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No more bricks and mortar, cut data costs for quality online learning, Minister Nzimande

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Picture: Kurt Engel/File – Former secretary-general for the SACP, Blade Nzimande, addresses young CPUT students. According to a report on Thursday in the University World News, a lack of reliable data across Africa has weakened policies to improve higher education across the continent, the writer says.

By Edwin Naidu

Former South African Communist Party leader and Minister of Higher Education and Training, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande, is certainly bucking the trend in Africa by focusing on construction of new universities. But does Africa really need new universities?

Certainly, knowledge production is critical in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and equipping the leaders of tomorrow with the skills to take part in the global economy is paramount. But instead of laying the bricks and mortar for new buildings, there should be greater emphasis on strengthening the foundation. Annually, one is treated to the poor supply chain for the tertiary sector via the schooling system, which is not preparing pupils for the world as it ought to. Many are simply not ready for university – let alone the world.

But once feasibility studies are done, South Africa will get a new University of Science and Innovation in Ekurhuleni and a Crime Detection University in Hammanskraal. While South Africa is exceeding expectations in respect of the former with our scientists excelling around the world, there is room for improvement in fighting crime, and perhaps, a qualification from this institution would be mandatory for a crime-fighting role in government.

This would ensure we are not cursed with leaders like the inept minister of Police Bheki Cele or the country’s equally disappointing and uninspiring chief crime buster, Advocate Shamila Batohi. Detecting crime is one thing, but what does the law, which claims that we are all equal before it, say about justice given that so many alleged crooks in government and white-collar criminals in the private sector escape with impunity. Don’t ask Advocate Batohi, she seems committed to a vow of silence while Cele and the police force allow criminals to roam free.

Against the backdrop of Nzimande’s construction plans, the African Union’s (AU’s) 10-year Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA) in response to the AU Agenda 2063 has no plans for more universities on the continent. Instead, the strategy is in line with the Global Education 2030 Programme and contributes to the achievement of objective 4 of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to leave no one behind in tertiary education by 2030.

It demands a paradigm shift towards transformative education and training systems to meet the knowledge, competencies, skills, research, innovation and creativity required to nurture African core values and promote sustainable development. There are no plans for new bricks and mortar tertiary institutions. In fact, many on the Continent cannot afford to go to varsity. So the plan moots online options that are in sync with the 21st century.

The plan also notes that over the past few years, the African Continent has witnessed horrendous attacks on schools and universities, in particular by extremist groups, with those attacks and military use of schools and universities representing a huge threat for students and teachers’ security as they damage and destroy the few available schools’ infrastructure.

In recent times, South Africa has witnessed vandalism and destruction of property, notably at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, among others. This also includes many schools throughout the country. But, one can bet one’s depreciating rand that the culprits will not be found. So much for effective policing or even state intelligence.

The AU plan is clear that these acts of vandalism result in high drop-out rates, a drop in enrolment and a decline in the teaching quality and, inevitably, the results. Girls are particularly negatively affected as it worsens the challenges they already face to access education in conflict zones. The wanton abuse of girls and women in South Africa, especially at tertiary institutions is well-documented. Protecting the schools and universities from attacks and preserving them from military use is vital in order to ensure the continuation of education during war and in post conflict situations, says the AU strategy for the Continent.

They argue that it is the responsibility of governments to define the entire education system, including technical and vocational education as a coherent single set made up of different parts: preschool, primary, secondary, TVET and higher education.

The respective governments should invest in and monitor this coherence which stands as a guarantee for the success of national and regional integration. Increasing opportunity, especially for marginalised communities and urban poor and girls remains critical. The relevance of secondary education remains a concern as it relates to employability, technical and vocational training and articulation with tertiary education. Maths and science at this level are critical to the development of a well-equipped human capital capable of competing in an increasingly science- and technology-driven world, as well as the foundation for knowledge-based economies.

Virtually all development players agree that for any meaningful and sustainable economic growth to be realised and sustained, tertiary education must be centrally placed in the development agenda of nations. Countries around the world are striving to build the sector either under pressure, as in the case in Africa, or as priority in their strategic development plans, as in the case of developed and emerging countries. For sure, building a tertiary education system is no more a luxury African countries were once chastised for indulging in, but a critical imperative for national development and global competitiveness.

A Quartz Africa report many years ago said that just 6 percent of children in Sub-Saharan Africa would enrol for tertiary education, as opposed to an 80 percent chance for a child in an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country. This has not changed, highlighted by a report on Thursday in the University World News that a lack of reliable data across Africa has weakened policies to improve higher education across the continent.

Although several local development initiatives are trying to improve the flow of useful statistics, they say the data problem is compromising the achievement of the UN’s SDG to leave no one behind in tertiary education by 2030. Certainly, Nzimande will be enjoying retirement by then. But one hopes that the feasibility study embarked on by his department will reveal that in line with the AU strategy, of which South Africa is a signatory, will consider the AU members states concerns about higher education, scientific research and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET).

Construction of a science university makes sense as the AU report states that higher education provides a conducive environment for the development of STI and a suitable exploitation of the full potential of science, technology and innovation to support sustainable growth and socio-economic development. But what about an online option using the institutions pioneering remote learning?

In spite of the impressive growth recorded in this sector during the last two decades, enrolment still stands at about 7 percent of the age cohort-low in comparison to other regions of the world. The private providers have continued to play an important role in this growth, as they currently enrol about 25 percent of the students on the Continent.

Quality and relevance of university education have emerged as serious concerns of the sector for some time now. Post-graduate education remains underdeveloped and its contribution to research and innovation remains minuscule. Notwithstanding the meagre relevance of world ranking of universities to the African context, with the exception of South Africa and Egypt, none of the African universities appears in the top of these rankings.

Africa contributes about 1 percent of the global knowledge, the lowest in the world, but remains an exclusive consumer which further marginalises it as a producer of knowledge. But the AU plan says the capacity to absorb the massive number of graduates of the secondary education systems necessitates building additional modern infrastructure and providing innovative delivery, such as distance and open/virtual learning, using ICTs and other available means. Perhaps, Nzimande did not get the memo.

If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic should serve as a lesson: universities could become white elephants with low enrolments. The pandemic has sped up the transition to online learning as the way of learning in the future. Institutions around the world, the likes of Harvard, Oxford, South Africa’s own University of Cape Town through its innovative partnerships with COURSERA and GetSmarter, a partner of edX, delivering online education from world-leading universities and institutions across the globe.

Perhaps, Minister Nzimande needs reminding that higher education does not need more bricks and mortar but his considerable influence to ensure a reduction in data costs – not only in South Africa but across the continent so that access to quality education can become a reality for everyone throughout Africa.

Now that would be an amazing legacy, Minister Nzimande!

* 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 on education and the socio-economic, environmental and political factors that influence education in South Africa and the African Continent.

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