South Africa’s Higher Education – What We’re Not Talking About

There’s a great deal being written about the fees protests at universities and all the news around it. Whether fees can be reduced, or eliminated completely, remains a major topic of discussion. I’ve written one or two things about this myself, but I’ve purposely stayed away from commenting on any of the recent fees news and events in the last few weeks. Not because I’m indifferent, but because when I take a step back, I see far bigger problems which we’re not really talking about. The more I read into education in South Africa, the more I change position on the feasibility of free higher education. I think we’re all missing the point a bit. So while Feesmustfall grabs headlines, there are two major things we’re not talking about, which we should be.

The first problem we seem to be conveniently ignoring is that we’re failing our school children on an epic scale.

There were 1,1 million learners who started school in 2002, yet in 2014 there were only 550 000 matrics. This begs a massive, massive question that should be at the forefront of our public dialogue. Where did the 550 000 other learners go?

A recent study by the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) showed that only 3 in 10 public schools have a library‚ and only 4 out of 10 have a computer facility. Only 18.3% of schools have a science laboratory‚ while 57.8% have sports facilities. Numeracy rate test scores show that at Grade 9‚ just 11% of children are numerate to the required standard. Would we really scrape together billions for universities while we see this at schools?

It gets even worse, a World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness report for 2015/2016 showed that in terms of the level of quality of science and maths education in schools, South Africa was ranked 138th out of 140 countries. The bottom three in the world.

Department of Higher Education stats show that throughput rates in South African higher education averages between 15% and 21%. Putting this into perspective, around 4 out of 5 students who commence a degree don’t graduate. In the bigger scheme of education, if you took 100 children in South Africa at the beginning of Grade 1, only 4 of those 100 would eventually complete a degree.

When only 14% of the learners who started school actually qualify for university, why is free higher education the number one discussion point? The irony, and the real problem that nobody seems to understand here, is that our schooling system is so bad that an extremely low portion of disadvantaged matriculants are even able to qualify for university. Also, how do we tackle the fact that the majority of university students don’t even graduate? So if we did render free higher education, for the most part, would it not a giant waste of money?

Don’t get me wrong, I think there are major issues with the cost of higher education which do need addressing. I think there is also a moral case for giving gifted disadvantaged learners with the right attitude a chance at higher education. But the quality of the schooling system is so poor that it makes a mockery of the adage that basic and secondary education is a right. The right to poor quality, bad infrastructure and ultimately a qualification that does nothing for you. That isn’t much of an appealing right. So making general access to universities cheaper while not addressing the shambles of the schooling system and schooling output is a bit like spending big money building a fancy new roof while the house’s walls are crumbling.

If university fees are decreased, the protests of the future will more than likely revolve around increased access and higher numbers in the institutions. To achieve increased access, standards will be dropped. Academics will have to service and teach more students. Revenues vs running costs will be squeezed to breaking point, and your level of quality will almost certainly drop. In fact, it already is. A QS World University Rankings survey of universities shows SA universities already falling. Year to year UCT dropped 20 places and is now ranked 191st. This is a fall of more than 10% in one year. Wits dropped 28 places and are now ranked 359th. The University of Pretoria fell from the 501-550 band to the 551-600 band. Rhodes dropped from the 501-550 band to the 551-600 band. Only Stellenbosch can hold their head high, breaking into the top 400.

The second major problem we’re not talking about is the question of whether a degree really is a good investment. I don’t think it is anymore. In fact, it might be a very bad investment when you think about it. We’re trapped in this mindset of a university degree being the only path to employment and career success. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the UK, 59% of graduates never even end up working in their chosen careers. In a UK study this year the Institute for Fiscal Studies found 23 universities whose average male graduate earns less than those who had not been to university at all. Imagine being a student who’s just graduated with R100 000 in debt and ending up working in a job unrelated to the degree. It starts looking like one of the worst investments you could make.

In the past 5 years the number of graduates coming out of university has increased by 25%. Over the same period the unemployment rate has gone up. We’re not exactly creating a great deal of new jobs. The world is moving as unprecedented speeds. Let’s be honest, universities aren’t exactly fluid, dynamic institutions moving daily with the most current trends in industry and the workplace. This is why the bureaucratic, archaic nature of universities will let thousands and thousands of graduates down, because they’ll more than likely continue down this path of theoretical knowledge, disconnected from the real world. Don’t get me wrong, the role of the university in progressing knowledge at the highest level will still be a vital one. I’m however referring to the base students at the ground level.

