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In this Pied Piper Project instalment, a LeadSA and Daily News initiative, Justin Nurse talks to Terence Berry, who calls himself an “eduneer” – someone who looks for opportunities in the education space to create new things. He is also principal of the Asisa Academy, which bridges the gap between financial services education and the industry itself.
I had my mid-life crisis at 30 when I was working for an investment bank in London. I knew deep in my heart that education was the lever of change and that I wanted to come back to South Africa and make a difference. Earlier in my life, I was involved in social upliftment projects in townships, but that was to do with housing (through my church I’d been involved in bringing Habitat for Humanity to the Western Cape).
Education really seemed like my calling though, so I took a big pay cut and started working for a London-based consultancy, Edunova, involved in Tony Blair’s big education drive – the Academies Programme – which was all very new and exciting. The concept was to go into an area where education was failing because there was a low desire to learn (be it because people were happy just being on the dole, for example), and create an academy – a whole new school with a new principal, organisational structure, new buildings, and new approaches to learning – basically a blank slate.
We could create our own curricula and type of academy according to the area, for example, sports, manufacturing, or IT. The British government gave us a lot of leeway in that regard. After two years of working there, one of the directors (fellow South African John Thole) and I brought the concept back to South Africa and we started Edunova’s work in township primary schools.
Getting computers into schools in the Western Cape was the easy part, but we found they would often be locked up and just kept for show.
We worked closely with the Education Department in helping grow the schools’ confidence in using the computers. We ended up hiring IT-savvy matriculants from within the townships to work with the teachers and the primary school kids, teaching them how to use curriculum-aligned software, rather than just how to use Word or Excel.
We were two white males working in the township environment, so getting funding for our NGO was a challenge. I started consulting to help pay the bills, and that’s partly how we survived the first few years. Edunova is still going strong, it’s a vibrant organisation, and I remain involved as a trustee.
The birth of The Asisa Academy
I think one of the most exciting things that someone can do is to work out how to continually reinvent themselves. I started approaching investment managers for funding for education and found they too were struggling to engage with “learning” as an industry, and that became the spark that ignited the Asisa Academy, which has now been running for five years. We work very closely with Asisa (the Association of Savings and Investments in South Africa), which is made up of all the key role-players in the investment and long-term insurance industry. Both organisations are non-profit.
What do you do there, exactly?
Where learning is not being done in an optimal way, we create solutions by bringing the right people together.
There are three things we do at the Asisa Academy. First, we engage with people who are already employed in the industry, making sure that our industry can continue competing internationally at the highest levels. We’ve got to be able to sell our pipeline of talent, and to do this we have to continually raise our skill level.
The second thing involves attracting young people into the industry. Did you know that at the beginning of this year there were 600 000 unemployed graduates, but more than 800 000 skilled positions that were not filled? So there is something that isn’t happening in “graduate land”. We try to align the theory one learns at university with the expectations of the workplace. We bridge that gap by working with undergraduate students for the last 18 months of their studies to get them “work ready” for a career in the industry. During that time, we link each of them with an industry sponsor so they stand a much better chance of actually getting work.
The third thing we deal with, which is probably the most challenging, is Consumer Financial Literacy. How do we make the man in the street familiar with ideas like budgets, financial control, or how to recognise Ponzi schemes? Asisa and its members are all very interested in that, because they want informed customers. As do the National Treasury and the Financial Services Board.
The more informed the clients are, the better – from the man at the bus stop looking for life insurance to the trustee of a big pension fund who needs to get to grips with what a government bond is and how it works.
We work with industry practitioners to define the current needs. For example, there is currently a need for young life insurance underwriters. We develop the curriculum with experienced industry experts so that the learning can be delivered by the same experts sharing their war stories and practical skills. So far, more than 200 of the best people in the industry have shared their knowledge with those far less experienced than them, who are generally not even from the same company.
To reach a wider audience, we have started a YouTube campus where our presenters distill their two-hour presentations into five-minute videos that can be viewed free via our website. So in time, anyone anywhere can watch a fairly complex financial subject being explained succinctly and eloquently. Linked to this, I am convening a TEDx event (“Ideas Worth Spreading”) for innovative educators called “TEDxCapeTownEd” on June 16. We have 19 of the most exciting people in South African education spreading their ideas, each for 12 minutes. Now that idea gets me very excited.
Needs of Education
As civil society and government, we’ve got to be walking together on public sector education. There’s no shortage of money in education. On per-capita spend as a percentage of GDP, our government is right up there with the big spenders internationally, and the private sector is playing a huge role, too. The real challenge is people. Those who can make the tough decisions, be accountable to their communities, and lead into that space.
We all know the blunt weapon that is matric results. Perhaps a more sobering global benchmark is The Trends in International Maths and Science Study in 2003 which showed South Africa coming last by a long shot, and we’ve subsequently withdrawn from the survey. Our emphasis must increasingly shift to early childhood development, as high and even primary school is too late for many kids.
Are you a Leader?
Yes, I am a leader. Because I’m making more decisions to lead where I see need, and, to my surprise, I’m finding that there are many people who I would expect to lead me who are willing to follow. Our country is crying out for authentic, accountable servant-hearted leaders, especially in education. I’m prepared to take the risk to do that, by making myself vulnerable and taking on that responsibility.
Are you hopeful?
Absolutely! I’m a patient optimist. I’m learning Xhosa at the moment. The next 20 years for Africa look more exciting than any of the last 300, and I want to be here for that.
l To find out more about the work that Terence does, visit: www.asisaacademy.org.za
For more information on TEDxCapeTownED, visit www.tedxcapetowned.org
l Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh out Loud