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Accounting for social value in funding public colleges in Higher Education in South Africa
by Dr Cornelia C September (DaVinci Institute)
Co-contributors: Dr S Lloyd and Professor P Singh
The need has become imperative to look not only at the effect on the public purse of the South African government, but also a need to focus on the long-term change achieved by government through funding public education.
The aim of this research was to investigate the use of a social-return-on-investment (SROI) as a benefit to the public college sector. The research undertaken followed a qualitative design, using inductive reasoning.
The study revealed that a disjuncture exists between the funding framework and policies that govern the public colleges.
As a result of public pressures to demonstrate financial prudence, many government policy and program evaluation has, historically, been conducted through a monetary or financial lens.
Social-returns-on-investment refers to a framework for measuring and accounting for the concept of value and seeks to reduce inequality, degradation as well as bringing about improvements.
The study concluded with development of a social-return-on-investment framework as a means to measure a social-return-on-investment in the public college sector in South Africa.
Key words: Social-return-on-investment, frameworks, measuring, social value.
It appears that government’s show an interest to adopt and adapt Vocational Education and Training (VET) programmes worldwide. While skills development receives important attention internationally, requisite funding of the TVET sector appears internationally to be a challenge. Developing financing systems as well as transforming the TVET system remains a daunting task as TVET systems tend to be more expensive than general education and therefore remain underfinanced according to Majumdar (2017).
There has been growing interest by governments and other agencies of rate-of-returns from investment in education along with research to guide macro-policy decisions and financing education reforms (Patrinos & Psacharopoulos, 2010). They have also been keen to use the rate-of-return studies innovatively to set overall policy guidelines while acknowledging that more research on social benefits needs to be undertaken (ibid). The effective measurement requires an evaluative shift towards measuring the outcome experienced by Higher Education in general but into public college funding in particular.
This shift is in tandem with the emerging concept of ‘social value’ and it is proposed that social impact valuation methods could fill the desired developmental agenda of an improved socio-economic outcome needed. A review of the social impact sector identifies SROI as the most developed method with a robust framework for implementation. SROI generates monetized results, anticipated to enhance transferability compared with typical educational funding evaluation summaries and facilitate the dissemination and usefulness of findings within Higher Education. This paper uses SROI methodology to analyse the social impact of the ‘public colleges in Higher Education in South Africa. The research explored the broadening of an evaluation technique that lends itself to understand the value a social understanding in the lives of the beneficiaries and government alike. A literature review and a documentary analysis as methods were undertaken for the research. The conclusion offers practical recommendations for future applications of SROI to the public sector environment.
The history of Further Education and Training (FET) colleges in South Africa can be traced back to the Technical Colleges that supported the apprenticeship system for certain racial groups only in South Africa. In the view of Thompson (2002), vocational education aims to address the development of human abilities in terms of knowledge and skills. This approach meant that TVET is instrumental in providing the human capital to industry (Tikly, 2013), as an investment.
The philosophy ascribed to vocational education in various literature sources describes the vocational technical education as any kind of education which has a purpose. The main purpose of vocational education is to prepare people for employment. The philosophy according to the human capital theory (Borjas, 2004), ascribes education as an investment, with the return being an increase in skills and individual productivity. South Africa has been increasing its budgetary allocation for both Basic and Higher Education and Training since 1994 (OECD, 2018).
However, poverty has not been reduced in South Africa and according to (Galal, 2022), by 2025 around 18.5 million South Africans will live on a maximum of 1.90 US dollars per day. As part of her doctoral research, the researcher undertook to understand whether the public college system was responding with empirical evidence of improved social gains, and socio-economic gains to the requirements of the developmental state, and whether the increased funding played a role in the social gains achieved.
Aim and objectives
This paper draws on the researcher’s thesis titled “A Social-Return-on-Investment in Higher Education in South Africa” which was the central phenomenon that was explored. The phenomenological inquiry, as part of uncovering what the expected social-return-on-investment would be from the college sector was studied in the context of South Africa as a developmental state.
In the original research, the critical epistemology was one of subjectivism which is based on real world phenomena and linked with societal ideology (Scotland, 2012).
The objectives therefore were to:
Determine the rationale of the South African developmental state devoting a considerable increase in the public college sector budget allocation.