They’ll more than likely continue testing knowledge and whether one can pass an exam rather than actual competence – i.e. can they actually do the tasks that would be required in the real world job? The high dropout rate in South African Universities also illustrates just how dysfunctional these traditional methods are at keeping students engaged and successful in their studies.

A 2013 Oxford study reported that work automation will put 47% of existing jobs in the U.S. at “high risk”. This means that around half of all U.S. jobs will be replaced by machines in the next 20 years. uses 15 000 robots in their warehouses to keep up with supply and demand. There are hotels in Japan where 10% of the staff are people, and the rest are robots. The robots greet you at reception, they carry your bags, deliver room service and many other functions. Some companies have artificial intelligence security guards which use visual scanning to detect differences in images and areas from one moment to the next. This is what governments don’t understand when they keep increasing the minimum wage – all they’re doing is incentivising companies to automate and use technology to minimise the number of humans needed. Machines are cheaper once the initial investment is over, they cost less to maintain, and generally give HR fewer problems. Closer to home, Pick n Pay have recently tested automated cashiers. Whether this develops into a trend remains to be seen.

These seem like disturbing pieces of information about the future of jobs in general, but this is the point – the world moves on. For many of the jobs currently disappearing, alternative jobs will be created. For example, in 1870 the Agricultural sector in the US employed 70% to 80% of the working population. Today it’s less than 1%. This is why change management, adaptability, critical thought and attitude will become such essential elements of future graduates.

Traditional education as we know it, as an industry, is in in the decline phase of its life cycle. It’s probably positioned similar to that of the fax machine at the turn of this century, or the metered taxi driver about three years ago. The successful education of the future won’t teach isolated, specific content around a singular career direction. In fact, successful education of the future won’t ‘teach’ at all. It will facilitate collaboration, real world activities, critical thinking, lateral thought across different business units, adaptability and seamless, confident communication. The days of a lecturer standing in front of the class talking for an hour are over – or should be. The days of primarily using an exam as a key indicator of subject mastery and future success should also be over.

Employers’ hiring decisions in the future will be based primarily on skill, attitude and competence rather than qualification. In fact, this is already happening in many regards. For future graduates, it’s all going to be about competencies. Education of the future needs to enable how to do rather than teach what to know.

Even if universities do become free, which is unlikely, I believe that in the next decade or two it’s within the private sector of education where the consistent quality of graduates will lead the private providers to attain greater reputations than even the leading names such as UCT and WITS. The matriculant of 10 years from now may have a clear choice: Go to university cheaply for a qualification rooted theoretical knowledge, removed from industry and pragmatism – a qualification which won’t guarantee anything. Or pay a leading private provider for relevance, work readiness, competence . . . and ultimately a job.


Fear and Loathing on Johannesburg Roads

Johannesburg traffic is everything they say it is, and more. Above all else there are three observations I make about traffic in this city on an almost daily basis.

Firstly, I sometimes get this suspicion that traffic is something of a living thing picking up some sort of karmic energy. The reason I say this is because it will conspire against you, always.  If you need to get home quite urgently, you’ll get stuck in a backlog on the highway and end up home 30 minutes later than normal. When trying to make sure you’re at a meeting on time and you leave an hour early, you can almost guarantee traffic will be fine and you’ll have to sit in your car for 40 minutes waiting for the meeting time.

The second observation is that people perplex me in traffic more than any other place. I mean really perplex me. The recklessness you see is just absurd, and I’m not focusing on minibus taxis here either, but all types of drivers and cars. Weaving through the highway traffic at 160km/h, driving on pavements, going 100 metres in the oncoming lane because you didn’t want to wait, driving at about 200km/h into Gilooly’s at night with your lights off.

The fact that people are willing to risk their lives in order to arrive somewhere two minutes earlier is what really mystifies me. And when I see this stuff I often try to find some deeper reasoning to understand this. Do people have a generally warped sense risk and reward? Can they not work out that an arrival five minutes later is generally a better idea than risking death? Or perhaps there’s an element of rebellious testosterone filled joy to this. As Henry Thoreau said, ‘All men lead lives of quiet desperation’. Maybe these guys feel boxed in by the regularness and blandness of life, whether by an unfulfilling job or an unfulfilling marriage, or whatever it might be. Possibly life in general. And so because of this act of playing with fire and upping the adrenaline a little while on the road is actually appealing, and a way letting out some boxed up energy.

Or maybe people are just plain fucking stupid?

