The Case for Business as a Force for Good

This post is adapted from a talk that Sizwe Nxasana presented at Nation Builder’s In Good Company 2019 conference on 15 August 2019.

According to two case studies in the education field, South Africa, and the entire continent, is experiencing huge shortfalls in properly trained personnel within Government, Private Sector, Labour and Business.  Some of these deficiencies may be addressed with help from the NECT, but Business and Government often duplicate their efforts. However, changing entrenched systems of the key stakeholders, being Civil Society, Labour and Government, is extremely difficult.

“The problems are complex; intractable; big and therefore require big solutions,” explains Sizwe Nxasana, founder of the Sifiso Learning Group and Future Nation Schools. Benefactors are daunted by the scale of the problems, so they simply adopt a couple of schools, donate libraries or laboratories and run programmes to up-skill or mentor teachers and principals. But whilst this assistance is good, it is the system which is at fault and needs to change.

Days after Nxasana became chairman of NSFAS the ‘Fees must Fall’ campaign began. Within a week he presented a blueprint to Cabinet of what needed to be done. At that stage about R18-billion was being allocated to NSFAS, but the pass rate of students receiving funding was a mere 45%. Thus, 55% of taxpayer’s money was being wasted. More importantly, many young lives were being destroyed. Hopes dashed, not only for the students but for their families and villages who felt it was impossible to break out of the cycle of poverty. Success seemed reserved only for those who had money.

One problem was that certain degree courses were no longer viable in today’s world or were over-supplied with graduates in the field. Humanities degrees were oversubscribed while science and mathematics courses faced a shortfall. The solution was to evaluate the areas facing a lack of qualified manpower and seek funding from the business sector who would ultimately benefit from the greater pool of proficient applicants.

Universities, like Government, shy away from change and the faculties tend not to communicate with one another. Outdated degree courses should be discarded and new ones introduced, but this will only be accomplished when better communication between faculties occurs.

Nxasana’s blueprint was accepted by Cabinet. They wanted it implemented as quickly as possible but no finance was available. Nxasana turned to the business sector which proved willing to help. Within two months an amount of R200,000,000 was raised towards effective student funding. In the 2.5 years that the programme has been in operation, business leaders such as Business Leadership SA, ASISA (Association for Saving and Investment SA), SAICA (South African Institute of Chartered Accountants) and others have come on board.

With a pool of finance to provide student grants, it has become possible for the National Research Foundation to assist students with post-graduate studies, right up to the post-doctorate level. The result is that more graduates are finding employment than ever before.  Another plus is that there will be sufficient young lecturers equipped to prepare students for the 21st Century and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, replacing aging professors in our 26 public universities.

Another aspect of the problem was that school leavers who had worked hard to obtain a university exemption, though had not been exposed to big city life, were overwhelmed by pressures and distractions at university for which they did not have the necessary life-skills. The solution was to assist the students with grants as well as providing complete wrap-around support. A technology platform has been devised which allows project managers employed by NRF in every faculty to track the progress of each student being funded. This system has been integrated with university software, allowing project managers to check on students’ marks and whether they are submitting assignments and projects. Students may request help from these project managers with any problems, be they accommodation, a broken cell-phone or laptop or anything else. The project manager will assist and advise them in order to solve the problem without further affecting the student’s studies.

While the NSFAS-funded pass rate is about 45% to 50% and that funded by the public sector is in the region of 60% to 65%, the NRF funded pass rate is 92%, proving a far better return on investment. With the economy being depressed, the tax-payer cannot be burdened with higher taxes nor can Government afford to borrow more, so another method had to be found to provide the R42-billion required annually for student funding. Social Impact Bonds are the most recent scheme to come into effect.

Nxasana is currently discussing the high school curriculum while tools are being developed to improve the standard of high school education. Of the 34,000 schools countrywide, 17,000 are already benefitting from online curriculum trackers and lesson plans. School Governing Bodies are also in the spotlight, as is the efficacy of the National Senior Certificate. The new curriculum will include coding, robotics, computing and all other areas of study to prepare the learners for the 21st Century.

Without input from the business sector along with far-seeing people like Nxasana, change would not be possible. Education trends must, indeed are, changing drastically in order to equip our youth for the future. But it will take time and money and will certainly not be accomplished overnight.

Sizwe Nxasana, former CEO of Telkom and FirstRand Group, ex-chairman of NSFAS, Co-founder and Chairman of the National Education Collaboration Trust or NECT, founder of the Sifiso Learning Group and Future Nation Schools is also a member of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants. Notwithstanding his exceptional career in the corporate world from which he has retired, his passion is education; particularly assisting learners who come from poor or ‘missing middle’ backgrounds.