Q&A with Servaas van der Berg

The head of ReSEP, Professor Servaas van der Berg was recently interviewed by Nic Spaull – a graduate student in the Economics Department and a RESEP researcher – as part of his ongoing Q&A series. Two other RESEP researchers have also participated in the series – Martin Gustafsson and Stephen Taylor.

1)   Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

My interest in education largely stems from my concern with issues of poverty and inequality. It became increasingly clear to me that the policy area most pertinent to addressing these issues in South Africa is education. All other policies can have only a limited impact in reducing poverty and inequality if we should fail in our schools.

2)   What does your average week look like?

 It varies much with the time of year and with the research projects I am involved with. My teaching load is mainly concentrated in the first semester, when I am largely responsible for three graduate courses. That means two mornings and one afternoon are involved directly with the teaching, whilst preparation (reading) takes almost as much time. I interact a lot with other members of the ReSEP research team, and often have to provide feedback on chapters of doctoral theses or inputs into our research projects. We also have a weekly brown bag lunch seminar where a member of the team would usually present her or his most recent research. In addition, there is a fair bit of administration to do, including dealing with research contracts, writing and presenting research reports, writing testimonials for students applying for bursaries or for jobs, or seeing students. So much academic writing and communicating with some of the other researchers often has to take place at night. In the second semester I have less teaching, but then I travel more to interact with policy makers. At times it is quite common for me to travel to Pretoria once a week, and sometimes I would remain there for a week at a time when we present courses for policy makers.

 3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick two or three that have been especially influential for you which two or three would they be and why?

There are a few papers on South African issues that stand out for me. The one is a book chapter by Normal Bromberger that investigated government policies related to income distribution for a number of decades in the twentieth century. What still impresses me is his clear articulation of how difficult it is to ascribe distributional outcomes to particular policies, something we all usually fail to properly acknowledge. In the education field in South Africa I should mention an article by Luis Crouch and Thabo Mabogoane, which made the point very well that inputs explain very little of educational outputs. The other is a talk that Andrew Donaldson gave to the SA Institute of Race Relations in the early 1990s about post-apartheid education challenges; it is as enlightening today as it was then. I still prescribe all these readings to my students; their messages remain clear, even though they are dated. And then one should also mention some of the international literature; the joint work of Hanushek and Woessmann must be especially mentioned here, in all their different guises. I have also been fascinated by the work of Lant Pritchett, relating both to education and to service delivery more generally. His recent book on The Rebirth of Education paints a picture of low learning trajectories in India and Pakistan that is very familiar to South Africans, and he has fascinating insights on its causes and how to deal with them. It is for this reason that we recently invited him to Stellenbosch to spend a week with us discussing our common research and policy interests.

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

Eric Hanushek would obviously be high on the list, because of his volumes of work on the Economics of Education, and for best illustrating the limitations of input-based policies in education. I also have great admiration for his work with Woessmann about the importance of education quality rather than years of education for both individual earnings and the growth of nations. I think this work deserves a great audience. I have already mentioned Lant Pritchett, whose work has attracted a large following amongst those with an interest in understanding education in developing countries. An important insight from this work is that although school systems in many developing countries mimic those in developed countries, very little learning takes place in most such countries, so that the real challenge in developing countries is not how to ensure access to schools, but to ensure that learning really happens within those schools. This is a very necessary corrective to the drive for Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals, which focused attention only on education quantity and not quality.

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

We know far too little of how much children learn in South Africa (i.e. the gains they make in a year, for instance), we have only limited systematic evidence of what happens in classrooms, we do not know enough about the difficulties of and consequences of language choices in our historically black schools, we know too little of what is necessary to overcome home learning deficits, and we do not know what are the best policy levers to improve performance at school level. The new wave of quantitative and other evidence-based research to which we have tried to contribute has brought some advances in our understanding of all these issues, but we still have very far to go.

6)   What is the best academic advice you’ve been given?

That in every class there are always some students that are brighter than the lecturer. Once one realises this, the task of the lecturer becomes opening up routes to learning rather than providing knowledge. The young researchers and doctoral students that I work with are likely to develop far more skills than I can teach them, if only they are given the opportunity. So the question is simply how to channel the technical skills of these bright minds into research work that is useful for policy and that can allow them to earn academic credit that would also be compensated in the labour market.