Your drivers of sports / performance cars like Porsche’s or Ferrari’s are the most predictable morons in this regard as well. I often wonder whether the owner manuals of these cars have the words ‘MUST BE AN ANNOYING ASSHOLE TO DRIVE THIS CAR’ etched on the opening page. You see them doing things like racing around residential suburbs at 120km/h. I assume the fact that they can spend a million on a car means they’re willing to spend a few more million on attorney fees when they hit a child?

The third observation is the prevalence of anger. Everywhere. So much anger on the roads, behind the wheels of cars. I’ll admit, there’s a LOT of idiotic stuff that happens. And I’ll admit I do my fair share of hooting, mainly to let someone know that their act of idiocy is being duly noted by somebody. But beyond all this I feel like there’s this underlying sense of people ‘on edge’, with rage simmering within them, like a vicious dog that calmly follows you with its eyes as you walk past it in fear. I’ve had people losing their shit at me over the most trivial of things, and while they’re frothing and gesticulating, I’m still trying to work out why.

Perhaps the simple act of driving is just a fairly scary thing in Johannesburg that makes people uptight. Or maybe there’s more to it. Maybe we’re just angry in general? Angry at how difficult life can be, angry with our jobs, our family, our situations, our debt levels, the heat, how busy we are, or whatever it might be. Taking it out on some random people you’ll never see again and don’t have to speak to maybe makes a bit of sense then. Maybe our good friend ‘quiet desperation’ is playing a role here too. Or could it be that we’re scared. Is that ‘quiet desperation’ actually more like a ‘quiet fear’. There is so much to scare us in this world and in this life. And as we know, the snake usually strikes out of fear.

The Dumbing Down of Society – Who is to Blame?

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A few weeks ago I was on a plane travelling from Johannesburg to East London. In the row in front of me were three young men, probably around the age of early university. I didn’t take too much note of them until we began commencing our descent, and I had to put my laptop away. With nothing else to do, I eavesdropped in on their overly loud conversation.

They were speculating as to where Jeffrey’s Bay is in relation to East London. One of the youths ventured that it was 200km up the north coast side of East London. The other disagreed, saying that it went East London, then PE, then Jeffrey’s, as you moved northward up the coastline.

These guesses were obviously all wide of the mark, but it did make me wonder how university students of a clearly privileged and affluent background could be so blissfully unaware of the positioning of a couple of major centres in their home country. I’ve never set foot in Kwazulu Natal, and I didn’t do geography in school, yet I know for example that Margate is a couple of hundred kilometres south of Durban, and Ballito is slightly north of Durban, with Richards Bay quite a distance further up the coast. I don’t know why I know this, I just do. And I should.

I keep getting reminders like this about the intelligence of the world, which keep disturbing me. Of course, I could rattle off a whole array of stats and percentages on how intelligence is declining and how people don’t know simple things about history or the physical world they live in. These points would no doubt be true, and rather unsettling. But I’d rather focus on what I’ve personally experienced in day to day life.

About 5km from my house, they’ve just built the Mall of Africa. It’s the largest single development shopping centre in the Southern Hemisphere, or something like that. It has the full array of the big retailers you’d expect, along with international luxury brands. It also contains one of the first Starbucks in South Africa, and the Woolies is the size of a small shopping centre. One or two brands have made their stores into flagship outlets. But there’s one glaring absentee from the store directory – there’s no bookstore. Not even an Exclusive Books. An Exclusive Books, or any bookstore for that matter, is pretty much guaranteed to exist in any decent sized mall. But in this new mall, which is one of the biggest in the country? No. The mall has everything you can think of, except books.

On the subject of books, I was a big fan of George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s the book series upon which the Game of Thrones TV show is based on. Each volume was a mammoth 1000 pages or so, but it was some of the best, intriguingly complex and most entertaining fiction I’ve ever read. Only one or two people I knew had discovered the series, so there was this element of pride that I had that I’d discovered this gem that no one else had in my circle.

As we know the TV series created from it has been a massive hit. But deep down I’ll always begrudge the TV series a bit (or maybe a lot). It had to take summarising of 1000 page works of beauty into a series of one hour episodes on TV for it to gain popular appeal. That’s the real tragedy for me. The TV show scratches the surface of something incredible, yet most people will never experience this. The even bigger tragedy in all this is the fact that the TV series is now leading the plot because they’ve caught up to where the author is in the book development. This could cause the rather nightmarish scenario where the TV series reveals the ending rather than the books.

