Youth Month: UKZN PhD student shares insights into SA’s student crisis and what can be done to fix it

IOL chatted to PhD in Industrial, Organisational and Labour Studies student, Nchafatso Pitso, on her thoughts on the matter.

IOL chatted to PhD in Industrial, Organisational and Labour Studies student, Nchafatso Pitso, on her thoughts on the matter.

Published Jun 27, 2023


Durban - Every year hundreds, if not thousands of students leave their places of study, and in many cases are not prepared for the working world.

Some buckle under the pressure of deadlines, being in the work environment and adapting to being on their own.

IOL chatted to PhD in Industrial, Organisational and Labour Studies student, Nchafatso Pitso, on her thoughts on the matter.

IOL: Are universities and other tertiary institutions equipping students to ensure they are work-fit when they graduate?

NP: No, they are not. We need technical universities that produce an industry-ready labour force with relevant knowledge the industry needs.

Industries try to bridge the gap by creating internship programmes because graduates can’t go straight to the boardroom since they not equipped with the necessary know-how needed to navigate industry problems. They need to be retrained as if they never went to university.

Because South Africa was colonised by the UK, we are using a university system that teaches programmes that do not equip students to fit in the world of work right now.

We are in the 4IR, yet our universities are not changing like other countries. For instance, Stellenbosch is the only university that offers Masters in Future Studies because you have to be able to live with now and the future, not the past.

Universities seek to produce theoretical professionals or researchers; their primary concern is knowledge production, not to train concrete professionals for the labour force.

For the past 20 years South African universities have proven to be unable to produce mass labour. TVET colleges and business schools produce mass labour, not universities. Mass labour working in factories in China are from training centres, or in some cases factories themselves create learnerships, training etc.

Universities only produce bright students with theoretical knowledge and no practical skills the market needs. In the past 40 to 50 years, the international growth of Neo liberalism and the growth of the free market economy has forced universities to start having business schools with short-term business management programmes etc.

All those courses in business schools are a product of the changing pattern of the financial economy. The material force of the financial economy has forced universities towards becoming business schools.

Some universities are ceasing to become universities, but business universities, due to the 4IR, technology etc. as a result of the financialisation of the economy and knowledge itself.

However, there are other universities that are resisting the Neo Liberalism that want to remain traditional research institutions producing activist intellectuals committed to decolonisation and transformation to the core.

There are these contestations taking place within universities and they are all influenced by the global geopolitical landscape of international capitalism. The universities and the economy operate at arm’s length; universities are not as close as they should be to the people running the economy.

The banking, renewable energy, ICT, manufacturing and retail sector are very far from universities, in fact, they are moving too quickly for universities to catch up.

Take any BCom economics programme from any university, the introductory theories they teach at 1st and 2nd year, still haven’t changed from 1997, they still teach Adam Smith and the Keynesian model, these theories were produced before World War II, about 80 years ago, during that time globalisation, technology and internet were not an issue, there was no financial crisis that we had in 2007-2008 (that brought the energy crisis) and even worse there was no Covid.

There has been so many changes in the economy in the past 50 years and industries have adapted so much to these changes, such that even big companies such as Nokia have disappeared as a result of these changes.

The financial economy has changed, but university curriculum has remained the same.

The basic education system in SA is extremely poor, we lose many young people between high school and university and even more between university and graduation, half of first year students don’t graduate within three years because they are unable to cope with the standards of the university because high school did not prepare them properly.

The systems that must feed jobs into the market are not in place. There are those systematic, structural issues in the design of South African education and economic structure.

The government is not thinking sociologically. Sociology equips you with a technique to think in generations, when you see poverty today as a sociologist, you are able to predict that in 50 years this is what society is going to look like.

IOL: Are there enough jobs in the SA market for students?

NP: The South African economy is not enabled to function at its full potential for a number of reasons; an apartheid legacy that is still entrenched in the economy (apartheid - a monopoly system to empower a tiny group of white people at the expense of the black majority). The patterns of apartheid are still with us today.

We have a very small economy for the whole population to fit in, but the same economy is too big for the people within it, hence the present inequalities. The rich are extremely rich, white, male and located in three or four cities, then the poor are the majority located in many provinces across the country and beyond our borders.

The whole Southern African region is suffering from the apartheid legacy. Because we are so concentrated in this apartheid design of the economy, we are unable to respond to international markets.

If the global market in China shifts and is anchored on industries, we are unable to respond effectively. Instead, we tail behind the problem. When China began to grow in the late 1990s, factories closed in SA and moved to China, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Singapore etc. No economy in the global South has recovered since then.

When the international markets shift, we are unable to lead that conversation but become primary victims of the crisis. The economy would create jobs if it was functioning at its full potential, but the way it is at the moment looking at apartheid legacy and the international indicators, there are no jobs in South Africa at all. For us to absorb all the students we would need a factory economy.

IOL: What are the scarce skills needed in SA and how can we steer students towards studying these skills rather than looking at already saturated markets?

NP: Banking, ICT, renewable energy, manufacturing, maritime, drone engineering, mechanical engineering, boiler makers, 3D design. New solutions to the current problems in the country.

As a country, we need to invest in science and maths at a foundation level. These subjects are supposed to be compulsory and prioritised from foundation level so as to equip students from an early stage with these skills.

To be able to achieve this we will need good teachers to teach these subjects, unfortunately people who are brilliant with these do not normally become teachers. Average people are the ones who end up teaching these subjects.

For a student who loves maths, they need to have a brilliant teacher who cannot only instil the skill, but the passion for it, too. There needs to be a mind-set shift on who do we select as teachers.

The same approach that is used in our aviation schools needs to be adopted across the education system.

IOL: Are we seeing more young people leaving our shores for better opportunities beyond our borders?

NP: Yes. High unemployment of graduates, weak government leadership that is not giving direction as to how they will create jobs for them. Government talks about vision 2030/2060 without including the youth that will carry this visions. Due to over saturation, more accounting graduates are getting opportunities overseas, meaning they were trained to somewhat compete on a global market.