7)   If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

My answer to this question may differ depending on what day you ask me – there are many challenges. But let me talk about three.

1) I would say to the Minister that a political resolution of the unproductive relationship between the teacher unions and government has to be found. This is clearly a process where politicians should take the lead. We cannot continue with the present situation where one union has de facto veto power over appointments and policies, and often uses this power to the detriment of children.

2) Then I would argue that we need to create a situation where there are consequences for teachers who do not take their work seriously. We all know that parents and fellow teachers would make life difficult for a lazy teacher in a well-functioning, good school. In a weak, dysfunctional school on the other hand, some teachers can get away with putting in little effort, as parents cannot apply such pressure in such schools, and principals often simply do not do so as that is the way of least resistance. That is what makes instructional leadership by principals such an important part of their jobs, and too often gets neglected in our weak schools. This also leads me to my next point.

3) I would advise the Minister to focus attention on the Foundation Phase, as this is so often neglected. (For instance, few primary school principals have Foundation Phase experience, and energies are more often focused on older children, whether that be in academic matters or in sports and culture). We believe that a concrete central objective is needed for the Foundation Phase, that every child should learn to read fluently by age 10. Such a focus would assist much by focusing energies, in a similar way as the matric examinations have done in secondary schools – particularly if teachers, principals, districts, provinces and provincial ministers have to report regularly on progress in achieving universal reading. Such accountability for a single goal that everyone can agree on – reading – would have positive consequences for learning in all fields, and also for other school phases.

8)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

Research in education is to me a means to an end. Though education is a fascinating and very important field of research globally, its main interest to me is because of its influence on outcomes in terms of life chances, poverty and income distribution, and economic growth. From the very first lectures I attended as an undergraduate that dealt with these issues, I knew that this was the area where I wanted to make a contribution, and it still is my consuming research interest.

9)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

There are good reasons why the basics of education have not changed much from the time of Socrates, or earlier – it is always about interactions between a lecturer/teacher and students, in some way or another. Young children in particular need the social context and need to develop social skills. Technology can make important contributions, but cannot replace person to person contact for most educational purposes. The internet and libraries offer a wealth of information, but transferring that information to young people requires more than simply the presence of these possibilities, and education is more than knowledge transfer. That is why good teachers will always be a great asset.

10) If you were given a R5 million research grant, what would you use it for?

I would want to research learning from the Early Childhood Development (ECD) level and into the early grades of school, because we know too little about it, and about the extent that good ECD and Foundation Phase teaching can overcome home deficits. For our circumstances, that remains a central question.

11) You have been incredibly successful at creating a collaborative and productive research group (RESEP). If you had to give advice to someone wanting to start a similar group elsewhere what would it be? What do you think were the keys to RESEPs success?

 To the extent that ReSEP has been successful – and I cannot doubt its success when I look at the wonderful work that gets done by this group of keen young researchers –, it is precisely because of collaboration. The Department of Economics at Stellenbosch has given me the freedom to focus on research and on nurturing young researchers. Given this privilege, the question was simply how to create a similarly supportive environment for students and young researchers who are attracted to apply their talents in this field. We have been greatly fortunate in the quality of the young talent we have attracted into ReSEP, thus to a large extent it is simply a matter of unleashing these talents. I often stand in awe of what keen young researchers can produce once they have been given the technical skills; as a society we should find draw more from such talent.

12) You currently have strong links with policymakers, what do you think is the main reason why there is a disconnect between research and policy in South Africa and what do you think can be done to fix it?

Most researchers do not understand the policy process or the constraints policy makers face, while few policy makers stay in close enough touch with their discipline. I think institutions such as the SA Reserve Bank offer an example of how those who make policy gain from reading and interacting with research, or even doing research. Furthermore, I think there is a lot to be said for using internships and joint research projects involving both people from the policy making institutions and academic researchers to broaden contact and mutual understanding. But often the time constraints on good government officials are very severe, so they lose touch with reading research and rather end up writing Ministers’ speeches or attending very unproductive meetings. It is therefore encouraging that the DBE has created positions and space for researchers to inform their policy making. It is important that this should also happen in provincial departments, who generally remain less well informed about research. This is one reason why we want to actively engage with provincial policy makers so that they can also learn more from the results of research in education in South Africa and abroad.