Examine the policy, norms and standards processes established to analyse the demonstration of return-on-investment on government expenditure
Investigate the use of social ROI information to the benefit of the TVET sector as it relates to setting financial policy guidelines.
Analyse the development of measures of ROI across different countries.
Develop a social ROI framework that can measure social ROI in the public college sector in South Africa.
Primary research question
What is the nature and scope of the public funding of the public college sector and how does it affect the SROI in Higher Education in South Africa.
The researcher sought to look at the relationship among the key variables to explain a current state and also to look at predicting future concurrences.
The research problem formed part of the researcher’s conceptual framework, which framed the study and identified what was going on in the world with regards to budget increments to the public college sector, as well as the social gains derived from such an investment.
The research focussed on identifying the problem on whether the expected social-returns-on-investment had been achieved through the financial investment by the South African government to the public college sector. The qualitative approach focused mainly on the deliberate government strategy to address the legacy of the past inequalities in education in South Africa. The research utilised critical theory to explain what social value was demonstrated through increased budgetary allocation. The method of enquiry included the researcher’s social constructivist ontological perspective which formed part of her interpretivist epistemological perspective, and qualitative approach included referencing documentary work undertaken by several authors. The first phase dealt with the conceptualisation of the research problem and question within the contextual and literature review. The second phase, consisted of the research approach and the empirical design, methods and processes of in-depth data collection and analysis. Therefore, the purpose of the second phase, the empirical section, was to provide a functional plan, i.e. the philosophical positioning as the research approach or paradigm to the qualitative methodological decisions of data collection and the qualitative data methodological decisions made that concerned the grounded theory data analysis procedures (Roller, 2017).
The case of a social priority towards a social-rate-of-return in education
Why should return-on-investment be measured?
SROI is a method that measures and accounts for a wider concept of value for the attainment of multi-bottom lines in the not-for-profit sector. The returns to investing in equality accrue over time and ultimately lead to communities with more trust and less social ills, i.e. more social capital. Deliberate TVET financing increase by the government plays a major role in ensuring the public college’s implement and have as an outcome the country-specific objectives guided by the Constitutional (1996) objectives and the requisite legislative framework.
Korea provided an interesting illustration from the East Asia region of how a country’s TVET financing mechanisms has changed as TVET objectives changed (Lee, 2016). TVET financing approaches do not operate in isolation of other TVET reforms and therefore governments need to create a conducive policy, regulatory and administrative climate for a financing mechanism to function. Due to SROI being the instrument used to measure value and governments’ in the instance the South African, to be held accountable with regard to their financial obligations to society, governments need to have a tool to evaluate the value of their fiscal obligations.
The same consideration should be considered by a government to examine the investment in a college education or whether such an investment should not be made elsewhere. Public confidence in public colleges as well as universities is considered through the lens of its understanding of the ROI the institution can generate for society especially and including individual students. The investment in public college education should measure the sum of all economic and non-economic net benefits that accrue to society at large and the students, measured against an investment by a student, government and in the instance of private colleges, by other contributors too.
Economic impact is more easily measured but it is the social impact that completes the whole SROI as studies indicate that social implications in training are most important to understand as they provide a true value of training that is often neglected in TVET research due to difficulty in measuring it (Schueler et al., 2017). A holistic approach to return-on-investment is that financial return is one way to evaluate ROI, but return-on-investment can be measured not only by increased student enrolment but also by values, especially for communities that are not traditionally reflected in financial statements.
Education and the rate-on-return, evaluation of the TVET
One of the fundamental factors of development in a country is education. Education improves the quality of lives and provides social benefits to individuals as well as society. The reasons given for the popularity of estimating returns-to-education derives from the resulting efficiency, equity and the financing decisions. This can assist policy makers to make informed investment decisions. These are to be found, for example in the educational impacts on the economy, on labour productivity, health, technology, and income distribution. Several studies of the Southeast Asian countries bear testimony to achieving high income per capita growth when there have been high rates of investment (ibid).
