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A risk capital approach to education investment

In 2007/08, the South African government spent R105-bn on education, while corporate social investment (CSI) in education amounted to R1.3-bn. While a significant amount of money, the CSI contribution is relatively small (about 1%).

SA spends a higher percentage of its GDP on education than most other countries (that achieve better results in international education tests). This tells us that there isn’t a shortage of money; our problem is that we don’t get value for money. In such a system, how can non-government stakeholders who care about education play their part? How can they help to achieve value for money? How can they support overall education goals, while not doing the work of government (something that is all too easy to do)?

Corporates, like government, are investing large sums of money but are seeing very little impact. At a recent workshop attended by corporates that invest in education, Ann Bernstein, executive director for the Centre for Development and Enterprise, described how the current approach of uninformed ad hoc interventions are helpful, but not enough to fundamentally improve the education system. There is simply not enough sharing of resources and efforts between players in this space. The randomness, lack of coordination and lack of serious engagement with the systemic issues all undermine the impact of the interventions.

More importantly, though, she suggests that CSI should be thought of as “risk capital” to test innovative ideas that can go to scale. One percent of the total spend is a nice amount to try out innovative ideas, alternative approaches to teaching and learning, etc. We should think of it as R&D money.

Nick Rockey, MD of Trialogue, re-iterated these points at the CSR in Education conference. There is a need for CSI money to be spent in a coordinated and rigorous way. What does this mean? Corporates should think about whether they are addressing systemic issues, or whether the success of their intervention is dependent on systemic support. They should invest in demonstration projects that have monitoring and evaluation components built in. Lessons and best practices should be documented and shared. Replication of projects must be kept in mind. In this way it will be possible to influence and support government, thus achieving a large impact with relatively low budgets.

I’m pleased to say that the Shuttleworth Foundation has embraced this informed, rigorous and open “risk capital” approach. After a number of years of ad hoc interventions that were valuable in their own right, but did not collectively “move the needle”, we now look at interventions (projects, research, advocacy, etc.) whose outcomes can influence, support or shake up the whole system. That is the best way for us to get value for money.


  • Steve Vosloo is the 21st Century Learning Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation. He is a past Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University, where he researched youth and digital media. He blogs at Except where otherwise noted, content released under a Creative Commons License.


  1. Thanda Sibisi Thanda Sibisi 2 December 2008

    The statement “They should invest in demonstration projects that have monitoring and evaluation components built in. Lessons and best practices should be documented and shared. Replication of projects must be kept in mind.” is, as they say; “Right on the money”

  2. BenzoL BenzoL 3 December 2008

    The government education programme is a generic nation wide responsibility aimed to increase the literacy level of the population at large. It should assist in creating the curiosity of the students to learn more whatever the means. Programmes in the sphere of CSI are, by the sheer nature of the funding bodies, somehow related to the vision and mission of those funding organisations. A suspect relation with the skills levy legislation could be further investigated.

    It is public knowledge that the national education is falling over left, right and centre with not too many exceptions. Being closely related to a dedicated educationalist in this national education system, I can safely state that, at the higher levels in this system, politics prevail over achieving education related goals. This permeates down to districts and schools. Key people in the system are the headmasters of any school in the country. Discipline in a school shows in order, cleanness, behaviour of teachers and students. Discipline is the prerequisite for a learning environment. I do not refer to discipline by caning; I refer to the internal discipline of teachers and students resulting in motivation, dedication and curiosity. The current state governed education system produces a large amount of semi literate “output”.

    With semi literate students entering University and Universities compelled to admit students in the right colour mix rather than results of prior learning, the failure of the lower systems (primary and secondary) is continued in the tertiary level right into PhD level. I have marked Masters Exams and one PhD thesis. The latter I had to send back after reading 30 and scanning the remaining 200 odd pages. Syntax, spelling, building and reasoning a point as well as referencing were absolutely inadequate. At this level, the second language argument does not hold. The worrying bit is that the promoting professor deemed this PhD document ready for external examination.

    The products of this system enter the business world. A lot of CSI money will have to be spent on correcting the failures in the foundation, laid by the state education system. Most businesses will concentrate on supporting their own goals. We cannot blame them.

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