When it comes to TV, that’s another thing that bugs me. A few years ago a big budget superhero action movie would be fairly rare. Maybe one every year. Now there are about 5 or 6 big productions per year. It’s hard to keep up with them. From Superman to Fantastic Four to Antman to Avengers to Incredible Hulks to Batman VS Superman. And all of these boil down to the simple premise of some action hero defeating a villain with a series of action scenes designed to entertain you mindlessly. There’s a line in Pink Floyd’s song ‘Not Now John’ where they ironically sing ‘Who cares what it’s about as long as the kids go’. This is a very valid point. Hollywood obviously make all these moves because they make money. That’s the troubling part. It’s entertainment over substance.

I have DSTV at home, and I make a point of seeing what movie the Mnet channel is showing every Sunday at 8pm, since this is the ‘premiere’ and usually the best new movie they have. I can honestly say that three quarters of these movies are movies that seem to be targeted at 10 year olds.

We’ve created a culture where Justin Bieber can hit world fame and popularity with a song that has a chorus of “Baby baby baby oh”. We idolise pop stars and call them ‘artists’ even though for the most part they don’t even write their own songs or music. Half a century ago, a young guy called Bob Dylan rose to fame. At the age of 21 he was writing some of the most intellectual and influential music of his generation, around themes such as social change, economies, alienation and death. Nowadays if you’re a young musician trying to rise to fame, you need to be making shitty pop music and singing about hooking up with girls in the club.

People sit and watch episode after episode of rich celebrities living their daily lives. And this desire to be entertained starts eroding the moral fibre of a society when you have series like the Bachelorette, where a woman will fraternise and frolic around with a bunch of different men at the same time. And yet as ridiculous as this concept sounds, it’s been running for 12 seasons. You’d assume that a large part of the audience is between 12 and 18. What message does this send them?

Instagram is rapidly moving ahead of Twitter in popularity, because people prefer looking at pictures and sharing memes than taking in different thoughts and ideas. You’ll struggle nowadays to find a teenager reading a book of their own accord, yet millions would rather delight in taking and sharing Snapchat filters giving them dog ears and a dog’s tongue.

Even the way our political leaders are elected, and how they campaign has been dumbed down. I’ve held strong alternate views on Donald Trump, which I stand by, but even I have to say that the process of electing him as a Republican nominee showed the shallowness and lack of depth in the world today. There were better nominees competing with him, with clearer ideas, more complex knowledge, more intellect and ability. Yet these candidates were drowned out by someone who used sensationalism and who grabbed all the headlines and floorspace. This is the world we live in. Nobody wants to hear from the quiet intellectual. They’d rather read headlines. Even during Bernie Sander’s short lived fame, nobody in his large support base stopped to think Wait a minute, all these promises of free stuff – how on earth it even possible?

We’ve created a world where the great leaders of our time sit in companies, while governments contain mediocre minds, at best. In 161 AD, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote ‘Meditations’, where he poured out his own personal philosophy to life and living. It’s still referenced in psychological and philosophical theory today, and indeed many units are still sold each year. The book went a long way to developing the philosophy of Stoicism. This was written by the Roman Emperor – someone with more power than we could even imagine in today’s world. Yet now, 2000 years later, I think you’d struggle to find a political leader capable of writing anything beyond their memoirs, and even that would be penned by someone else. You certainly wouldn’t find them writing complex philosophy or progressing philosophical theory.

There’s no nice way of saying it, but the world is being dumbed down. I always wonder, is this a concerted effort from governments to create uninformed masses who don’t think, question and reason? Or is it just a natural regression due ironically to innovation and technology. I do strongly suspect that some governments, if not many governments, are quite satisfied with a population that doesn’t think or question things. Ruling parties that can keep the people uninformed and uninquisitive are more likely to keep voter loyalty. But beyond this idea, we need to look at ourselves.

Perhaps entertainment is undermining intellectualism because the world is becoming tougher and life is getting harder each year? Our incomes don’t go as far, we stress about kids, will we still have jobs or companies a year from now? Do we see and feel enough hardship, struggle and stress that escapism is actually a necessity for some level of sanity? Perhaps in the dark waters of our minds, we all have much needed guilty pleasures to keep us going, and perhaps the Kardashians, superhero movies and Britain’s Got Talent are just the most socially acceptable.

The schooling system needs to take at least some blame. When the system is based on getting people to fit in to a certain style of thinking and way of doing things, you get a society that doesn’t think for itself. When you teach kids in order to pass an exam instead of critically think, you don’t build a culture of lifelong learning. A recent study showed that 42% of American graduates never read a book again after graduating. Surely a teacher’s highest achievement should not be to getting a learner to master subject matter, but rather to instil a mindset of constant curiosity with the world?

