Monday, August 17, 2009

South African Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande Delivers Lecture at the University of Johannesburg

Lecture by Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande to the 250th seminar of the University of Johannesburg, Faculty of Humanities

14 August 2009

Some challenges facing the South Africa higher education system. My appointment to the newly established Ministry of Higher Education and Training has prompted me to somewhat shift my thinking about Higher Education and its role. It has done this by encouraging me to see higher education as a component of the post-school education and training system, as one of the important options facing young people when they finish their schooling.

If we look at it this way instead of starting with higher education institutions and their needs and roles, we see things rather differently. We see them from the view of one of the main constituencies in society (i.e. the youth) and that soon leads us to thinking also about other constituencies whose needs universities can meet and the aggregation of these constituencies that make up the totality of our national community, and possibly even that of our neighbours.

We have, as I have noted a number of times in the last few months, about three million South Africans between 18 and 24 years of age who are not in employment, education or training. These are all recent school leavers whose needs the universities, as institutions serving the public good, must assist in meeting in addition to those in the same age group who are already students or workers. There are various ways in which this could be done. Some of these are obvious which others may not immediately be so obvious but which a little thought will make apparent.

Firstly, the higher education institutions can assist by increasing access to an increasing number of young people-include those who may not find their way to university by the conventional route but who have the potential to succeed. It must be admitted, though that increasing access to higher education, while it may make a big difference in the lives of some students and help to increase the skilled labour pool somewhat, will not make an enormous impact on expanding the opportunities of the underprivileged. We currently have an enrolment of approximately 770 000 in higher education while we are aiming at increasing this at a rather modest amount of 820 000 in the next five years.

The large expansion of opportunities for the youth will clearly have to come from elsewhere, particularly the college sector. I will speak later on, however, about the role that universities can play in this regard. Apart from increasing access, the universities also have an important role to play in improving the quality of the learning experience that it provides its students. They must help orient new students to university life, providing study skills and helping new students to understand what university is all about and what is expected of them.

It is likely that much of the failure rate among first year students can be attributed to young people entering the unfamiliar world of the university in which learning demands are quite different to those which faced them at school where there was or should have been a much closer supervision of learners than is possible at university. Many new students struggle to cope with a new social environment and an institutional culture that is totally new to them, a place where increased freedoms go hand in hand with increasing demands for self discipline.

In addition, new students (and not so new) could be facing racism and other types of discrimination in a form that they have never had to deal with before. The Soudien Report on Transformation, Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in the Higher Education Sector (DoE, 2008) eloquently describes and analyses some of these difficulties and makes recommendation for overcoming the problems for the attention of both the universities and the government. And I hardly need to add that academic, social and even medical support for students, while most important in first year, needs to be available throughout their academic careers.

Beyond these fairly obvious ways in which universities can provide the needs of young people who enter higher education, there are also other ways in which higher education can assist in meeting the critical needs of the youth more generally. One of the biggest problems facing our youth is the anticipation for the poor preparation they get for the post-school world from their schools.

Universities have a crucial role in improving the quality of schooling in particular through the part that they play in teacher training, both initial teacher education and training and continuing professional teacher development.

Most of our universities have well developed teacher education faculties or department and many do excellent work in training teachers and school managers. However, there are still some serious weaknesses here. One thing that strikes me about the university education faculties is that many of them have limited expertise or even interest in primary school teaching. It is worth reflecting that not one South African university has a chair in primary education, and most spend little energy on teaching students to teach reading, writing or numeracy; they also conduct little research in these areas. This is no doubt the legacy of the past when most training of primary school teachers took place in the teacher training colleges which have now been closed.

Despite very extensive research evidence that mother tongue instruction could improve the quality of learning of our youngest learners, universities have been closing down or cutting back their African language departments. Does this make sense in the wake of a successful national liberation struggle? Some of these problems may be the result of the department's funding model. We do, however, need to start to tackle the problems as soon as we can.

