Menu Close

‘We must disrupt neo-liberal ideology of access’

Share This Article:

Picture: Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency(ANA) – Unemployed graduates demand that the government offer them the employment as they are qualified teachers.

By Hendrick Makaneta

Higher education remains one of the most highly contested terrains of struggle and this has been so since democratic South Africa’s first minister of education, Professor Sibusiso Bhengu, took charge of the National Commission on Higher Education which was appointed by former president Nelson Mandela in 1995.

The National Commission on Higher Education had a clear goal of redressing past inequalities by transforming the higher education system so that the new system could respond directly to the new realities and opportunities.

Although there has been progress in admitting most students in a wide range of universities, particularly those students from poor communities, not everyone is able to obtain a post-matric qualification and even those who finally complete it do not do so in record time. It appears that less than 35% of those who gain access can graduate from a university.

There appear to be exclusions and most recently the number of those who get excluded from higher education institutions continues to increase.

The reality is that although matric learners are remarkably close to first-year students at university, the gap between basic education and higher education is ridiculously huge when you take academic standards into consideration. While we must applaud the government for opening the doors of learning, it must be noted that access alone does not guarantee success. Students need maximum support to succeed in obtaining a university qualification. Support does not only mean financial or academic.

With the high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality, students need constant psychological support so that they can fulfil their mission of creating a better future for themselves. Leaving students to navigate the new terrain on their own can be disastrous.

The other challenge is with regard to the selection of courses that students may wish to pursue. If students are forced by circumstances to take other academic streams rather than the ones they opted for in their applications, they are highly unlikely to do well. Students need to study those courses that they are enthusiastic about to fulfil their potential.

The fact that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme spends billions of rand on students who will come out of a university without a degree should be a cause for great concern. Those who fail to obtain a higher education qualification are the hardest hit when it comes to unemployment. But at the same time, it is important for higher education institutions to focus their energies and resources on those academic streams that can be of value to students. It does not help to have many graduates who are not going to join the labour market.

The government must take a conscious decision to channel our students to courses that are required by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In the same note, the curriculum must be modernised across the board so that our graduates can be better prepared for the changing world of work and the mainstream economy.

As of now, the government only pays lip service to the need for change. Currently there is a need for greater collaboration between the government, the private sector and higher education institutions on how best to assist our young people in the whole question of access, success and joining the labour market.

In the midst of helping graduates to succeed, we must find a way to bridge the gap between basic and higher education. At the core of this debate is that students have to be roped in to help find solutions. It cannot be correct that professors meet with other role players to discuss the change that is required in the terrain of higher education while students are excluded. Higher education institutions should work around the clock to maximise throughput rates so that these rates can match the corresponding input with a view to guarantee student success at all levels.

The Dean of the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Education, Professor Chika Sehoole, correctly used the social inclusion and justice theory to contest the neo-liberal ideology of access which he describes as the increase in participation rates and reliance on the economic role of higher education without paying attention to the factors that should facilitate success in the terrain of higher education.

Professor Sehoole’s stance was that it is not enough to admit students in the terrain of higher education without seeing them through the system to ensure that they exit the terrain with a qualification that can enable them to succeed in life.

We must disrupt this neo-liberal ideology of access as defined by those who believe that access alone is sufficient and replace it with access and success to maintain social inclusion of those who were marginalised. We must critically look at all the factors that lead to drop out rates within the terrain of higher education with a view to ensure that students can succeed.

Hendrick Makaneta is an education activist completing an LLB degree at the University of Pretoria.