Is education the answer to inequality in SA?

In the third part of our New Frame, New Economy forum on inequality, Stephanie Allais, Yael Shalem and Adam Cooper say the ability of education to improve society is less about school constraints and more about poverty.

Debates on South African inequality often resort to misleading silver bullets. Education is chief among them.

But as Murray Leibbrandt says, the intergenerational inequality that traps impoverished people and divides South Africa is the result of interwoven factors. He points out that the country’s inequality “results from the pernicious intersections between inequalities in access to education, health, income, employment, education and living conditions which work together to enable a few while trapping many.”

Leibbrandt’s call for policy prioritisation and policy choices within a coherent policy framework should be welcomed. His insistence on explaining inequality by looking at how structural constraints in almost every sphere of society reproduce inequalities is in clear contrast to the position of many economists, as well as the World Bank, which invariably positions education as the solution to inequality.

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Economists, the World Bank and researchers within and linked to the Department of Basic Education say low-quality education is a poverty trap. Improving educational outcomes by means of large-scale, school-based interventions and greater administrative efficiency and accountability, they say, is critical to improving schooling provision and, in turn, the chances of impoverished people in the labour market.

Singling out the role of education in changing economic outcomes is a mistake, however.

Put more bluntly, education is regularly regarded as a panacea for addressing poverty and inequality, despite being bound up in the same reproductive processes caused by poverty and inequality. There are three clear blind spots in this approach.

Progress, but no solution

First is a belief held widely by parents and policy makers around the world: that education is essential for rupturing inequality. Years of education, so the argument goes, is an important factor in improving life chances.

But as Leibbrandt points out, of all the factors that make up South Africa’s lack of intergenerational mobility, the only one that changes from one generation to the next is years of schooling. In other words, most children post-apartheid are only better off than their parents in one respect: the number of years of schooling they complete.

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It has almost become common sense that increasing years of education would increase incomes for impoverished people. This common sense draws heavily on a concept called Human Capital Theory, whose central thrust is that more learning equals more earning. But after being repeatedly questioned, a revised version of the argument focused on education quality as the key to raising earnings

It is this view that is taken up by economists and South African government officials. Yet recent work shows that the links between education quality, quantity and income are highly dependent on a range of factors, in particular historical contexts.

Structural problems

Second, most educational researchers, including the economists and World Bank researchers mentioned above, acknowledge and demonstrate that all aspects of low socioeconomic status are linked to unequal educational outcomes. Yet many policy makers and economists continue to promote the belief that isolating a few variables within schools can make a big difference in counteracting low-quality schooling.

They acknowledge that home background is the most important influence on educational outcomes. They even concede that there is a limit to what schools can do to help impoverished children overcome poverty. But they continue to recommend in-school changes to fundamentally reduce inequality. These changes, which are regularly referred to as “binding constraints”, include teacher content knowledge, pedagogical skill, wasted learning time and institutional functionality.

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This sort of policy approach pushes the socioeconomic conditions that structure learners’ lives, and those of their families and communities, into the background. But it is these conditions that reproduce social and economic relations in ways that limit our chances of ever improving equality of learning.

Singling out the role of quality education in changing economic outcomes naïvely places a structural problem on the shoulders of individual agents: parents, teachers and school principals.

Jobs still an issue

Third, beyond an assumption that there are widespread skills shortages and that a supply of educated workers will create a demand for them, these approaches have no theory of job creation, income generation or how the labour market is structured and reproduced.

Even if the knowledge and skills of the workforce and potential workforce were radically improved, there is no evidence that this additional supply of skilled workers would improve income inequality by increasing the demand for labour.

In fact, the patterns of interaction between education and labour markets, in the context of extreme inequality and a small number of good jobs, is liable to reinforce a frenzy for high-level qualifications, preventing the formation of a broader, labour-intensive, mid-level skill regime.

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In this context, education cannot change the rules of the game. All it does is alter the number of competitors.

And as higher education completion numbers rise, an economy that cannot accommodate the number of workers coming out of the education system will likely aggravate inequality. As Leibbrandt points out, “labour market dynamics have favoured high-skilled professionals” at the top end of the income distribution.

Yet a comprehensive theory of how these labour market dynamics might be disrupted has not been developed.

The real constraints

The relationships between education, poverty and inequality in South Africa are complex.

The need for improving aspects of education should never be discounted. What knowledge is selected for the curriculum, how it is taught, the quality of teacher preparation, adequate school resources and what social relations are developed between learners and teachers and between schools and their communities are all central to school improvement.

But none of this will make the required educational improvement in the absence of economic change, and change to the structure and regulation of labour markets and the wellbeing of impoverished people.

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While we are strongly committed to improving the equality of educational outcomes, there are two problems with positioning education as the solution to inequality. First, as Leibbrandt points out, the factors are interwoven. Education cannot simply be “fixed” in a vacuum. Second, even if it were improved substantially, this will not have a significant effect on labour market inequality in the absence of substantial structural reform in the economy and labour markets.

Highly unequal labour markets will simply lead to rising requirements for educational credentials as more people become more educated. Better skills will be required in the chase for jobs, but they will not create more jobs.

Poverty and inequality are the real binding constraints on the ability of the education system to improve and offer greater equality of educational opportunity, and on the ways in which education can reduce income inequality.

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