These studies concluded that heavy initial investment in human capital by households and governments as well as investments in physical capital are responsible for the high income per capita growth in East Asia (ibid). The literature refers to two methods being used to calculate the returns in education, namely, the discounting method and the Mincerian function (Psacharopoulos, 1995; Mattson, 1998). In South Africa STATSSA (2016) revealed that the census 2016 survey showed that 13,4million black Africans aged 25-64 had not reached secondary education level, 3 million black Africans in the same age group dropped out of school with some primary education.
Disparities in post-secondary education still exist as Whites and Indians have the highest proportions of such graduates. A fair education system could provide for upward mobility for poor families as the past structural inequality is still at play in educational mobility. Social value measurement is an evidence-based approach. Even though market proxies may lack the precision of market exchange, effort is made to assess items that are of importance and measurable, and to use measures that are transparent and that can be independently verified. Often social value measurement attempts to focus on change in an organisation. One of the challenges in doing so is that organisational change can be attributed to many internal and external factors and separating change that is attributable to the organisation from change that occurs because of other factors is very challenging (Mayne 1999; Mook et al., 2007).
The benefit of providing information on SROI is that governments and funders are provided with analytical information on the performance of the system (Psacharopoulos, 2014), and provides a justification for the expenditure on TVET. The approaches that demonstrated the value of TVET to the economy through increases in employability and increasing productivity are referred to as:
Determining the SROI for spending that has occurred.
Investigating the potential return should funding/spending alter.
Griffin (2016) and Schueler (2016) inform the researcher that measuring SROI in TVET is very complex as there are different dimensions of outcomes to consider. These include economic growth, equity and sustainability (Marope et al., 2015).
Return-on-investment in the public sector, a myth debunked
In the public sector the view has been expressed that government is not able to demonstrate a return on investment, due to some myths that are prevalent. These common myths are (Blagg & Blom, 2018):
That government services are essential and therefore may not need the level of evaluation.
The absence of revenues and profits make the concept of ROI inappropriate.
Governments generally lack real or hard data.
Investment decisions in the public sector take place in a context of political and policy influences.
The global environment is changing government organisations’ practices and acceptance of new concepts are only limited to the private sector organisations.
Policy makers have to consider opportunity costs; for example, when government builds a bridge and invests in education, government should expect a rate of return at least equal to the yield from alternative uses of the money (Zerbe, 2014).
Governments have to deliver services that must benefit the citizens as well as enhance the value of government as a public asset. The three dimensions of ROI in the public interest are:
The Financial ROI which is direct, measurable benefits and costs.
Social ROI which is indirect and difficult to measure, the “public good” benefits and costs.
Political ROI which is motivational feasibility of the project or the benefits and costs for interested parties, for example opponents and decision makers.
The restraints to ROI include:
Bureaucratic and approval cycles
The scale and complexities
Shrinking annual budgets
Lack of alignment with government policies
A silo-culture and multiple stakeholders
The motivating attributes include:
Government policies become effective.
There is an improvement in efficiencies.
The economic policy objectives can be met.
Qualitative improvements in service delivery can be realised as well as gaining trust from the citizens (Al-Khouri, 2009).
Al-Khouri (2009) demonstrated what the reality is in the following manner in response to the myths that the public sector should not undertake an exercise of ROI. It is argued that these exist in many agencies through legislation:
The argument that ROI is a corporate concept is wrong as the cost-benefit analysis has its origins in the public sector.
ROI studies pay off in cost savings through improvements in productivity as well as direct costs reduction.
Data exists in the public sector as output is required of all programmes and this can be converted to monetary value. The ROI methodology represents both qualitative and quantitative data.
Both the private and public sectors have multiple constituencies and the development of training programmes for various leaders in the institutions can be considered. There is a vested interest in the outcome of education of the different stakeholders such as students and the institutions.
The likelihood of the results being misused for political purposes might be addressed by presenting several types of data with several recommended solutions.
Whilst government budgets are declining, some organisations report that they have doubled their evaluation budgets by undertaking the ROI evaluation exercise.
The decisions policymakers face is not only to look at which types of colleges and programmes to devote funds to, but how to allocate them across the different functions (Blagg &d Blom, 2018). For some institutions expenditure on students’ services lead to better outcomes than instructional spending on the margin (Webber et al., 2010). Other arguments suggest that increasing spending can be more effective than decreasing tuition (Deming et al., 2017). Thus calculating an accurate ROI will depend on understanding the productive value of each investment (Kristin et al., 2018).
