Race, Gender and Low Quality Schooling in South Africa: A Critique of Research from Economics

Friday, 20 July 2018: 09:00
Oral Presentation
Adam COOPER, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Youth unemployment is South Africa’s biggest challenge, with conservative estimates suggesting that 45% of 16-34-year-old South Africans are unable to find work. Most young South Africans who are unemployed are Black, a result of the country’s legacy of racialised inequality. Far more opportunities exist for young men to find work than for young women, due to the nature of menial labour, the unequal distribution of child rearing responsibilities and societal biases regarding what constitutes desirable employees. Despite the clear existence of raced and gendered stratification mechanisms, local economists almost exclusively argue that high rates of unemployment and low wages of Black youth are the result of low quality education. The overwhelming finding from this body of work is that low school quality and attainment, associated with schools formerly reserved for Black students, result in reduced chances of employment and of earning a high wage. A systematic review of studies from the discipline of economics shows that the evidence for a causal relationship between low quality education and high wages relies on a problematic set of assumptions and silences, with different criteria applied to White and Black youth in assessing why they are or are not able to find employment. I argue that the success of knowledge produced by Economists lies in its political utility, as it is easily applied to short term interventions that may produce small but relatively immediate positive effects. Instead of bemoaning what could be interpreted as Economists’ nefarious intentions, I challenge Sociologists of education, youth and work to demonstrate similar usefulness and commitment to engage with and ameliorate societal problems, such as those bound up in youth unemployment and education. A number of possible research paths are suggested that may be fertile for this purpose.