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Education: Address pressings challenges and ditch cosmetic changes

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Picture: David Ritchie African News Agency (ANA)

By Edwin Naidu

South Africa’s tertiary landscape may get another makeover following the recent call by the Minister of Higher Education Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, for public comment on the Draft Policy for the Recognition of South African Higher Education Institutional Types.

One cannot feel that this process which began in 2018 is just another futile cosmetic exercise that fails to address the more pressing around funding and quality of graduates coming out of South African institutions.

Perhaps, as the curtain draws on his career, Nzimande is looking at the legacy he leaves behind. The Minister and his team will insist that he has done a great job. But many outside will murmur about his ineffectiveness in handling the student funding crisis, sitting on numerous reports under his watch, that amount to nothing and overall discontent within the system.

Yet, after his first term in office in 2009, Nzimande claimed responsibility for establishing the National Student Financial Aid Scheme in 2010. Of course, the way the Ministry works, with foundations laid previously, he won’t acknowledge that the planning preceded him and funding for students was a government imperative since 1994. Still, despite NSFAS, the #FeesMustFall protests in 2015 demanding zero percent increases, it was former President Jacob Zuma who hijacked the announcement caving into student demands after considerable destruction of places of higher learning.

There was a political battle behind the scenes, culminating in Nzimande’s axing by then-President Zuma in October 2017. His sacking was celebrated by students on social media. There was no love lost between Nzimande and students after he once blurted “Students Must Fall”. Someone should have lent him a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Unsurprisingly, the in-demand outgoing leader of the South African Community Party Nzimande was back behind the wheel of the Transport Ministry in February 2018, until his move into the merged Higher Education, Science and Innovation portfolio on 30 May 2019. Under Nzimande’s watch, funding for NFSAS went from R3 billion to almost R10 billion by 2015, something he has claimed credit for. The government coffers have opened up for students, especially in the poorest parts of the country. But it clearly illustrates that money cannot solve the funding crisis unless there are adequate interventions to address the return on investment of this exorbitant sum of money.

A considerable sum of money also went towards opening access to students under the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges from R300million in 2009, to about R2,2 billion in 2015.

All well and good. But the results show massive failure in adequately solving the funding crisis, and equipping the country with the skills required to tackle unemployment. All the money in the world cannot help unless there is impact an and behavioural change.

Despite Nzimande’s claims about an increase in funding for NSFAS, the amounts spent on student funding shot up incrementally under his predecessors. But the problems persist. This is why there is real concern about the current proposed makeover as it would not necessarily address the genuine challenges in the tertiary sector. If one needed any reminder of the previous disastrous makeover, it was the mergers under the late Professor Kader Asmal, which saw a reduction in the number of universities from 36 institutions to 21 in 2000 and the amalgamation of 152 technical colleges to 50. This was done in the name of ensuring better use of government resources, getting rid of unhealthy competition and shifting apartheid ideology from such institutions.

While access to students of colour to former historically white institutions opened up dramatically, the staff composition maintained old habits. Three decades into democracy, the haves continue to get the lion’s share of the funding, too, ironically ensuring that the apartheid legacy Asmal sought to dismantle is still prevalent throughout the system.

Nzimande’s policy is nothing dissimilar to what Asmal originally intended but failed to achieve. He wants to give effect to the institutional types provided for by the Higher Education Act which provides criteria for the recognition of Higher Education Colleges; University Colleges and Universities. The three types are defined in the Act in terms of scope and range of their activities, and governance – as an important element in the establishment and operations of higher education institutions – forms part of institutional criteria.

Moreover, according to the Minister, the purpose is to fulfil the aspirations set out in the founding objectives of higher education in South Africa, that is, to promote diversification of access, curriculum and qualification structure, with programmes, developed and articulated within the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), encouraging an open and flexible system based on credit accumulation and multiple entries and exit points for learners, thus permitting greater horizontal and vertical mobility by learners in the higher education system.

Nzimande insists that the policy will also promote the development of an articulated flexible learning system, with a diversity of institutional missions and programme mixes; and a system that improves the responsiveness of the higher education system to the present and future social and economic needs.

According to the Ministry, higher education colleges have a relatively limited range and scope, focusing on undergraduate and skills development programmes. University Colleges, therefore, are introduced as institutions to enable the developmental growth of new universities under the trusteeship of an established university.

The draft policy provides a higher education structure that is ‘well-suited to accommodate the varying backgrounds, needs, interests and abilities of the students of the future, to enable them to realise their potential, and contribute the necessary range and quality of knowledge, insight, skill and capability for the development and reconstruction of our country, in line with the aspirations of the White Papers on Higher Education and Post School Education and Training.

This sounds like nothing new than what has already been in the domain for a while. Speak to experts like Fourth Industrial Revolution architect Professor Tshilidzi Marwala and it is clear that the world has evolved and graduates have to leave their institutions ready for the world as it is today.

Yet under Nzimande things seem to work backwards. In 2022 on its website, Nzimande’s department released the 2020 list of key skills and occupations which will support interventions to grow the economy, and in improving the responsiveness of the Post-School Education and Training (PSET) system to the skills needs of the labour market. The list of Occupations in High Demand (OIHD) is one of several mechanisms through which the DHET fulfils this role.

Information about occupations in high demand provides useful insights into the skills needs of the economy and society, especially in a context where the South African labour market is characterised by high levels of unemployment on the one hand, and skills shortages, on the other.

In the report, this misalignment in the timing of information on occupational supply and demand could explain why occupation is in demand whilst there are recorded numbers of unemployed as per the database. But how exactly is such information going to help anyone when the Minister and the sector should instead be providing swift solutions offering practical steps on how to deal with the challenges that have plagued the system since democracy?

Few would doubt Nzimande’s contribution to the tertiary education landscape. But surely, another cosmetic exercise would not get rid of the pressing funding challenges and quality of graduates coming out of the system– many equipped for unemployment.

There are more pressing priorities than another Asmal-type makeover, which one concedes has led to a more focused system. But, save for some bright spots, it has done little to change the apartheid-style of learning and teaching at higher education institutions.

Naidu is a seasoned journalist and communications expert. He also heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up committed to stimulating dialogue and raising awareness around education and the socio-economic, environmental and political factors it is influenced by in South Africa and the African Continent.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.