5 February 2010

Developing a new generation of leaders

Developing a new generation of leaders through a quality, accessible and transformed post-school system

Dr Blade Nzimande, ANC Today, 5 February 2010

Twenty years ago this week, the destiny of our country changed forever as years of revolutionary and selfless struggle gave rise to a free, open and democratic society. The freedoms we now enjoy came as a result of battles fought on many fronts to topple the apartheid regime and undo the legacy of institutionalised racism and discrimination.

One of these frontiers of struggle was the education system. While the apartheid government used an inferior education system to suppress the black population, the revolutionary movement used that very education system as a platform for rebellion and mobilisation.

Universities and colleges were centres of revolt but also political development where militant young people were shaped into formidable and influential activists and leaders.

Now, 20 years later, we are faced with a new set of challenges on our journey to transform our society and create a better life for our people. Education again remains central to this process not only as an essential part of human development but as a tool and platform for change.

Since the advent of democracy in 1994, there have been many changes in the South African higher education system. Important new policy, legislation and studies conducted or commissioned by government have resulted in, inter alia: 
  • the establishment of democratic and transformative aims and objectives for the system;
  • the consolidation of the sector through a process of mergers;
  • the establishment of two new national institutes of higher education;
  • the reclassification of the technikons as universities of technology (UOTs);
  • the establishment of comprehensive universities, including functions of both
  • the traditional universities and the former technikons;
  • internal institutional reforms with the establishment of new structures such as institutional forums;
  • better coordination of SRC activities nationally. 

In addition, there has been a large increase in overall student enrolments in higher education. The racial composition of the student body at the former white, coloured and Indian institutions has become more representative of the country's population, in particular because of a significant increase in the numbers of black (especially African) student enrolments. To a lesser extent there has also been an increase in the proportions of black academic and managerial/administrative staff. The representation of women among students and staff has also shown a significant increase and there are now more female than male students.

The establishment of the Department of Higher Education and Training last year has added another dimension to the transformative possibilities in the higher education system. The new Department provides an opportunity for the creation of a single, coherent, post-school education and training system that is structured both to meet the aspirations of youth and adults and to ensure that education, training and skills development initiatives respond to the requirements of the economy, our rural development challenges, and the need to develop a highly educated, informed and critical citizenry.

Having responsibility for the universities, colleges and the workplace-based skills development system (including the SETAs and the National Skills Fund) under the same Ministry provides the opportunity for harnessing synergies and enhancing cooperation between all these institutions. It also raises the need for each of these institutional types to rethink their roles within this new landscape.

Despite all these changes, many problems remain with regard to the transformation of the higher education sector. Most of these problems have been tackled to a greater or lesser extent by institutions and some progress have been made. However, it remains true that we still have a long way to go in creating the kind of university system envisaged by the 1996 White Paper on Higher Education, as well as the aspirations of our people and the needs of our economy and society.

In April, the Department of Higher Education and Training will host a Higher Education Stakeholder Summit to confront and discuss the major challenges facing higher education. The summit will bring together all major stakeholders in higher education including management, academic staff, workers, students and NGOs in the first public engagement since 1994 on higher education. Among the issues we intend tackling are transformation, student access and success, funding and curriculum transformation.

Student access and success

Poor and working class youth face inordinate challenges to access and succeed in the higher education system. This year's registration period, like many before, has seen many desperate young people scrambling to gain entrance into higher education institutions and trying to register for courses of their choice. Career counselling, enrolment counselling, non-traditional access routes and the possibility of a national student application office are among the options we are exploring to increase access to higher education.

The quality of the schooling obviously has an important impact on the success of students at universities and should also be a subject for discussion, in particular the role that universities can play in helping to improve the quality of schooling.

With regard to success, the large dropout rate remains a cause for concern and has a heavy toll on the social system and on families. Student support and the social and living conditions of students are essential to dealing with this problem and is a vital subject of engagement in the higher education sector. Government is increasing academic support and dedicated infrastructural funds to improve learning environments.

Funding and Student Fees

In the ANC's 2009 election manifesto, we stated the following:

“Education is a means of promoting good citizenship as well as preparing our people for the needs of a modern economy and a democratic society. Building on the achievements in education, the ANC government will aim to ensure progressive realisation of universal schooling, improving quality education and eliminating disparities. This requires a major renewal of our schooling and education system."

We remain committed to the introduction of free education for the poor progressively until undergraduate level. One of the instruments to deliver on this commitment is the National Student Financial Aid Scheme which is currently under review. The report of the NSFAS review committee will provide a guide for a major overhaul of the system to make it easier for the poor but academically capable students access higher education.

Problems with the current system are a major source of disruptions to the registration process and academic programme every year. We are determined to deal with the issues of student funding and to put a stop to the annual upheavals on campuses, which are sometimes exploited by elements wanting to exacerbate tensions for their own political and criminal agendas. Our priority is to ensure maximum and quality learning and teaching on our campuses.


A ministerial committee which investigated racism in higher education following the ghastly abuse of workers at the University of Free State's Reitz Hostel, provided a grave indication of the extent to which racism and other forms of discrimination are still pervasive at institutions of higher learning. The report notes that there is a disjuncture between institutional policies and the real-life experiences of staff and students.

We believe that the establishment of a monitoring and oversight body is necessary to deal with all forms of discrimination as clearly the good intentions of institutions are insufficient to deal with this problem. This issue will feature on the agenda of the stakeholder summit.

It is no secret that the current structure of the higher education system entrenches the apartheid legacy with rural institutions remaining disadvantaged and unable to compete with their privileged counterparts. The current funding formula therefore requires a fundamental review to ensure equitable development and to eliminate the classification of institutions of higher learning. Government will be undertaking such a review this year.

Teaching, learning and curriculum transformation

We are currently exploring the establishment of new universities in parts of the country where institutions of higher learning are deficient. This will be a major achievement as these would be the first universities modelled and established by the ANC government.

But while these are in the planning stages, we need to access the appropriateness of the curriculum at existing institutions to South African realities. We also need to consider the place of African languages in the curriculum, teaching methodologies and the teaching skills of academic staff. It is also imperative that we develop a new generation of academics and researchers, contribute to a national system of innovation and ensure the responsiveness of universities to complex social and economic problems facing our country.

These are some of the priorities government will be focusing on this year.

The place of universities in the post school education and training system and society

As we work to synergise the higher education and training system, we need to strengthen the articulation between universities and further education and training colleges as well as the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs).

It is also essential that universities become central to the development and education of the communities in which they are located, and break out of the mould of being the preserve of the privileged.

To achieve all this, the ANC and its alliance partners must be at the forefront of mobilising our communities to ensure quality education for all.

Just as they were 20 years ago, our institutions of higher learning need to be at the forefront of our societal struggles and centres of development. Twenty years from now, we shall be judged on the generation of professionals, social activists and leaders which the current education system is producing. Therefore, in line with the vision of the Freedom Charter, the doors of learning must be opened further and the challenges we face in higher education must be overcome. 
  • Dr Blade Nzimande is an ANC NEC member and Minister of Higher Education and Training


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