SALIM VALLY: Thank you Fazila.

You know education is just one of the most talked about topics in South Africa and it's clearly linked to the fact that we have high levels of unemployment. The most common issue that's highlighted in South Africa is the skills gap in our country. And the contention is that we have... we have the jobs in the market out there but that we don't actually have the skills. What's your view on this contention that there's a skills gap or a skills mismatch in South Africa.

Well Fazila you know the skills mismatch argument goes back to the 50's. Essentially, it's blaming education for the lack of jobs instead of looking reflectively at the core social and power relations in society. It's looking at the economy and why a crisis of capitalism gets passed off as a skills crisis.

You know, Education is seen as a panacea for society's woes and we argue that the purpose of education and the value of education is much more than a purely instrumental one or a banal productive entrepreneurial role. That it's also about social justice, it's about democratic participation.

The point is that skills and knowledge is indispensable and there is a lot wanting in our education system. And certainly we're not getting the quality of education our society requires. There's no doubt about it but ...

Let me just stop you on that issue of quality of education. Clearly, you have different views on the quality question. Can you give us some specifics on the issue of quality of education?

Sure, I mean the point is that if we have 90% of schools, which don't have functioning libraries or laboratories, some of the most basic skills we require is around reading, coming to grips with the multilingual challenge. It's about committed teachers, professional teachers. It's about early childhood development, the most important period in a person's life. All that is vital and we're not doing well as far as that is concerned.

And I totally agree, we agree. But we make the point that quite often business points its finger at education when it's business itself that is creating unemployment. It's this neoliberal system that puts people out of work. So the demands side quite often is not emphasized. The blame is put on the supply side. And we think both need to be looked at.

I need to make the point that there are many countries around the world, if you look at Europe at the moment, particularly Southern Europe, you find a number of young people who are graduates who cant find jobs.

In our country, we have a significant number of graduates. We have people with the skills but not the jobs. So it's really erroneous to say that we have the jobs but not the skills. That's a false argument. In fact, it's an ideological hoax because it blames the victims, so called victims themselves.

I mean what... you know; we have industries that have been decimated in our country. Look at the clothing and textile industry. In the Western Cape, for example, tens of thousands of workers with a high level of skills and experience who've been put out of work because of cheap imports because the... you know, countries in the east can rely on sweatshop labour.

Look at the extractive industry, the bedrock industry of our economy because of the exchange rate perhaps or because of the depletion of natural resources companies move. Now all of that causes unemployment. The economic decisions we make.

You know the past 20 years have shows that this idea that with higher levels of skills, we will get jobs therefore we will have economic growth, it's a really simplistic argument and it's a myth, honestly.

And this books tries to look at the relationships between education, economy and society. You cannot divorce education from the social context.

So, how do we change the conversation and what do we change it to?

Well I think the conversation should be linked to a very proud history we have, a tradition of critical scholarship and practice. The book is dedicated to Neville Alexander, a scholar and educationist, but somebody who believed in a broader, reflective purpose of education.

It's about socially useful jobs but it's also about social justice creating an inclusive and transformed society and economy. So, we have contributors who look at higher education, who look at solutions like the wage subsidy. It's really a false solution.

It creates more stratification. It doesn't come to grips with the issues of unemployment in our country. And we look at alternatives. We look at this Manichean divide between the head and the hand.

Skills should not be separate from knowledge. We look at the traditions in our country. We look at people's education, education for production. We look at worker education and we speak to the tradition of great educationists like Ruth First, IB Tabata... you know, Rick Turner, Steve Biko, Matthew Goniwe, Neville Alexander. People who understood that there is a broader, more expansive purpose of education

Can you give me some examples of countries or even cities and towns where you think that they've embraced a more progressive conception of educating people, so we can talk about a practical case of how it's supposed to be.

Well there are many countries around the world.

You know, you can look at some social democratic countries round the world like Finland, which doesn't have private education, which put a lot of premium on general education, understanding the world, democratic citizenship as well as technical skills or what people call STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering, mathematics.

Look at Cuba as well. But, you know, in many countries around the world there are very vital experiments. But we had that in our very own country. We had huge social movements around education with production.

It's combining a curriculum, an exciting curriculum, which links technical knowledge with social concerns with an understanding of subject matter in all its variations and permutations. Not just the technical side.

In the world today we have, you know, a fundamental problem around ecology. And unless we come to grips with that the existence of the human species is at risk.

And if we blithely continue with speaking about economic growth and burning fossils fuels without factoring that into our curriculum, without understanding that socially useful work and decent jobs is the way to grow - go.

Not just this economic growth, which only a few people and we don't create the kinds of jobs that are socially useful that we need. So we have that tradition in our country. There are numerous practical examples where the alternative is there.

This system has failed dismally. We have more unemployment, more inequality and poverty continues. It's not the solution.

So this book is a challenge to educationists and others in society to think creatively, to understand that we shouldn't just have a narrow understanding of education, but it's a much broader view that is necessary. And we will find alternatives.

I mean you know education and schooling and post schooling that links to societal needs, to public works, to an economy that is not based on profit and greed but on the needs of people, housing development, social care, etc. There are many purposes that could be put to practical use instead of just the business labour market requirements of business.

Now, there is agreement you know that we need to improve schooling in South Africa and I think you know, people across the spectrum can agree on what the basic fundamentals are over there.

But I think where there is some disagreement is with higher education and what the outcomes are there - for what purpose people go to universities and colleges, etc. Can you talk a little bit about that and you know what we should be shifting attention to in that sphere?

Sure. We have a chapter in the book on the knowledge economy.

More and more universities are seen as corporate institutions that need to speak to business instead of being accountable to the society. So programs and disciplines that have an edge in the global market place are seen as the ones that need to be supported and privileged. And I think that is disastrous.

So this emphasis on STEM subjects alone at the expense of humanity - humanities is wrong. And I think even those disciplines in the natural sciences need to be aligned not just to business but need to use their skills, their expertise, their knowledge to meeting the needs of society.

And you can look at every discipline at the university level. Is it doing this? Is it building, encouraging students to architectural or built environment students to build casinos or ecologically sound low cost housing? And we can go on with all the other disciplines, as well.

Salim, thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS.

You're welcome. Thank you.

And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at the South African Civil Society Information Service. Remember, if you want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at our website at sacsis.org.za.

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