Legitimate student demands must not detract from laudable record of higher education successes

The recent student struggle has resulted in the no-increment to student fees in 2016 decision announced by President Zuma on 23 October 2015. The ANC sub-committee on education congratulates the students and the ANC government.

The ANC conferences in Polokwane and Mangaung resolved that steps be taken towards free higher education for the poor. This is an objective we continue to pursue. We support the decisions taken by Minister Nzimande to convert NSFAS loans to full bursary on graduation.

At the NGC this year we decided that a framework for regulating university fees be developed by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). The student protest demands reflect agreed ANC policies.

While we acknowledge the very legitimate demands of the students, we believe it`s vital also to acknowledge the significant changes achieved in higher education since 1994.

The freedom charter declared: “The doors of learning and culture shall be opened”. Those doors had been closed to blacks but also to girls and women. The Freedom Charter declared, “Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit”.

Widening access to education has been one of the key policy thrusts of education reform since 1994 and we have widened access and opportunity to young women whose parents were excluded by decades of racial and gender discrimination.

We have broken decisively with the exclusive education system of the past and created an inclusive education system for the future. We did not prioritise school education over university education as other newly independent african countries did or were forced to do. We transformed both sectors.

Today, new opportunities are available to girls and women. In fact, we have achieved a general level of gender equality that has only been accomplished in other countries after many decades of democracy. Our success in this aspect of social change has been supported by a progressive Constitution and a strong and visible advocacy for gender equality.

We have increased and expanded participation in higher education. There has been a huge expansion in the number of women studying in higher education. And there has been a welcome internationalisation of the student body, with over 80,000 international students at our universities.

We have established a national quality assurance framework and infrastructure and each university is now subject to a quality audit, which has significantly raised quality issues across the sector.

We have begun the process of transforming our universities from insular institutions to open institutions for all. The aim of the merger process – mandated in 2002 – was to break up the division between black and white institutions, to improve quality through economies of scale, and to improve staff-student ratios.

Yet transformation is an ongoing process and we need to plan ahead. A strong case must be made for more diverse higher education institutional types that are able to meet appropriate quality benchmarks and satisfy particular labour markets. If we are to continue to support research-intensive universities, we must look towards new and innovative partnerships to realise our vision.

It`s government`s role to invest in, to promote, and to catalyse science and innovation in South Africa. Government acts as a catalyst for innovation in national priority areas. We chose in 2008 five specific areas (we called them “grand challenge” areas) in which we aimed to catalyse leading-edge innovation: global change, renewable energy, space science, the bio-economy, and the human sciences.

These are not simply grand challenges. They are global challenges that need global collaboration and cooperation in solving. Government`s role is to catalyse investment in key multi-disciplinary areas that will drive innovation in all sciences. Nano-technology is a key example, as its impact is felt in widely disparate fields, from medicine to electronics to IT.

South Africa, in partnership with several other African countries, recently made history when we secured the right to co-host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) global radio telescope. The bid, supported by South Africa`s construction of the exciting MeerKAT telescope, a precursor for the SKA, and several human capital development programmes, has contributed immensely to raising interest in science, technology and engineering across Africa.

As a result of our focus on astronomy, partnerships with multinational companies related to information and communication technology engineering required for radio astronomy are thriving, with African expertise becoming a sought-after source of innovation for these companies. Government is committed to increasing African expertise in science and technology.

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) funding for universities has increased threefold over the last ten years – from R9,8 billion in 2004/05, when the existing funding framework was introduced, to R30,4 billion in 2015/16. For universities DHET funding is supplemented by tuition fees and third-stream or donation/endowment income. Government has prioritised bursaries for both university (R4,1 billion) and college (R2,2 billion) students this year. Third-stream income flows more easily to traditional research-intensive universities than to the newly transformed universities of technology.

Significant additional investment (the Department of Science and Technology budget increased from R2 billion in 2005/6 to R7,4 billion in 2015/16) is required in both human development and research infrastructure at universities both to improve the productivity of the system and to support the development of research capacity at formerly black universities and universities of technology. Continued investment is aimed at attracting and retaining the best minds to undertake cutting-edge research in such areas as astronomy (SALT and SKA) and paleosciences, while also helping to solve some of the country`s problems such as the pursuit of clean energy or reducing the burden of disease (HIV or TB).

Despite these changes, there are long-standing transformation challenges that the ANC believes require urgent action. This includes transforming the academic body and leadership in higher education, and addressing language exclusion racism.

Many first-year students struggle to adjust to academic language demands and to cope with the high-level demand of independent research and self-directed learning. Few schools alert learners to the changed learning context of university, and for many first years university is a deep shock. This means universities must do more to orient first time entering students to the different learning and teaching context of university. At schools teachers devote a lot of time to pastoral care. University lectures do not regard such support as their responsibility. Students can become anonymous failures, unrecognised, unseen and deeply troubled.

Universities need to acknowledge and provide for increasing numbers of first-generation entrants who do not have the cultural capital that ease entry to these institutions for more fortunate students. It is also a known fact that despite the triple mandate of teaching, research and community outreach many lecturers do not have any training in pedagogy and often regard students as an irritant. The students have changed, but many of the lecturers remain the same. Part of our response to this aspect has been to support academic development programmes and foundation programmes in disciplines that have been prioritised by institutions.

The Constitution of South Africa sets out our aspirations for the character of our nation. It mandates us to build a non-racial, non-sexist democratic society founded on equality, human dignity, and mutual respect. These values are absent in many of our educational institutions. Girls are often victims of sexual violence or abuse at home, in our schools and in some instances on our campuses. Our educational institutions (schools, colleges and universities) must do more to address racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. Students and staff should know that when they enter our universities and schools they enter places where principles and values exits in mission statements and in practice and that authorities will act strongly if there is a breach.

Employers complain about the language competence of our graduates, and refer to a poor work ethic and to the absence of analytical skills. Our institutions should do more to back graduates and their experience of life beyond higher education. We also need to see increased attention to modernising our university curricula. All students should have a working knowledge of at least one of the indigenous language of South Africa. They should also learn one or more modern languages and get an introduction to African history and civilisation.

In conclusion, in the short term the ANC expects Minister Nzimande to present a proposal for regulating fee increases, a medium-term plan for fee-free higher education for poor and lower-middle-class students, and a partnership agreement between higher education, the private sector, and universities to address student funding and transformation. We congratulate the ANC on the great progress made since 1994 and repeat our belief that only the ANC has the commitment to do even more.

Comrade Naledi Pandor is a member of the ANC NEC and Chairperson of the ANC NEC Sub-Committee on Education and Health

Posted in Phambili
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