Piketty’s radical vision for education

Thomas Piketty. Photo: European University Institute Flickr phostream (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Doron Isaacs

6 October 2015

During Thomas Piketty’s Nelson Mandela lecture a friend tweeted that, despite the standing ovation, many would choose what to remember. They would parrot his call for investment in education because that was unthreatening. Forget land redistribution, a wealth tax and the national minimum wage, just get the kids in school!

“The best way”, we read in Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, “to increase wages and reduce inequalities in the long run is to invest in education and skills.” We hear similar across the political spectrum. Unthreatening indeed!

But that sentence misrepresents Piketty, who in fact has a social justice position on education. His prescriptions are far-reaching and transformative. Access and quality are vital, but at the centre is the imperative of equal education, which he argues, is the “principal force” with which to wrest away the stranglehold on wealth and privilege that too few enjoy. It has been “over a long period of time, the main force in favor of greater equality.”

“Knowledge and skill diffusion”, he writes, “is the key to overall productivity growth as well as the reduction of inequality both within and between countries.” This is repeated throughout Capital. The critical word is “diffusion”. By it he means not that everyone gets a better education than they have presently, but that the boundaries of knowledge are brought down; that schools are not segregated by race, class or residence; that everyone has access to the same standard of learning.

His text confirms this interpretation repeatedly. “The poor catch up with the rich to the extent that they achieve the same level of technological know-how, skill and education”. An improved level doesn’t do it. Piketty calls for the same level. The Scandinavian countries, he says, where wage inequality is more moderate than elsewhere, “owe this result in large part to the fact that their educational system in relatively egalitarian and inclusive.”

Investment in education without an explicit equity agenda will not arrest deepening inequality. “Even with the considerable increase in the average level of education over the course of the twentieth century, earned income inequality did not decrease”, he confirms. “Indeed inequalities of training have to a large extent simply been translated upward, and there is no evidence that education has really increased intergenerational mobility.” Instead of being a tool to combat inequality, education is re-inscribing it, because it is segregated and unequal.

He cites two basic causes of this. The first is a belief – or a ruse – that under democracy and capitalism educational standards will naturally rise and tend towards parity. Piketty refutes this: “The principal force for convergence – the diffusion of knowledge – is only partly natural and spontaneous. It also depends in large part on educational policies.” It is, he says, “fundamentally a process of the diffusion and sharing of knowledge – the public good par excellence – rather than a market mechanism.”

The second cause is the anti-poor funding model underlying public (not to mention private) education. This he explains in a footnote:

“One finds the same redistribution from bottom to top in primary and secondary education: students at the most disadvantage schools are assigned the least experienced and least trained teachers and therefore receive less public money per child than students at more advantaged schools.”

This is a reality in South Africa too, but one that receives little attention from education administrators, scholars or union leaders. Research conducted in Gauteng and the Western Cape by Adrienne Pon, supervised by Prof Eric Hanushek at Stanford, shows that “the distribution of levels of qualifications is anti-poor as wealthier schools have more qualified educators on average” meaning that “current distribution of educators in South Africa falls short of the principles of equality and redress at the foundation of the postapartheid education system”.

In South Africa around 8% of the education budget is allocated to schools for their non-staff running costs in a manner that favours poor schools. This is good. But, since teacher salaries account for over 75% of spending, the distribution of that resource matters much more. Other than the 8% (and the school-building and upgrading program, undergirded by the new Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure that were won largely through the militant struggle of school children) we do not have a funding model to undo the deliberate educational inequities of apartheid. The pro-privatisation narrative that education is worse now than under apartheid is false, because things have improved markedly, but current policy is aimed at amelioration, not integration and equality. It is no longer legal to segregate by race, but we continue to do so by language, geography and fees, with township and rural schools attended by black children continuing to be under-resourced.

Piketty is not sanguine about the difficulties in this area. “The question of how to pay for education, and in particular how to pay for higher education, is everywhere one of the key issues of the twenty-first century.” In the case of higher education he is conflicted between the reality that “tuition fees create an unacceptable inequality of access” but nevertheless foster the “independence, prosperity and energy” of those institutions. He suggests “publicly financed incentives” to expand access, recognising that “no country has come up with a truly satisfactory response.” But in the realm of primary and secondary education his preference for a state-funded, compulsory, free system seems clear.

Instead of a project to integrate our schools, both public and private, we have the pro-youth rhetoric of most youth formations. Devoid of class content it is harnessed to right-wing wastage, as in the case of the billions squandered on the Youth Wage Subsidy, which is yet to show any evidence of job creation. “Now as in the past,” Piketty reminds us, “inequalities of wealth exist primarily within age cohorts.” They begin early, which is where disrupting them must begin.

At a roundtable the day before the Mandela Lecture, Piketty reiterated the need for greater resources to be leveraged for public services. In response, Treasury’s Ismail Momoniat explained that the poor spending of the resources already available weakens the case for doing so. “Tax morality” he said, is undermined by poor delivery. Piketty has written similarly, of the need to “improve the organisation and operation of the existing public sector” insisting that “such debates are legitimate and even indispensable”. Nobody can disagree with this, but as I argued at the roundtable, we should not delude ourselves into believing that if existing resources were better spent everything would be fine – our public services will need additional resourcing if they are to redress inequalities.

Crucial to the 1994 compromise were the removal of race-based school entry criteria and the empowering of school governing bodies with the right to charge fees and set admissions and language policies. This careful policy reform was designed to reassure whites that their educational privileges, which Piketty shows are the sine qua non for much material advantage, were to be retained in a new way. Most of today’s middle-class is complicit.

Piketty’s challenge to South Africa is to reimagine our schooling system, to reconstruct it as a unifying space that brings South Africa’s children together, to allocate a significantly greater share of resources to where the need is greatest, and to cease the reproduction of inequality based on unequal educational experiences. It is a radical vision.

Doron Isaacs is Treasurer for Equal Education. Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.