Policy makers have access to data on higher education institutions such as the college scorecard, student throughput, college performance, and this lays a basis to consider the return on investment from higher education institutions (ibid). With access to data, especially as it relates to the performance of institutions in higher education, the need to review policies and to change legislation seems possible.
Review of the ROI in developing countries
Most research that has been done to estimate the returns-on-investment to education has been conducted in high-income countries (Card, 2001). A few studies have been done to identify the returns to education in developing countries (Psacharopoulos, 1981, 1985, 1989, 1994a, 1994b; Psacharopoulos and Patrinos, 2004). While both Card (2001) and Duflo (2001) argue that returns on education in developing countries are likely higher than in industrialised countries, supporting empirical evidence is scarce.
A study done between 1985 and 2012, revealed that overall returns are remarkably heterogeneous across regions, countries and residential locations and that in Africa returns are over two times the average in Asia (Peet, 2015). Peru experienced rates of returns close to zero in 1994 but returns greater than 13 percent in 1985. Other features of the research found that returns-on-education for females and in urban areas are higher as opposed to returns-on-education in rural Asia that are higher than returns-on-education in urban areas. Private returns on educational investment appear to be consistently above five (5) percent (ibid).
Models of ROI
Different models apply to different situations and thus if economic and social returns are included, this will influence the selection of the ROI model along with the choice of the forecasting perspective. Different returns on investment models include:
Cost-Benefit Analysis which assigns monetary value to costs of the training programme to determine the cost benefit ratio.
Internal Rate of Return – Rate of interest that equals the returns from an investment to the cost of the investment.
Kirkpatrick/Phillips Evaluation Model (globally recognised method of evaluating the results of training and learning programs) - 4 Levels of Evaluation – Reaction, Learning, Behaviour, Results plus Level 5 ROI that converts 4th level to monetary value.
Net Present Value- Compares the value of money now with the value in future.
Return on Expectation- Estimates returns to training relative to stakeholder expectations.
Social-Return-on-Investment- Stakeholder driven evaluation with cost-benefit analysis and strong focus on social impact (Schueler, 2017).
The literature reviewed by the researcher showed that the use of SROI was a phenomenon that was not widely used by governments. The findings within the qualitative phenomenological methodology motivated by Saevi (2017) describe this approach as an educational research and therefore the researcher added meaning to educational thinking and practice. The findings, motivated by the grounded theory methodology, selected information-rich literature. This method provided an in-depth understanding about the research question as it related to the SROI experiences and outcomes, the roles and responsibilities of policy makers and implementers, international experiences on TVET funding evaluation, amongst others.
The literature review identified the different aspects that emerged from the research as it related to the increase in public funding and colleges. It offered some insights about what had gone into the aspect of social-return-on investments and offered comparisons on the different expenditure patterns in South Africa from 1994 and beyond, as well as provided international comparisons. Different responses have been given on the need to do research into the SROI from finance allocation of government on public college education and whether there is sufficient reason to propose that it is a good investment and whether government should not invest in other socio-economic needs.
From the literature review it emerged that returns on education use two main methods which are the full-discounting method and the Mincerian earnings function. Researchers have tended to prefer the Mincerian method as it is apparently convenient (Mincer, 1974). The Mincerian earnings function has also attracted criticism in the literature (Psacharopoulos et al., 2018; Layard, 1979; Heckman, Lochner & Todd, 2006). The critique of estimating returns to education is missing variables such as ability bias. Others such as Griliches (1977) argue that bias is small or negative. The Mincerian method relates to private returns as opposed to the full discounting method that provides us with private and social returns.
To understand a SROI analysis, is to understand what benefits such measurements could mean for the TVET sector as well as government. Within the documentary analysis of Karl Marx, he stated that “Education of the Future” is part of the struggle for a new society (Rikowski, 2004). He further expanded that polytechnic education must combine physical, mental and practical training as a combined education. Understanding Marx’s future society is an understanding that the TVET sector must be located within a concept of preparing work-ready graduates, enhancing their employability and skills improvement.