Then there’s technology. Have smartphones done the opposite and made us dumber? Has our reliance and addiction to technology made us sloppier thinkers? I’ve met some people in Johannesburg who still use a GPS to get to well-known landmarks, even though they’ve lived in the city all their lives. Perhaps all the clutter of the modern world and everything going on in our heads has made us less observant. In amongst all the stresses and worries of living in this world we’ve maybe lost touch with actually noticing what we’re doing, thinking or going. The act of ‘busyness’ is creating a sense of thoughtlessness. If we noticed more around us in life perhaps we’d know where Port Elizabeth is in relation to East London, or allow us to find an area without a GPS, simply because we took note of it the previous time.

The pace and demands of the modern world also mean that parents are probably spending less time with their children than a generation ago. The days of the luxury stay at home mother are over. Money doesn’t go that far anymore. Children who spend less time with their parents are less likely to have valuable life lessons and values passed down. There’s less opportunity to learn from the example of your elders. As a result, children are learning more from TV, social media or friends than they ever have before.

Indeed, it’s within the home where the battle for future generations will be lost or won. If we allow the world outside and the ‘system’ to be our children’s primary teacher, then society’s downfall will continue to accelerate. But if we can take the time as parents to nurture the most difficult aspect of all – Thinking – we can at least feel that in some small way we’ve done our bit for society. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child. It takes strong family values and two calm parents who can take the time to inspire thinking rather than teach knowledge.

Where SA’s tertiary education should be heading

Sometimes even I need to break from my free market, private enterprise beliefs to an extent. The #feesmustfall movement has gained high exposure and news interest in the last year. But looking beyond the politics of the situation, I am a firm believer that access to universities should be free for deserving students. Key word is deserving.  I’m a big believer in equal opportunity. I’m not a believer in equality. If that sounds pretty harsh and heartless, let me explain. As a society we’re having the wrong conversations about this. Equality aims to allow everybody in society to have the same wealth levels. Equal opportunity aims to allow everybody in society to have the same opportunity levels. There is an infinite difference between the two. Equality disregards abilities, contribution to society and effort, while Equal Opportunity rewards these things, while allowing all to commence careers in the same starting blocks.

Even a steadfast capitalist like me sees the tragedy of a truly talented learner with a major aptitude in a particular field whose parents can’t afford the exorbitant fees that universities ask for. If the learner fails in bursary / NSFAS applications, the only alternative is to then be saddled with excessive student debt for the first years of their career. Or of course just not study at all.

 I’m in no way an expert on these things but it seems pretty clear to me that free universities are a real possibility with more frugal, sensible government spending. For a start, not doing things like spending R4 billion on a private jet, over R200 million on a president’s private residence and forcing civil servants and ministers to travel in economy class would be a major start. Then government simply has to get out of what it has no business being involved in anyway. Start with the SABC, The Post Office and SAA. There’s no need for a government controlled broadcaster, airline or mail carrier. The private, free market will provide this better and cheaper. That R4 billion alone could pay for between 80 000 and 120 000 tertiary students for a year.

However, can universities retain their levels of quality? Free access would need to create a philosophy of accepting the best performers from schools due to limited space. With the high demand and free access, universities would need to keep their entry requirements stringent and levels of quality high. But would this happen? The market would need to be clear that the concept of free universities does not result in the granting of automatic access. I also think there needs to be a comprehensive scientific ‘suitability test’ system to ensure university students aren’t enrolling in something that they have little natural propensity for. This would help reduce the high dropout rates. Universities need the muscle to be able to enforce this and insist on suitable career fields for the new students.

Quality issues aside, there are major relevance issues with universities. Universities are becoming increasingly bloated, bureaucratic, archaic institutions out of touch with the modern, real world. It’s costing in excess of R100 000 for 3 years to get the holy grail of the degree. And yet the content of the programme or degree is often so far removed from what is happening in the real world. In many cases, like in my own profession, marketing, the degree’s content is of a nature that teach yourself online for free if you know where to look. Graduates are leaving universities with very little idea of how to function optimally in the workplace and minimal sense of critical thought. Speaking for myself, 95% of what I know about marketing and branding has come from learning-by-doing, while being lucky enough to observe and work with two or three real experts during my first few years of being employed. These are people I’m still enormously grateful for. What I learned at university has been largely irrelevant and added little value to my contributions in the workplace.

