As South Africa’s universities are again overwhelmed by applicants at the start of the year, we need to ask ourselves whether South Africa should adopt a different educational model to the United Kingdom’s, which has severely eroded that country’s industrial base.
The Austin Motor Company. Austin-Healey Cars. Avro. Armstrong Siddeley. Ascari Cars. (Seriously?) There is a Wikipedia page called Defunct motor vehicle motor manufacturers of the UK. It has 86 subpages for each of the 86 car manufacturers that went out of business in relatively recent history.
Motor manufacturing was only one small part of what used to be the greatest industrial nation on Earth.
Granted, the educational system was only one reason behind this precipitous decline, but it was an important one. After World War II the UK introduced a series of British educational policies to get as many children as possible university educated. The bulk of the government’s efforts went into making university education available to all as a way of pushing the country forward and overturning Britain’s odious class system.
But one cannot have one’s educational cake and snack on it later.
A consequence of this well-meant push resulted in vocational or artisanal training being neglected. Money was poured into the grammar school system and the newer “red-brick” universities.
Decades later, the UK found itself chronically short of skilled labour and the manufacturing sector suffered as a result.
Germany, on the other hand, followed a dramatically different path. Today, on leaving school, more than 50% of Germans enter dual vocational education and training (VET) programmes as they make their way into the job market. Pupils start these programmes while still at school. Many of them leave the mainstream school system at 16 to follow this route to employment and job security. Apprenticeships are common and largely funded by German manufacturers hungry for skills.
The system benefits the individual, the manufacturing corporations and the country as a whole, so it is no wonder that United States President Donald Trump thinks it is a good idea. In June 2017, he signed an executive order called Expanding Apprenticeships in America that seeks to increase the availability of vocational training programmes. Doubtless it’s all part of a plan to make American manufacturing great again.
If a visionary like Trump can see the wisdom of concentrating educational efforts on copying the German rather than the British educational model, maybe it is time that South Africa took a second look at the educational system bequeathed to us by the UK.
Are we, like the UK, in danger of undervaluing practical artisanal skills that will enable people to live economically secure lives and build South Africa’s manufacturing base?
South Africa’s Technical and Vocational Education Training colleges are underfunded and not sought after by pupils who have been told that university education is the only way to progress. Our country’s manufacturing sector is already on its knees, so perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether we want our industries to follow the example of BMW or the British Motor Corporation.
John Davenport is the chief creative officer at advertising agency Havas