These are part of the social-returns-on-investment of the government’s financial investment into the public college sector. The reviewed literature informed the researcher’s study that a ROI analysis could be used as a tool to address efficiencies, provide advice on funding agreements as well as investment decisions. A social-return-on-investment is about value rather than money only. A framework for measuring and accounting should therefore be based on the concept of value and improvements. The TVET education is undervalued and therefore the TVET sector can benefit from an analysis of its value, to inform policy makers to understand the economic and social value of TVET investments.
A review of the literature on ROI consistently indicates that ROI is context specific to the stakeholder and relative to the environment (OECD, 2008). The measurement of ROI is diverse and thus key indicators must be identified to formulate a conceptual framework which requires an overarching structure that supports a practical approach and broad application (Schueler et al., 2017). Most of the research acknowledges the importance that the TVET sector can contribute towards the economy, but calls for better financial frameworks and ensuring that the finances that are set aside must achieve the objectives that are set.
Because a specific return-on-investment is required to measure the benefits government derives from the increasing investment into public college education, the impact data might have to be converted into monetary benefits. While the literature raised the difficulties in doing a ROI on the college sector, it however pointed out that the myth that exists in the government sector can be remedied to undertake an ROI exercise in the public sector. Some research had been undertaken in South Africa on rates of return amongst the levels of education (levels refers to the South African Qualifications Framework which is separated into predetermined levels, which are guidelines that dictate the qualification you have). The studies however were conducted by Joubert (1978), Trotter (1984), Archer and Moll (1992) and Hosking (1990, 1992a, 1992b, 2003) and it should be noted that they conducted the research before 1994 (South Africa ushered in a democratic dispensation in 1994 and therefore studies post 1994 becomes more relevant to the research undertaken). According to the literature, it is pointed out that the main aim of the research was to encourage funding by government.
A further consideration in the literature relates to the calculations of the role ROI plays in the evaluation of public policies related to TVET. Multiple forms of returns that interest policy makers are in the realm of social effectiveness, credibility and strategic effectiveness. This leads to impact assessment using a mix of qualitative and quantitative approaches (Stufflebeam et al., 2000). An example is the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) which established an indicator around the following key policy objectives of TVET:
The social outcomes are influenced by the institutional settings, as the nature of the social benefits will change depending on the type of system and country in which TVET is situated. The dimensions of ROI must be represented in the right context and by a framework that considers the scope and key stakeholders. The context and scope will be the main elements towards measuring SROI.
The findings reveal that dimensions must include the context of employability, consider the Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) and idle factor of young people, output must be aligned to identifiable sectors such as towards a reduction in crime and gender-based violence.
For the TVET sector this will include all the various stakeholders such as government, public colleges, and student and industry participants. Within the documentary findings ascribed to Smith and Todaro (2009), developing economies are cautioned not to waste limited financial and human resources on unproductive ventures and investment projects must be chosen on the basis of taking overall development and long-term objectives into account. The nature of development planning as in the case of economic planning requires government to choose social objectives.
Based on development planning, government would set targets and finally organise a framework for implementation, co-ordination and monitoring and development. In Australia, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) however, embarked on an international guideline to measure ROI in TVET. They wanted to understand where to invest and which qualifications could generate the best economic returns over a lifetime. The ROI exercise made a case for additional funding for TVET in Australia in “thin markets” (which are places of inadequate service delivery resulting in participants needs not being met, especially in rural areas) using social indicators.
Looking at the strength and benefits of SROI, reveals that it makes a concerted effort to include all impacts which are important to stakeholders in the evaluation process. A paradigm shift by government and society is required in the success of social programs. SROI frames social policy as an investment as opposed to an expense. This results in a more balanced focus between productive and technical efficiency, between measurable and non-monetisable costs and benefits. Furthermore, SROI can lead to more effective decision-making at the program planning level (SROI Canada Network, 2010). SROI allows organizations to become more familiar with the complexity of solving socioeconomic problems among individuals and institutions (Arvidson et al. 2010; Rotheroe and Richards 2007)
SROI completed in the planning stages will be a forecast of potential social value creation. Not only will the SROI indicate the expected social return for comparison sake, it can also highlight activities that may be improved to create additional social value if adjusted or direct policy-makers towards activities with higher potential social value. The measurement of SROI includes different dimensions that must be considered. As with the economic and social aspects, undertaking a SROI completes the whole ROI (Schueler, Stanwick & Loveder, 2017).
