Over the month of October, there has been on-going tumult in the citadels of higher learning in neighbouring South Africa which the local media has scarcely bothered to report upon.
Violent protests have swept across most of the country’s 26 universities as students insist on the inalienable right to free education through thick and thin in a year-long movement that has come to be known as FeesMustFall.
In the ensuing clashes with police, the latter have lobbed stun grenades, fired rubber bullets, and unleashed salvoes of tear gas canisters at stone-throwing and road-blockading students. Campus structures have been vandalised by the unruly and intractable students, forcing some universities to suspend classes citing security concerns.
It is not that the Zupta government – excuse the sneering sobriquet: it’s so much in vogue at present – has all of a sudden jettisoned the notion of free education in its entirety. What it did, early last month, was to give universities carte blanche to hike fees by no more than 8 percent. Whereas government undertook to subsidise students from low-income families, who constitute 75 percent of the student population, to cater for the increase, it at the same time indicated that those from better-off families (that is, households earning more than R600,000 a year) would have to top-up from own resources.
It was this partiality that sparked the protests as students wanted a blanket subsidy that covered all and sundry and not only a certain layer in the social strata. Education is South Africa’s largest budget item, constituting 0.7 percent of GDP. This year alone, government set aside approximately R300 billion for the purpose, which translates to 20 percent of the national budget and almost double the spending on health. About R70 billion went to tertiary education only.
Education minister Blade Nzimande has already served notice that the across-the-board free education model is not sustainable in today’s South Africa which is not faring too well economically and which has a multiplicity of imperatives to contend with. That sounds familiar or doesn’t it? At a recent Tertiary Education Financing pitso organised by the Human Resource Development Council (HRDC), our own Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology Minister Honourable Dr Alfred Madigele seemed to echo the Nzimande line when he opined that, “the current tertiary education funding model used by government is not sustainable”. His outlook was informed by what he termed “massification”, this being “a massive increase in tertiary education enrolment; ever increasing costs; equally important competing priorities; and dwindling financial resources”.
The new minister’s pronouncement must not be taken casually. It was loaded with a lot of suggestibility and therefore has implications which are just too easy to prefigure. Government should not talk in riddles but come clean on the subject of continued free education well in the nick of time so as to avoid stunning the nation with a sudden, BCL-like bombshell.
THE PARADOX OF EDUCATIONAL EXPENDITURE
What concerns me at this juncture, however, is not the augury of Honourable Madigele’s statement. It is what one Mpho Bosupeng, a researcher at the University of Botswana, wrote. I have just come across a scholarly article he penned for the Journal of Applied Economics and Business Research in 2015 titled Payoffs of Education Expenditure In Botswana: Long Run Economic Growth Implications.
Bosupeng studied data from 1960 to 2013 with a view to establish a link between GDP growth and educational expenditure in that timeframe. In other words, Bosupeng sought to determine whether government spending on education in Botswana more or less boosted GDP growth. Economic growth is driven by new ideas, by discoveries that result in better products and more efficient production technologies. Human capital is the engine of this process: a better educated labour force increases the return on research and development and ensures that discoveries are more readily absorbed in the productive structures of the economy.
In the end, more education must yield more economic growth. India is an oft-cited example in this regard. The country’s much hyped software boom is said to reflect, at least partly, the earlier public investment in Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). The World Bank reckons that ideally, for every dollar a government spends on education, GDP should grow by $20 on average. In practice though, that is seldom the case.
In the case of Australia, for example, an extra $1 of educational expenditure actually increases Australian GDP by $2. In one specific study of 151 countries, which calculated the impact of educational expenditure (as a percentage of GDP) between 1990 and 1999 on GDP growth between 2000 and 2010, the World Bank found that an increase in education expenditure by 1 percentage point of GDP (e.g. from 4.5% to 5.5%) increased GDP growth by 0.9 percentage points (e.g. from 4.5% to 5.4%). Whatever the case, there ought to be a positive relationship of some magnitude between GDP sustainability and educational spending.
In the Botswana study, Bosupeng found that for the period 1960-2013, “there exists no statistically significant relationship between GDP and expenditure on education and skills development”. The mean GDP for the period was $3.86 billion while expenditure on education averaged just under $850 million.