Another blind spot of our teacher education efforts is the little attention that we have given to the training of FET college lecturers and it now poses a major educational challenge to our higher education institutions. It is to these colleges that we, as a country, must look to absorb an increasing number of the youth who currently do not have education and training opportunities. It is a serious anomaly that we have a vocational training system that is only half the size of the higher education system and it must be expanded rapidly while at the same time ensuring that its quality is also improved.

This is particularly important now that the numbers of artisans in South Africa has been declining at the same time that the need for skilled workers has in fact been increasing. Many FET college lecturers have little formal training as educators. They are mainly trained, skilled workers who have become teachers. The same can be said for FET College managers at all levels. I know that some universities have started to become aware of this challenge (e.g. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Wits) but little has yet been done. I am aware that it is unrealistic to expect every university to take up this challenge, there are after all only 50 FET colleges and a few dozen other vocational colleges (e.g. agricultural and nursing colleges) as opposed to the 26 000 odd schools for which teachers are currently trained.

Nonetheless it is clearly time for the education faculties, perhaps through the dean's forum, to start to do a needs analysis and to decide how best to tackle this problem. Strengthening the training of college lecturers and managers should also begin to stimulate more research on the entire college sector, something that has been neglected by universities, although not by some NGOs or the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) which has dominated research conducted in this area.

The question of training of adult educators including those working in the skills training system, currently centred on a mixture private and public providers loosely coordinated by the SETAs, also needs much more research than is currently available. It would also be very interesting and useful to have research on the education and training system conducted by social scientists from outside the education faculties; sociologists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists and others. This would help to enrich the debates and to give them a different perspective.

Going back to the ways that universities can assist the youth, and also going beyond this, I hardly need to point out that young people reflect the social composition of the country and that the majority of the unemployed youth who are not in education or training come from the poorest communities in South Africa. They live in rural areas, informal settlements and poor townships. The problems of these communities are the problems facing the majority of South Africa's people. Their development challenges are to a great extent also South Africa's development challenges.

If we ask ourselves honestly how much do we focus on understanding or tackling the social, economic, agricultural or technological circumstances and problems facing poor communities through our research, our teaching and our community outlook programmes, I suspect that the answer will be: not enough.

Of course South African universities or groups attached to them do have a history of activism on behalf of the poor and the disposed, but usually this has been peripheral to the main work of the institutions, even in opposition to it. I think here of initiatives such as the community development projects of SASO in the 1970s, the workers' education projects at some universities in the 1970s and 1980s.

Also in the 1980s as mass opposition to apartheid was gaining strength, some other initiatives were tolerated by the university authorities, but marginalised and not given a status equal to mainstream academic activities. Examples here include campus-based quasi-NGOs like the education policy units, trade union support units, rural development or built environment research and development initiatives. In the mainstream work of some of the universities, important intellectual work was done in undermining apartheid ideology.

The work of the revisionist historians and other radical social scientists were a good example of this as were the valiant efforts of Jakes Gerwel and others to turn the University of the Western Cape into an intellectual home of the left. It was these struggles and initiatives that, amongst other things, saw the emergence of the Association of Sociology in Southern Africa in the 1980s as one prime vehicle for critical and progressive sociological discourse.

Since the early 1990s, things have taken a different turn. The demise of the apartheid system and the advent of democracy in South Africa coincided with important international developments: the end of the Cold War and the ascendancy of the Washington Consensus. Together with our political freedom has come the stifling burden of promotion of many of our public institutions and services, including education. This has led to a preoccupation of educational institutions with income generation, cutting costs, privatisation and outsourcing. Perhaps inevitably, institutional leadership has been pushed towards a managerial orientation and a concentration on economic and administrative matters.

Transformation has been viewed on the one hand (quite rightly) through the lens of changing student and staff demographics as a result of political pressure from government and society. On the other hand, it has led to a pre-occupation with creating so-called ‘world class universities' which aspire to be like Harvard or Oxford. Of course, we do need to strive for excellence, to produce more Doctors of Philosophy (PhDs), do cutting edge research and compete with the best in the world.