So I say let these institutions adapt, skim down or disappear entirely. We don’t need to be sentimental about them. Perhaps one day the sacred university degree will lose its shine and charm as employers and the market alike realise just how obsolete it is.

The reason I say this is because the real opportunity for tertiary education lies in industry-specific initiatives and collaborations. If corporations and industries are getting graduates who are not work-ready and out of tune with real work operations, why not take education into their own hands? This could save millions in unnecessary training and time, and allow the new employees to start adding value immediately. Some industries have done similar, but major opportunities lie in this idea.

Let’s take something like banking. Every year the big banks are some of the big corporates who take their pick of graduates from the top universities. These graduates, for the most part, are picked from generic BComs in fields such as marketing or general management. They have not received any specialised, focused training on how banking works. So despite them being strong academic performers, they still need a whole year in something usually called a Graduate Development Programme, where they learn how to operate in a particular industry and company.

Now imagine a scenario where all the big banks combine to set up a collaborated ‘Banking University’ which teaches students actual real-word knowledge and skills related specifically to banking in South Africa. This Banking University can set up physical delivery ‘campuses’ in main centres, and would easily be able to pull disgruntled academic professionals from universities to partner with banking professionals. The banks set this up in partnership and run the syllabi and activities according to their own terms, based on what they know they want from graduates. So students within this Banking University learn about the banking sector, the economic environment, how banks work, customer service in banking, the money flow within a bank, etc etc. They also get to practise these skills in a fully simulated banking environment. So after 3 years they walk out knowing the absolute ins and outs of banking in South Africa, and could walk into any bank immediately begin adding value. Would your big banks not find this group of graduates a whole lot more appealing? This could create a scenario such as the American Football NFL ‘draft’ system, where the teams contest in taking their pick of the best players leaving college football. In this case each year the big banks would engage in a ‘talent war’ of sorts to snap up their picks.

This same thinking can apply to almost any industry, from banking to retail to financial services to food manufacturing to travel. Let’s call them ‘Industry Universities’. We can still align the curriculum within these to adhere to a reformed unit standard and NQF level, so that graduates still have the assurance of walking away with a Bcom or the like. Or maybe not. If your particular ‘Industry University’ gains enough traction with the market through quality and relevance, the Industry University could disregard government accreditation standards completely and operate on their own set of standards.

So the end result is a range of tertiary institutions created by industry, serving industry, whose graduates can walk straight into employment and commence immediately without in-company training.

A Retail University

A Banking University

A Marketing University

A Public Service University

A Financial Services University

A Tourism University

And so on and so forth.

Eventually what you might start seeing is that learners in schools start identifying industries to work in rather than careers. For example, the learner might decide that he/she really likes retail, and they’re happy to pursue a career in retail only, knowing that this will involve various positions across a spectrum of careers. They know that through a Retail University they’ll graduate and stand a good chance of getting a foot in the door at a big retailer, and they’re happy to start as a packer and work their way up. They’re also comfortable that in retail there will always be employment and growth opportunities, and so they should be.

The only downside to these Industry Universities is that they wouldn’t be free. They couldn’t possibly be. But ultimately you’d create the environment where the school leaver has a choice: A generic theoretical degree for free which probably won’t give direct access to or preference in the job market. Or a practical, focused qualification in a specific industry which involves student fees, but which guarantees better access to jobs and entry level opportunities. It’s worth considering that government could, and perhaps should be getting involved in facilitating these conversations with industry leaders who will in all likelihood be competitors.

The above is of course wishful thinking to an extent. Whether or not these ideas materialise, the ideal scenario for South African education is for a healthy combination of government involvement and freedom of private enterprise to assist as much as possible in tertiary education. Government’s role should be equal opportunity while private education and enterprise’s role should be job creation.  Let universities be free. BUT, give the private free market the freedom to provide a viable, relevant alternative.

Never Stop Learning

Graduation Speech – Cape Town (29 July 2016)

We’re here today to honour the graduates sitting in front of me, and we’re here today in the name of education. I can’t think of anything more worthy of celebration in a young person’s life than educational achievements such as this. The unfortunate thing about the term ‘education’ is how as a society we’ve come to view the term in isolation – and only associate it with formal institutions such as schools, universities or colleges such as MSC. Here at MSC you have gained vital skills and knowledge in a focused area of your choice, and for that I congratulate you thoroughly. I have confidence that you will apply your knowledge and skills learned here to good use in your chosen career paths. But your own education must live on beyond this day and into the rest of your lives.