The paradox of educational expenditure having hardly any effect on GDP growth is staggering given that we spend 8.7 percent of our GDP on education. On the African continent, we’re second only to Lesotho. Globally, our educational spend ranks among the top ten. Our government also allocates close to 30 percent of the ministerial recurrent budget to the ministry of education every year, the lion’s share which in 2014-2015 amounted to P9.26 billion.
The Department of Tertiary Education Financing alone has an average budget of P2.7 billion. Of this, between P1.2 billion and P1.7 billion goes to sponsorship of 20,000 to 30,000 students in both private and public tertiary institutions, with at least 10,000 being first year students.
SCHOLAR CORROBORATES MY TAKE IN DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR
In Mpho Bosupeng’s more than 50 bibliographical references, my name does not feature at all. He was not under obligation to cite me, and most likely didn’t even get to read my books, but what he observed about the sorry state of Botswana’s education system I also elaborately set out in my 2015 book Delusions of Grandeur Vol. 2 (Chapter 2, titled “Education Without Edification”).
I summarise Bosupeng’s concluding remarks as follows: “The lack of a positive affiliation between GDP and expenditure on education has several implications. Firstly, it implies that for a developing economy like Botswana, the country could be channeling funds to education with no increased production. This extrapolates further to mean that the government’s budget is being pushed to the limit while there is no payoff from education investment. The government will have to reconsider this investment spending carefully for it to have higher rates of returns.
“Secondly, the lack of a statistically significant relationship between educational expenditure and GDP may mean that the government is not providing enough jobs for the recent graduating classes who are fresh from their universities or vocational training institutions. This case is attached more to Botswana since the government is the largest employer.
“The third factor is that even though the government is spending so much money on the education system, there might be a mismatch between what the employer needs and the skills possessed by the students. In essence, government should consider the programmes each high institution of learning such as University of Botswana has to offer for economic growth and empowerment.
It is no use for the government to sponsor students whose degree programmes will not be beneficial to the long run economic growth and sustainability. “Fourth … the quality of the education itself should not be sidelined also.
If the quality of the education is very low, it is reasonable to expect low returns to national output in consequence. This will invalidate the anticipated positive relationship between educational expenditure and national economic growth.” Virtually all the above observations I too underscore at length in my books.
THE VANITY OF EXAM ROOM-BASED ASSESSMENT
If our education system availeth very little if at all, it is principally because we are so beholden to the stasis of the British model we inherited at independence and which we haven’t adapted to our own specific circumstances 50 years hence. It is too theoretically premised and lays undue emphasis on progression through examinations instead of innate ability. This has the result that when students graduate from college or varsity, they are practically “empty”, having regurgitated all they crammed onto the exam room script.
Examinations are a global convention and have been around since days immemorial yet they are not the best gauge of a student’s competence or intelligence quotient. If they were, then what about Albert Einstein, who is acknowledged as the 20th century’s greatest intellect but was not particularly good at passing examinations and bemoaned the fact that “the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning?” What about Thomas Edison, the inventor, amongst other things, of the electric bulb, who had no more than 3 months of formal education? What about the iconic Richard Branson of “Virgin Empire” fame, who had such a hard time passing examinations that he finally said enough was enough and dropped out of high school at age 16?
Examinations actually test test-taking ability, not innate ability or creative and innovative potential. They are a memory retention contest in the main. Regular examinations result in students working toward exams and exams only and not toward retentive learning. The better you are at cramming, the better your chances of passing. As somebody aptly put it, what the examination system encourages is “practising past papers in the hope of mastering tests and not the subject. Tests do not encourage the pursuit of knowledge so much as the pursuit of great grades.”
The memory-based examination system loyally panders to the cunning of our colonialists, who wanted our education system to churn out intellectually “undernourished school leavers” who were not resourceful, creative, and self-actualised but had to pin all their prospects for earning a living on the job market. Contrast that with the type of education the likes of Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg underwent which for only part of the way was sufficient to enable them create Google and Facebook respectively in a student hostel. Bill Gates and Paul Allen for one ditched varsity altogether, having imbibed enough knowledge to set out on their own and create the software titan called Microsoft.
