Posts Tagged education

Race and education

My alma mater, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has been in a (seemingly endless, but necessary) debate regarding race-based admissions. Currently it gives preference to black students. That the debate has gone on so long shows just how important the symbolism of race is in South African politics.

The alternative to race-based admission is to use things such as how highly educated a student’s parents are, the quality of the school they attended, and income. Ultimately I do not think this will not markedly affect the pool of people eligible for admission and who get given preference. Black students are the most likely to meet these criteria.

But it changes the symbolism of the process completely. It no longer assumes every black kid is previously disadvantaged (there is a new generation of young blacks whose parents are middle-class and this middle class is growing rapidly) and that every white kid is previously advantaged. Coloureds, who have complained that they are underrepresented in “transformation” may now stand an equal chance. It levels the playing field and I think it has to be done. It is a symbolic step in the direction of a South Africa in which all men (and women) are equal without sacrificing the need to redress the social injustices of the past.

I have stated in previous blog posts my natural aversion to affirmative action. I have, however, no aversion to university admissions policies that take into account more than just the grades of an applicant. Many students with a lot of potential have grades lists that look terrible merely because they had a substandard education for instance. Brazil found with its affirmative action candidates  (here the policy also appears to be race-based), called cotistas, that they did not fare much worse than the other students, and in fact caught up quite quickly. This was for two reasons: they worked harder and they had a greater ability than show by their entrance grades because they were not coached for the entrance exams. We want such students in our universities.

Apparently affirmative action was also quite successful in American universities and this has been stated as a reason for continuing race-based admission. That is a fair point, but the redress of social disadvantage is inherently ideological and it seems to me that using clearer indicators of disadvantage fits better ideologically and is likely to give the same (or even a better) result. I do not know if there is research on this. If there is not, then I think we should try it.

I have no idea if South African affirmative action candidates fare well at university. (If you know, please leave a comment). I do know that it is unfair to keep them out. But I think it is counterproductive to force the demographics of the university to reflect the demographics of the country one for one. Find the students with ability, take into account their background (not their race), and give them the opportunity they deserve. The demographic change will come.

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South Africa’s attitude problem

I have always said that South Africa needs effective education in order to escape its poverty trap. There is, however, something else that is perhaps even more important and far harder to obtain, a change in culture or attitude.

If you look at the unrest, the constant strikes (often accompanied with violence), the unceasing corruption, you get the impression that there is a culture of entitlement. “We were harmed by the legacy of Apartheid and therefore we deserve [insert demands here]”. I fear this is only hampering our progress.

If we are to grow, to escape the bonds of apartheid, we need people who not only demand opportunities but create those opportunities. We need people willing to work to create their futures rather than just demanding it from the government or their employer. This is a part of the problem that I have with affirmative action. It enforces the entitlement culture.  It says “you deserve the opportunity and we don’t care what you do with it.”

With youth unemployment in South Africa over 50%  there is another negative effect on attitudes: despair and hopelessness. The belief that there is no way to improve your circumstances can lead to two things: complete inaction or unbelievable anger. We probably have both in South Africa, but it is the latter that makes news headlines.

Thus we need firstly to give people hope. Hope is the motivation. Then we need to make sure they know that their lives are in their hands – it is their responsibility to improve their lot. But how do we do that? Perhaps the answer still lies in our education system, in perhaps the most influential role models besides parents that children ever encounter, in teachers

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Black diamond power

[I must apologise for not blogging in some time. Life caught up with me.]

I read a very interesting statistic this week.  The black middle class in SA, known as ‘Black Diamonds’ has outgrown the white middle-class in numbers and spending power.

The 4 million black diamonds in South Africa are still only a small portion of the black population. But their presence represents a huge change. They have the power to change, not instantly, what has always been a white English (and to some extent Afrikaans) dominated culture and economy into one for blacks.  However, the culture of the black diamonds has probably become more westernized than anything else. They will change things, but it will suit their culture, a new urban black culture.

I wonder where these black diamonds come from. 20% of them are in civil service, the product of a large government. This is not where we want them to come from. A large number are probably the products of Black Economic Empowerment, a system that I have never been fond of.

However, this must be said. These black diamonds are leaving behind a new generation of educated blacks – their children. They have created a foothold for black people in the South African economy. It’s a foothold only for a small number of people. Their presence has exacerbated rather than lessened income inequality in South Africa.  They have entered the domain of white prosperity rather than bringing that prosperity to South Africa.  But if they spread their wealth and their influence beyond their immediate families – in the way that Africans are apt to do – they could reach a far greater number of black people. If the presence of these black diamonds could help black children outside their immediate families to obtain better education or training that could make a difference.

Of course in much the same way BEE gave opportunities to blacks instead of “more deserving” whites, these black diamonds could do the same for their friends and family. This would not be so great for the economy and brings a number of other problems. But it does accentuate the trickle-down process I described.

People will help their own. Place black people in a position to be able to substantially help their own and they will. This is perhaps the one success of BEE. But I wonder if it is enough. A small black foothold we have. But no matter what we do in the short term it is going to take a massive country-wide improvement in access to education to bring the prosperity we need.

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