However, I believe that at this stage of our development, the main thrust of our curricula and our research should be in the context of understanding and resolving our own society's needs. This is not a call for parochialism or for not engaging with the best minds and the best knowledge produced in universities and research institutions from across the globe. But it is a call to engage much more fully than we have in the past with South African realities and the realities of Africa and the developing world in general.

This means especially (although obviously not exclusively) dealing with the problems of poverty and under-development, both theoretically and empirically, in our research and in our teaching. It is a sad fact that most social scientists dealing with issues of underdevelopment are based in the rich countries. While the fact that these developed country scholars study developing countries is not a problem, should we really be relying on them as the primary source of thinking on our problems?

There are of course exceptions to this pattern. The important work done by some of our universities in conducting medical and social research on the HIV and AIDS pandemic is an example of the research of this type that is already being done. Such research is sometimes conducted in cooperation with universities from the developed world, but, to the best of my knowledge, always as equals not in any way as junior partners.

An interesting recent initiative has come partly out of this university. Dr Xolela Mangcu, Institute for democracy in South Africa (IDASA) and Harry Boyte, a left-wing academic from the University of Minnesota are about to launch a South African Democracy Universities project. A seminar is being held at this university later this month to flesh out the conceptualisation of this project which aims to engage academics and students in different areas of public policy work and community development.

According to the concept document, the project envisioned will include research, public debate about the role of education and also organising of affiliated working groups at universities likely to be leaders in this effort. While I know very little as yet about how this project will develop and am not in any position to endorse it, I believe that the concept of using the academy as a basis of promoting public participation in building a vibrant democracy and is one which is worth pursuing.

Some of the issues that progressive social scientists will pursue in the coming years will be new issues. Others will be old issues coming back in new guises and needing to be looked at in new ways. There are many important issues associated with development which we must tackle through empirical research and through theorisation: This include issues like how we can fight poverty, how we create full employment, how we can overcome the problems that we are experiencing in educating children (and especially poor children) effectively, what the best ways are to fight various diseases, what strategies are effective in expanding popular democratic participation, what the main obstacles are to defeating a host of social ailments ranging from rural underdevelopment to malnutrition to dysfunctional households, housing and sanitation problems , environmental problems and socio-psychological disorders.

Some of these problems need the serious attention of natural scientists such medical scientists or engineers. All of them need the attention of rigorous, thoughtful, energetic and creative social scientists. All of them also, I dare say, require greater attention than the questions of how corporations can maximise their profits or how to sell washing powder, beer or cell phone contracts more successfully.

Cutting across the social problems I have listed are of course issues associated with the structure of society, its divisions and contradictions and the relationships between social groups. These are the big questions of South African society and the basic questions have not changed much over the decades although their manifestations and ways that we look at them keep changing. An example here is the question of the relationship between race and class which has exercised minds among the oppressed and the left for over a century.

More recently issues of gender relations have become a major issue of contention as have other issues associated with power relations among social groupings. The race-class dynamic has recently surfaced in a public debate in the mainstream media involving Andile Mngxitama, Mokong Mapadimeng and Devan Pillay. I have also made an intervention in this debate in an article in the latest edition of the South African Communist Party (SACP) journal; Umsebenzi, which is available to all to read online so I won't go into the arguments now.

The point I want to make here is that perennial issues such as this deserve the attention of our best social scientists and to be brought to the attention to all our students. Indeed sociology has a lot to say about education. Education can be regarded as a weapon through which we can transform class, racial and gender relations in society. Precisely because of this, it is a contested terrain, reflecting the very same three contradictions that society seeks to address. Is sociology today saying and reflecting on these things? Is sociology today saying enough about our developmental agenda?

Let me conclude by thanking you for inviting me here today to share my thoughts with you. I look forward to the day, hopefully soon, that the social sciences once more gain the status and the importance in the universities that they had in the late 1970s and 1980s and where they are looked to by important sections of our society as guides to political and social action. I also hope that they will play a critical role in preparing the youth for their futures and becoming an important part of shaping their outlook and creating opportunities for them to lead a fulfilling life for themselves and assist them to contribute towards their communities and their society.

Thank you very much.

Issued by: Ministry of Education
14 August 2009
Source: Department of Education (

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