Education is a lifelong aspect, that begins from the moment we are born. The toddler learning to walk stumbles countless times before the first stagger from mother to father. The child learning to ride the bike falls over a number of times before riding confidently. The teenager often tries out many different fashion styles and haircuts before understanding what works for them, through trial and error. If you’re like me, when you learned to drive a car, your clutch control was probably horrendous until it became second nature. Or perhaps you met someone with an alternative point of view on something that made you think. These are merely a few examples that show that the act of learning happens continually in life, and often we don’t realise this fact.

We’re living in challenging times. There can be no doubt about this. Every day worldwide we are forced to confront stories of poverty, violence and hatred. Indeed, education will remain the key element in overcoming these challenges, and it is young graduates such as yourselves who will mould the future world and what it will become. So you can perhaps understand the magnitude of how much sits upon your young shoulders. You are the torchbearers of the next generation, and society is yours to shape. Despite the challenges, the modern world we live in today is also by far the most exciting period ever to be alive. Technology is advancing at rates far, far quicker than ever before in the history of mankind.

It took approximately 2 decades for television to move over from black and white to colour TV. Yet, it’s taken less than a decade for cellular phones to become more powerful than the combined strength all the computers that sent man to the moon for the first time. In 1956 about 6 men were needed to move a 5mb hard drive. Now 64 gigs sit comfortably in your pocket. It took nearly 100 years for traditional film cameras to move over to digital cameras. In contrast it’s taken just 10 years for small cameras to be almost obsolete, due to your smartphone being an even better option.

As we speak companies like Tesla are in advanced testing phases of cars that drive themselves. Through stem cell research scientists are coming increasingly close to the ability to grow an entire human organ. Some predictions show that within the next couple of decades scientists could be able to grow an entire human body primarily through stem cells and atoms. Which would effectively mean that you could have a backup body of yourself sitting in storage in case you need any organs.

Ten years ago, Twitter was still the sound of birds chirping. A blackberry was still a fruit, and a tablet was something you maybe took when you had a headache. Now these words have very different associations attached to them. In fact, studies show that the popular job titles in the workplace 20 years from now don’t even exist yet. So how do we keep up with this rapidly changing and advancing world? We keep learning. We keep enquiring.

The modern world is becoming more and more conducive young peoples’ success, simply because of the rate of change and the fact that young people are usually at the forefront of that change. At the age of 21, Steve Jobs started developing the first Apple computer in Steve Wozniak’s garage. At the age of 20, Bill Gates founded a small software company called Microsoft that would go on to change how computer systems operated. In his dorm room at Harvard at the age of 20, Mark Zuckerberg started playing around with something called ‘The Facebook’. A decade later, some of us cannot imagine life without this tool.

These 3 men were different from each other in many ways, but the one thing they had in common aside from their young age is very clear to me: inquiring minds. The ability to look deeper into a given subject, the ability to analyse something in a different way, and the willingness to say ‘We can improve on existing knowledge. We can better this.’

If you had to speak to a person 100 years ago, and explain to that person the ease of access we have to knowledge and information, I don’t think they’d believe you. With the touch of a button we have access to pretty much any subject matter we would like to know more about. We have google search, we have podcasts on any topic you’re interested in. You can follow Twitter accounts of people you can learn from. You can get a guided video tutorial on Youtube to show you how to do almost anything. You can download free e-books on practically any knowledge area. And this is with you all the time – accessible on something that sits in your pocket. In a couple of seconds, I can learn about the complex theory of bimolecular reactions . . . if I wanted to. Imagine explaining this to someone in 1916 instead of 2016. Even in my lifetime, I remember having to go to the library to find more about a given subject. Now it’s just one search result away in 10 seconds.

As the great Albert Einstein said “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” I firmly believe that those people who have the ability to continuously acquire new and better forms of knowledge and apply it to their daily lives will be the pioneers of our civilization.

As a society we need to be protecting the most precious resource we have – the individual mind. We need to ensure that the inquiring mind of the human being is able to take whatever path it chooses. And we need to be fighting any force that seeks to enslave our minds or which forces us to think a certain way or insists on telling us what to think.

The other characteristic of these pioneers in the world is a complete disregard for the fear of failure. Bill Gates watched his first company crumble. Walt Disney was told he wasn’t creative enough. Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first TV job and told that she was ‘Unfit for TV’.

