South Africa: How PPPs can kickstart infrastructure development in the ailing education sector

It is crucial that national and provincial government consider the private sector as its ally in meeting growing educational needs, according to Canback Consulting, a member of The Economist Group (TEG).

With the overall quality of South African education recently ranked by the World Economic Forum as 137th out of 139, Client Director at Canback, Nolene van Tonder, says it is time to stop playing the “blame game” and move towards creating workable public-private partnerships (PPPs) in education to fix a core sector required to drive future growth and employment in South Africa.

“Education is one of many sectors that can benefit from PPPs, but this will require strategic planning, constructive engagement and an alignment of policy. For instance, Gauteng province experiences an annual challenge to place all learners in schools. At the start of the 2018 academic year, more than 30,000 learners between Grade 1 and 8 had not been placed,” she says. Although some learners had applied on time, many were not placed, due to shortage of space in ‘high pressure’ areas.

Canback says “it is not incomprehensible” for government to form partnerships with private education companies to better assist with infrastructure delivery.

“After all, government often calls on the private sector and local communities to partner with them. Why should education be an exception? This model can truly combine efforts to achieve desired outcomes. Government has funds available and the private sector has agility,” says Van Tonder.

The success of new model PPPs are already bearing fruit in other emerging markets. The World Economic Forum has reported that when innovative education-driven PPPs were launched in Columbia, they began to show benefits from an early stage. These ranged from “major physical transformations of neighbourhoods”, a high demand for these well-maintained schools, lower dropout rates and a major turnaround in results, including maths and reading test results.

A similar local investment model and a shareholder agreement with government could generate additional income to fund infrastructure development. This model would bring the “best capabilities” of both parties to deliver physical infrastructure at the required rate to the required areas.

However, a thorough understanding of population growth trends, human movement between provinces and accelerated urbanisation is key to understanding and planning for current and future needs of expected learners.

In this regard, Canback expects South Africa’s total rural share of population to decline by a compounded annual rate of 5% over the next 10 years. The urban population will consist of approximately 71% as compared to the current 66%.

“Government does not appear to understand the speed of urbanisation. For instance, Limpopo is the only province where urban as well as rural populations are expected to grow over the next 10 years. All other provinces are expected to see a decline in the rural population, with the greatest decline in absolute numbers expected in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape,” says Van Tonder. Gauteng and Western Cape will experience the largest urbanisation rates, absorbing migrants from across the country which will add additional pressure on the currently overburdened infrastructure. Factors such as these “must be considered” when doing infrastructure planning; and national budgets must be adjusted to account for future urbanisation and migration trends.

According to Canback, qualitative and quantitative studies, at a municipal level, can either be commissioned or sourced, to evaluate suburban growth trends, current demographic statistics, and education department statistics. Socio-economic levels and other trends need to be overlaid to ensure that government does not only build enough schools but also builds schools in the areas that best service the population.

These granular studies, especially in the fastest-growing urban areas like Cape Town and the greater Gauteng area, will provide crucial information to the Department of Basic Education and provincial governments to review and adjust budget allocation and priority areas for infrastructure development.

“This is where the ability to harmonise multiple data sets and interpret them effectively, can assist to address current challenges and successfully plan to meet future needs,” says Van Tonder.