Nur­ture the mi­nor­ity who show po­ten­tial and de­sire

If elitism trans­lates into an en­hanced skills base, bring it on

Finweek English Edition - - Economic trends & analysis - BY CHANTYL MUL­DER

IF ONE AC­CEPTS that the cal­i­bre of a coun­try is de­ter­mined by the cal­i­bre of its peo­ple, then the na­tion­wide furore over the re­cent spate of dis­ap­point­ing ma­tric­u­la­tion re­sults should be cause for deep con­cern.

We hardly need re­mind­ing that the Ac­cel­er­ated and Shared Growth Ini­tia­tive of South Africa (As­gisa) aims to grow the econ­omy by 6%/year and to halve poverty and un­em­ploy­ment by 2014.

As­gisa can only suc­ceed if the req­ui­site skills are forth­com­ing – hence the Joint Ini­tia­tive on Pri­or­ity Skills Ac­qui­si­tion (Jipsa), which strives to iden­tify pri­or­ity skills short­falls.

Against such a back­ground, I ven­ture to sug­gest, per­haps con­tro­ver­sially, that our ma­tric re­sults have not been as dis­as­trous as they ap­pear at first glance.

I main­tain that per­spec­tive is lost in the ex­pec­ta­tion that ev­ery young­ster sit­ting for his/her school-leav­ing ex­am­i­na­tion should ex­cel. Nowhere in the world does it work that way.

China, where “only” some 300m peo­ple qual­ify to op­er­ate in the First World, is il­lus­tra­tive. The ex­am­ple might be a tad ex­treme, but it does serve to demon­strate that less than 30% of the pop­u­la­tion reaches the top com­pe­tency quar­tile.

Given the lim­its of re­sources, hu­man abil­ity and achieve­ment, our fo­cus of con- cern should as­sume a mi­cro rather than macro di­men­sion. Re­al­ity, harsh though it might be, urges us to: • Ac­cept that the ma­jor­ity do not have the re­sources, in­ter­est or per­haps in­tel­lect to emerge from school with dis­tinc­tions in math­e­mat­ics and science; and Nur­ture the mi­nor­ity who demon­strate the req­ui­site po­ten­tial and de­sire to ex­cel in math­e­mat­ics and science. The chal­lenge is to iden­tify the po­ten­tial and in­ter­est, se­cure in the knowl­edge that the num­ber of ma­tric­u­lants cur­rently shin­ing in the sci­ences rep­re­sent no more than a small frac­tion of those ca­pa­ble of do­ing so if given the de­sired sup­port.

It’s a con­text that projects to the fore­front the con­sid­er­able lengths to which we at the South African In­sti­tute of Char­tered Ac­coun­tants (Saica) have gone to ex­pand the layer of the math­e­mat­ics cream at the top of the glass of milk.

Saica’s Thuthuka Ed­u­ca­tion Up­lift­ment Project ini­tia­tive iden­ti­fies, trains, ed­u­cates, ca­joles and en­cour­ages the nu­mer­ate po­ten­tial of some of the na­tion’s black sec­ondary and ter­tiary stu­dents. Math­e­mat­ics, English, science and ac­count­ing are the sub­jects of fo­cus. Life ori­en­ta­tion has also be­come a crit­i­cal sub­ject to ad­dress.

Early on, we learned that full-time ter­tiary study was crit­i­cal to our stu­dents’ suc­cess. This is why bur­saries mak­ing it pos­si­ble for our bud­ding stars to study on a full-time ba­sis have be­come a cor­ner­stone of the pro­gramme.

Ev­ery prob­lem might be ca­pa­ble of an an­swer; yet not ev­ery an­swer is the so­lu­tion to all prob­lems. If it were, then Thuthuka’s work would not be con­strained by funds suf­fi­cient only to de­liver max­i­mum in­tel- lec­tual suc­cour to thou­sands, when tens of thou­sands are clam­our­ing for their tal­ent to be brought to fruition.

While the De­part­ments of Labour and Science and Tech­nol­ogy, as well as the ac­count­ing pro­fes­sion, have chan­nelled many mil­lions into Thuthuka, the ag­gre­gate where­withal falls woe­fully short of the ideal num­ber.

It’s a fi­nan­cial bot­tle­neck that fos­ters ne­glect in those ar­eas of the coun­try un­touched by the pro­gramme and that forces those who se­lect can­di­dates to turn away the many who come within a whisker of aca­demic ex­cel­lence.

The les­son is clear: As­gisa is heav­ily de­pen­dent on Jipsa, which, in turn, is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly re­liant on the private sec­tor and Gov­ern­ment part­ner­ships and ini­tia­tives like Thuthuka.

Skills short­ages are man­i­festly ham­per­ing our eco­nomic growth rate. And while the short­ages are ev­i­dent in pro­fes­sions such as science, ac­coun­tancy and en­gi­neer­ing, the generic paucity dare not be ig­nored, stem­ming as it does from in­suf­fi­cient ex­po­sure – from an early age – to math­e­mat­ics, science, ac­count­ing and English.

The so­lu­tions lie not only in al­lo­cat­ing much height­ened pub­lic and private sec­tor fund­ing to ed­u­ca­tion in gen­eral, but in ap­ply­ing the ad­di­tional money to ben­e­fit young­sters with the po­ten­tial and in­ter­est to suc­ceed in the tar­geted aca­demic dis­ci­plines.

I ac­cept that there are many who would re­ject the pro­posal as dis­crim­i­na­tory. My an­swer high­lights square pegs in round holes. Nu­mer­acy is at a pre­mium; we des­per­ately need more ac­coun­tants, more teach­ers and more en­gi­neers. Force those who are not so in­clined into th­ese pro­fes­sions and you are left with an un­happy gen­er­a­tion and wasted fi­nan­cial re­sources.

If as­sist­ing those with scarce in­tel­lec­tual re­sources to reach their goal is elit­ist, then I for one am unashamedly in favour of elitism.

Chantyl Mul­der is the se­nior ex­ec­u­tive for trans­for­ma­tion at the South African In­sti­tute of Char­tered Ac­coun­tants (Saica).

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