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Education: Literacy is not enough

Last Friday, Zimbabwe celebrated the 34th anniversary of its independence from colonial rule.

As always there was much pomp and fanfare as people relished the country’s independence which came after years of bloody fighting and political manoeuvring.

Yet after the dust has settled, it is inevitable that one would take stock and evaluate the progress made since then.

One area of success that Zimbabweans are proud of and are quick to point out is the education sector. Before independence access to education was heavily skewed along racial lines. Soon after independence government sought to correct this and made attendance at government schools free.

Zimbabwe’s literacy rate soared and at 90% is today the highest in Africa and comparable with that of many developed countries. Zimbabweans are particularly fond of shoving this particular statistic to anyone who cares to listen.

After all, it is proof that they are the continent’s most learned population and have come a long way since the times of colonisation.

There are however some points to ponder about the much-touted gains in education. Chiefly because, economic development is still way below what would be desirable, many have asked why with so many well educated people industry has failed.

Mining has only managed lacklustre success and many other sectors are nothing to be proud of.

Perhaps the first error is that the country misinterprets what a high literacy rate actually means. Simply put, literacy is the ability to read and write;, quite a basic but necessary ability. Of course, this alone cannot translate into economic prosperity.

What the country really needs are people who have expert knowledge that can be applied on in a way that gives us comparative advantage over competitors in the world. Being able to read and write, unfortunately is only the beginning of education and has limited application in and of itself.

An alternative statistic which people should be worried about is the Ordinary (‘O’) Level pass rate. Although also a somewhat basic indicator of education, this is perhaps a better measure of potential.

Unlike simple literacy, ‘O’ Level involves learning subject matter which may be useful in employment.

A lot of entry level jobs require that one have at least five passes at this level. National ‘O’ Level pass rate for 2013 was a mere 18,4% and since independence has rarely risen above 20%.

In other words if we consider ‘O’ Level to be basic education, then it is fair to say the majority of Zimbabweans have not attained the desirable level of education. It is no wonder therefore that a country where the majority of people are in fact not as well-educated as widely touted is underdeveloped.

We do not have enough highly-skilled artisans to make industry viable or sufficiently qualified medical personnel to man hospitals and provide decent healthcare. The shortage of skills is replicated in most other sectors.

Even at the next stage of the educational system, Advanced (‘A’) Level, there is a pass rate of just over 80%. Whilst this is a huge improvement on ‘O’ Level, it still leaves much room for improvement.

The pre-independence educational system was criticised as being a bottleneck system, meant to make sure that only a limited number of people made it to the higher echelons of education.

The accusation is that the government of the day segregated against the black majority by deliberately making sure those of them that made it to university were very few. Sadly, the low pass rates of today have the same effect to some extent.

Some studies suggest that only 1% of people in Zimbabwe have a university education. If these statistics are anywhere near an accurate indicator, then industry is starved of people with high level education who can compete with regional and world peers.

The response of government seems to be the opening of many universities to accommodate more people and churn out more graduates. While the motivation is laudable, the method is questionable. It used to be the case that only the best students made it to university.

Instead of improving the quality of education at ‘A’ and ‘O’ level, the increase in government and private universities has only served to absorb those who would not have made the cut at the standard demanded in the early years following independence.

Many employers complain that recent graduates, particularly those from newer institutions, are not of the same quality as those of yesteryear. As a result, even those with university level education sometimes do not meet the standards demanded by industry.

Foreign employers have begun to shun Zimbabwean graduates from these newer universities citing their performance as inferior. As the nation celebrates independence and the gains thereof, it is important to take a long look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves on whether we have been successful or not.

The education sector is certainly not the only cog in the wheel of economic success but it is a very important one. To claim that we have been successful in this area without scrutiny of the statistics is folly; especially for people who are supposedly learned.

There is a lot of work to be done in education which together with other gains could translate into economic prosperity. Real education goes beyond mere literacy. We need education that can be applied!

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