So what is my bone of contention? It is that those who understand this theme best say routine examinations as a means of assessing skills and knowledge must be done away with. Much more practical and realistic methods of assessment which reflect real life situations must be investigated and adopted.
Otherwise, we will continue to deny our youth the opportunity to fully assert their God-given potential simply because they are not blessed with the gift of theoretical recollection or are not good at figuring out the nuances of an examination question. I could personally cite a number of people who otherwise were intelligent in the class room and in everyday life but were prone to succumb to a morbid case of examination fever the moment they set foot in the examination hall.
THE FINNISH MODEL
Whereas in much of the world competence is based on passing exams after spells of exhaustive cramming and rote learning, in Finland there are no standardised examinations. In fact, there is only one mandatory national examination from Standard One to high school – the matriculation exams, which we call BGCSE in Botswana.
The education system is based on a balanced programme and a process of continuous professionalism, not on the artificiality of exam room testing. Said one report: “Students in grades one through nine spend from four to eleven periods each week taking classes in art, music, cooking, carpentry, metal work, and textiles. These classes provide natural avenues for learning math and science, nurture critical cooperative skills, and implicitly cultivate respect for people who make their living working with their hands”.
There is no performance ranking for students or schools, the type you see in Botswana newspapers when nationwide examination results are announced, whereby the “super-performers ” are shown off in centre-spread adverts. When teachers assess students in Finland, they do not use numerical grades but descriptive feedback. This helps teachers and students focus on learning in a fear-free environment in which creativity and risk-taking are encouraged. Teachers have more real freedom in time planning when they do not have to focus on annual tests or exams. The result is that the difference between weakest and strongest student is the smallest in the world.
In Botswana, everybody wishes their child was at Westhood or Maruapula, or schools of a similar ilk. In Finland, “parents can also choose, but the options are all the same”. At best, choice is one of which institution of learning is closest to home. The Finns are today dubbed the rock stars of global education. A recent report said 93 percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percent score points higher than the US, the touted bastion of superlative education, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the EU.
It has now become fashionable for foreign delegations from across the world to make pilgrimages to Finland to study up-close the Finish educational model. It’s time ministers Alfred Madigele and Unity Dow got on the next plane too.
In 2005, the Business & Economic Advisory Council (BEAC) pitched the idea of the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to the Mogae Administration.
It took five years before the SEZ policy was formulated, another five years before the relevant law was enacted, and a full three years before the Special Economic Zones Authority (SEZA) became operational.
… courtesy of infiltration stratagem by Jehovah-Enlil’s clan
With the passing of Joshua’s generation, General Atiku, the promised peace and prosperity of a land flowing with milk and honey disappeared, giving way to chaos and confusion.
Maybe Joshua himself was to blame for this shambolic state of affairs. He had failed to mentor a successor in the manner Moses had mentored him. He had left the nation without a central government or a human head of state but as a confederacy of twelve independent tribes without any unifying force except their Anunnaki gods.
If I say the word ‘robot’ to you, I can guess what would immediately spring to mind – a cute little Android or animal-like creature with human or pet animal characteristics and a ‘heart’, that is to say to say a battery, of gold, the sort we’ve all seen in various movies and tv shows. Think R2D2 or 3CPO in Star Wars, Wall-E in the movie of the same name, Sonny in I Robot, loveable rogue Bender in Futurama, Johnny 5 in Short Circuit…
Of course there are the evil ones too, the sort that want to rise up and eliminate us inferior humans – Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in The Terminator, Box in Logan’s Run, Police robots in Elysium and Otomo in Robocop.
And that’s to name but a few. As a general rule of thumb, the closer the robot is to human form, the more dangerous it is and of course the ultimate threat in any Sci-Fi movie is that the robots will turn the tables and become the masters, not the mechanical slaves. And whilst we are in reality a long way from robotic domination, there are an increasing number of examples of robotics in the workplace.
ROBOT BLOODHOUNDS Sometimes by the time that one of us smells something the damage has already begun – the smell of burning rubber or even worse, the smell of deadly gas. Thank goodness for a robot capable of quickly detecting and analyzing a smell from our very own footprint.