Make peace with the inevitability of failure, and understand that failure is a cornerstone of education. Failure is only a tragedy when you haven’t given it your all. Failure teaches us to try things in a different way. It shows us what and where we need to improve. It teaches us that regardless of our level of expertise, improvement is still possible. Ultimate success in any field or any endeavour is not a straight line, but rather jaggedly zig zagging line denoting trial, error, and improvement.

I’ve spoken about inquiring minds and critical thinking, but the critical thought should not begin and end with the world around us but must extend to the world within us. How often do we think critically of ourselves? How often do we truly self-reflect? How often are we willing to be mature enough to say, ‘I was wrong’?  I’ve already highlighted the challenges we face in the world every day. How many of these challenges would be reduced if more people were willing to self-reflect and work together?  Understand that being critical of yourself is not degrading negative self-talk, but rather a sign of strength and intelligence. A simple piece of advice I could offer you is this: If you’re open and honest about your weaknesses or shortcomings, the world cannot shame you or expose you.

So the people who’ve become successful in the world and in their fields have a couple of things in common: inquiring minds, and they were fearless of failure. But there is a third thing that these people understand more than anyone. And that is that the only person in control of your success is yourself. People can help you along the way. There are experts out there who will hopefully teach you many things, but ultimately it is only you and your actions that will determine your success. The universe is indifferent to those who remain indifferent. Go head first into your endeavours with a smile on your face and passion in your heart, and the positive energy will follow you.

In his many years in prison, Nelson Mandela kept a piece of paper with a few lines of poetry. Many suggest that it was these lines that saw him through in the end. The lines were:

I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul

So to the graduates sitting in front of me, here is my final advice to you as you head out into the world:

Believe in your convictions, while always welcoming a different opinion. Treat everybody with respect, while never fearing to voice your own opinion. Listen to all advice and see all directions but remember that you are the one behind the wheel. Measure yourself on your actions and results, not your words or promises. Let the world around you be your school and let your experiences be your teacher.

In summary, even if you forget most of what I’ve said today, I want you to just remember three words: NEVER STOP LEARNING

Thank You

Much to Learn

I couldn’t let the birth of my daughter and first child go by without at least a few written words on the occasion. What better time to resurrect a blog that has been gathering dust. I won’t focus on the whole experience, but needless to say, it is an incredibly emotional rollercoaster. I’ve never been a kids type of person. I don’t have much of a knack with them, and I usually skip past baby pics on Facebook without much of a glance. No offense to fellow parents of toddlers or infants. But I have to hand it to people who always said Wait until it’s your own. How right they were.

My wife is a natural with the little one, as I knew she would be. I’m clumsy and nervous with her, as I knew I’d be. But I often find myself standing over her crib for ages just watching her sleep. I’m not sure what thoughts normally go through a new parent’s mind, but one of the things that always strikes me is expanse of time and years stretching out like a desert ahead of her. This little infant with the soft skin and confused eyes who cries the house down during baths or changings will one day, good fortune willing, be an old person with wrinkled skin. I find myself looking at fully grown people thinking that we were all once sobbing, confused and fragile beings that couldn’t function at all without the help of a parent or guardian. When I stress about her health I think that every single grown being on this planet was once just like her, except in most cases in much worse conditions without all the comforts we add for safety’s sake. This makes me feel more assured about her well-being and health.

The other thing that hits me is this overwhelming sense of responsibility. Like most humans I suppose responsibility in general is something that I could always use less of. But again, this is different. This is a responsibility mixed with a certain amount of pride. Somebody’s very livelihood depends upon two people. More than that though, her entire perception of the world, her morals, what she deems right and wrong will be instilled by me. There’s surely no greater or more important task in life?

Of course, there is so much to teach her as she grows, and I look forward to answering endless questions, whatever they might be. In the process I hope to instil in her the fact that in life questions are more important than answers. An attitude of questioning things will always be greater than an all knowing one. I think we as adult parents often forget the lessons young children and newborns can teach us. The learning is not necessarily a one way street of us teaching the children. After a few attempts at walking, the toddler doesn’t decide to maybe try again next week, or that hey, maybe this isn’t something for me. They keep trying until they can get it right. When a newborn is unhappy, they let you know about it, instead of holding it in and letting it stew. Young children live life in a blissful state of embracing the present moment, with no cares about tomorrow or yesterday. They are able to see wonder in the world, and have a thirst for knowledge – resulting in a whole lot of questions beginning with ‘Why’. For them the world is a magical place filled with marvels, rather than a prison filled with misery.

There’s much to learn together.