To understand a SROI for the TVET sector is to understand the true value of TVET programmes and what they produce. The documentary analysis provides government with an understanding that a social-return-on-investment can be an enabler towards performance evaluation possibilities. In turn it can provide for a justification for expenditure on the TVET sector and the much-needed calculation of the value of the TVET sector to the economy. Inherent in the findings are the complexities of TVETs with different existent dimensions as stated.
Myths exist that SROI is inappropriate to the government sector as education is an excludable good and not for profit. These views negate the constitutional obligations, laws and policies that advocate a TVET to be responsive to the needs of society and the economy and that government expenditure requires an adherence to meet the needs of its people. A new education financing system, framed within the parameters of a SROI, will seek to reflect from theory to practice towards a desired outcome of what is expected from the TVET sector. Furthermore, this will include having an outcome which promotes responsible and accountable control over the quality and delivery of services, ensuring the integrity of the public finances and maintaining effective and efficient administration. In addition to satisfying key general principles such as these, education financing arrangements must accommodate the diverse needs, abilities, aspirations, interests and choices of learners of all ages and make a full contribution to educational redress, reconstruction and development.
A social-return-on investment has to be underpinned by the values of those that matter most. Value refers to the relative importance of different outcomes informed by the beneficiaries such as students, broader society, the public colleges and government.
A social-return-on-investment methodology according to the literature, accounts for the value for money realised by the public colleges in the country. SROI frames social policy as an investment as opposed to an expense.
The literature review identified the different aspects that emerge from the research as it relates to the increase in public funding and colleges. It offered some thoughts about what has gone into the aspect of social-return-on investments and offered comparisons on the different expenditure patterns in South Africa from 1994 and beyond, as well as provided international comparisons. When a measurement by government is strictly through a financial lens, all other value is placed as secondary. A distortion of views on value creation occurs as well as acknowledging the important goals the TVET sector are to contribute towards improving the quality of life and to contribute to the reduction of inequality of society tends to be overlooked. Different responses have been given on the need to do research into the SROI from finance allocation of government on public college education and whether there is sufficient reason to propose that it is a good investment and whether government should not invest in other socio-economic needs. The measurement of a SROI has not been done in the TVET sector in South Africa according to the literature and documentary analysis.
A plethora of research has been done on the financing of education as the highest expenditure in a country’s budget, and on strengthening the TVET and college sector, the need for the private sector to improve their contributions towards ending the skills deficits in the countries, especially developing and lower income countries. The dominant theories of human capital presented by Psacharopoulos and Patrinos (2018) have been provided in most literature and researchers who wrote about the concept of rates of return-on-investment being similar to other investment, cost and benefits as well as the human capital theory put forward the concept that investments in education increase productivity. Comparisons between different public colleges in South Africa offer opportunities of what are working well, planning, and the introduction of innovative ideas and possible areas of improvements.
A new education financing system, framed within the parameters of a social-return-on- investment, will seek to reflect from theory to practice towards a desired outcome of what is expected from the TVET sector. This will include having an outcome which promotes responsible and accountable control over the quality and delivery of services, ensuring the integrity of the public finances and maintaining effective and efficient administration. In addition to satisfying key general principles such as these, education financing arrangements must accommodate the diverse needs, abilities, aspirations, interests and choices of learners of all ages and make a full contribution to educational redress, reconstruction and development.
A social return of investment has to be underpinned by the values of those that matter most. Value refers to the relative importance of different outcomes informed by the beneficiaries such as students, broader society, the public colleges and government. A social-return-on-investment methodology according to the literature, accounts for the value for money realised by the public colleges in the country. To achieve a social value, agile methods can enhance a qualitative benefit which can improve attitudes towards the TVET sector. To understand a SROI for the TVET sector is to understand the true value of TVET programmes and what they produce as they are most important. The documentary analysis provides government with an understanding that a social-return-on-investment can be an enabler towards performance evaluation possibilities. In turn it can provide for a justified expenditure on the TVET sector and highlight the much-needed value of the TVET sector to the economy. Investing in social programs is a worthwhile undertaking in its own right.
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