A*Library Bot The A*Star (Singapore) developed library bot which when books are equipped with RFID location chips, can scan shelves quickly seeking out-of-place titles. It manoeuvres with ease around corners, enhances the sorting and searching of books, and can self-navigate the library facility during non-open hours.
DRUG-COMPOUNDING ROBOT Automated medicine distribution system, connected to the hospital prescription system. It’s goal? To manipulate a large variety of objects (i.e.: drug vials, syringes, and IV bags) normally used in the manual process of drugs compounding to facilitate stronger standardisation, create higher levels of patient safety, and lower the risk of hospital staff exposed to toxic substances.
AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY ROBOTS Applications include screw-driving, assembling, painting, trimming/cutting, pouring hazardous substances, labelling, welding, handling, quality control applications as well as tasks that require extreme precision,
AGRICULTURAL ROBOTS Ecrobotix, a Swiss technology firm has a solar-controlled ‘bot that not only can identify weeds but thereafter can treat them. Naio Technologies based in southwestern France has developed a robot with the ability to weed, hoe, and assist during harvesting. Energid Technologies has developed a citrus picking system that retrieves one piece of fruit every 2-3 seconds and Spain-based Agrobot has taken the treachery out of strawberry picking. Meanwhile, Blue River Technology has developed the LettuceBot2 that attaches itself to a tractor to thin out lettuce fields as well as prevent herbicide-resistant weeds. And that’s only scratching the finely-tilled soil.
INDUSTRIAL FLOOR SCRUBBERS The Global Automatic Floor Scrubber Machine boasts a 1.6HP motor that offers 113″ water lift, 180 RPM and a coverage rate of 17,000 sq. ft. per hour
These examples all come from the aptly-named site www.willrobotstakemyjob.com because while these functions are labour-saving and ripe for automation, the increasing use of artificial intelligence in the workplace will undoubtedly lead to increasing reliance on machines and a resulting swathe of human redundancies in a broad spectrum of industries and services.
This process has been greatly boosted by the global pandemic due to a combination of a workforce on furlough, whether by decree or by choice, and the obvious advantages of using virus-free machines – I don’t think computer viruses count! For example, it was suggested recently that their use might have a beneficial effect in care homes for the elderly, solving short staffing issues and cheering up the old folks with the novelty of having their tea, coffee and medicines delivered by glorified model cars. It’s a theory, at any rate.
Already,customers at the South-Korean fast-food chain No Brand Burger can avoid any interaction with a human server during the pandemic. The chain is using robots to take orders, prepare food and bring meals out to diners. Customers order and pay via touchscreen, then their request is sent to the kitchen where a cooking machine heats up the buns and patties. When it’s ready, a robot ‘waiter’ brings out their takeout bag.
‘This is the first time I’ve actually seen such robots, so they are really amazing and fun,’ Shin Hyun Soo, an office worker at No Brand in Seoul for the first time, told the AP.
Human workers add toppings to the burgers and wrap them up in takeout bags before passing them over to yellow-and-black serving robots, which have been compared to Minions.
Also in Korea, the Italian restaurant chain Mad for Garlic is using serving robots even for sit-down customers. Using 3D space mapping and other technology, the electronic ‘waiter,’ known as Aglio Kim, navigates between tables with up to five orders. Mad for Garlic manager Lee Young-ho said kids especially like the robots, which can carry up to 66lbs in their trays.
These catering robots look nothing like their human counterparts – in fact they are nothing more than glorified food trolleys so using our thumb rule from the movies, mankind is safe from imminent takeover but clearly Korean hospitality sector workers’ jobs are not.
And right there is the dichotomy – replacement by stealth. Remote-controlled robotic waiters and waitresses don’t need to be paid, they don’t go on strike and they don’t spread disease so it’s a sure bet their army is already on the march.
But there may be more redundancies on the way as well. Have you noticed how AI designers have an inability to use words of more than one syllable? So ‘robot’ has become ‘bot’ and ‘android’ simply ‘droid? Well, guys, if you continue to build machines ultimately smarter than yourselves you ‘rons may find yourself surplus to requirements too – that’s ‘moron’ to us polysyllabic humans”!