/ 21 May 2015

Editorial: Counting on education

The Maths Centre's aim is to inculcate a love of maths and science and to make learning fun.
The Maths Centre's aim is to inculcate a love of maths and science and to make learning fun.

The greatest threat to economic growth and political stability in South Africa is education – or the fact that pupils and students do not get enough of a good education. Of the 1.2-million children who began school 12 years ago, only 2.5% have achieved a pass of more than 60% in maths; the percentage for science is even worse: 1.6%.

This has social implications. These young people, many of whom are poor or live in rural areas, will struggle to lift themselves out of poverty, and this directly affects their quality of life. In an economy that is trudging along with underwhelming growth, there are no jobs for people who cannot count – it is difficult enough for people with a matric pass to find a job.

But the implications extend well beyond the individual. South Africa cannot grow or create jobs without higher input numbers. The Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators 2015 show that patents and technology payments are dismally low – factors that influence how competitive we are, compared with other countries. We pay R20-billion for foreign technology, but receive less than R100-million in technology receipts.

These numbers will come back to bite us further down this road – you could even say that they are biting us now. These patent and technology payment numbers mean a higher trade deficit and an increased reliance on foreign investment and government bonds. If this situation continues, the future will come with more taxation, higher inflation and an economy that, in effect, grinds to a halt.

It comes back to research and development – the heart of innovation and economic growth. In the 2012-2013 financial year, for the first time, the government spent more money than big business on research and development (R&D). Big business doesn’t want to invest in South Africa, with its paradoxically stringent regulations and uncertain policy directions, so it sits on its wealth like a dragon.

Through the department of science and technology, the government is trying to coax big business from its lair and encourage it to invest in R&D again. But small business is where the most immediate innovation and job creation are – but this sector is strangled by taxation, bureaucracy and overregulation.

We applaud the government for trying to encourage innovation in the science space, through funding, academic publications and PhD numbers, but it’s time for other government departments to come to the party. Dealing with the problem starts with basic education and targeted interventions in pre-primary education. By the time pupils write matric, it’s too late.