Dear Mr Futhwa

2012-02-18 10:10

I agree with you that new debates and discussions on matters of national importance, such as higher education, are necessary.

I hope that such debates will generate more light than heat, and that they will be cognisant of the fact that we cannot freeze life while we debate. The real challenge of leadership is that choices have to be made every day with imperfect information. Otherwise, we paralyse the progress of our society.Those of us who plunged into the reform process of higher education in South Africa knew that we could not produce a perfect system in one attempt.

But we could also not stand still until we got the “isms” and the “ologies” right. You state that I and a few of my colleagues are not only quiet about the state of higher education, but “have moved on and are enjoying a good life in business”.Let me assure you that since the National Working Group made its recommendations to the minister of education in December 2001, I have laboured on in the sector. I chaired the Council on Higher Education for seven years.

I continued to provide advice to the minister through the Council on Higher Education. Subsequent to that, I have been on the Council of Wits University as a deputy chair to Justice Edwin ­Cameron. It is thus incorrect for you to accuse me of “enjoying a good life in business”. You argue that what we proposed as the National Working Group has resulted, inter alia, in the tragic event at the University of Johannesburg, and that black children have nowhere to go because of the closure of technikons.Let me acquaint you with the terms of reference of the National Working Group.

The first term of reference said: “The National Working Group MUST (my emphasis) address how, and not whether, the number of institutions can be reduced.” We were also instructed to ensure that “the reduction in the number of ­institutions does not result in the closure of existing sites of delivery”. Finally, we were asked to recommend the incorporation of the Vista campuses into “appropriate existing higher education institutions within each region, given the decision to unbundle Vista University”.

It is obvious then that the National Working Group did not abolish Vista University.The approach of the minister on the mergers process was informed by work that had been undertaken by the Council on Higher Education and other commissions. One of those commissions, in which I and others served, was chaired by Dr Mamphele Ramphela and was named the “Shape and Size” Commission.

The idea of possible institutional forms germinated in the report of that commission.Subsequent to and as a consequence of these policy interventions, could it be argued that higher education has ­become as dysfunctional? Specifically, could it be argued with reason and facts that the major consequence of merging institutions has been the exclusion of black students? I would like to refer you to a recent study by International Education Association of South Africa titled “In leaps and bounds: Growing Higher Education in South Africa” on whose figures I am going to rely.

They tell us that in 2000 there were 578?134 students in the higher education system. In 2010, there were 893?024 students in the system. That represents a growth of 4.2% a year in that period. Is that a growth as a result of mergers? Not necessarily. The point is that it is simply incorrect to argue that merging institutions resulted in “black children having nowhere to go”. If you want to look at the demographics, in 1993 47% of students in the system were white and 53% black (African 40%, coloured 6%, Indian 7%).

In 2009 white students made up 21% of the system and African students 66%. Indian and coloured students were split between 6%, and 7% were international students. It’s important to note that the dramatic fall in the proportion of white students did not mean that they were displaced. The system grew as we have noted.Does this changed demographic mean that we have achieved equity and equal access for black children? Not at all.

There is a simple explanation for this situation – inadequate schooling compounded by lack of funds.The government is determined to ­address this situation. The National Plan for Higher Education of 2001 seeks to increase the participation in higher education of the 18-24 cohort to 20% by 2014. In 2008 the participation of that cohort stood at 16.6%. This is the same cohort that has a 51% unemployment rate, according to a recent ­Treasury report.

The government has been supporting its objective with further funding of the system. The founding of The National Student Financial Aid Scheme in 1999 enabled many students to attend university. According to the International Education Association of South Africa study, in 2011/12 government is expected to spend an estimated R4.7?billion in study loans and bursaries to benefit about 150?000 students. Above all, the government has spent R1.6?billion to help improve the infrastructure of universities.

Finally, the restructuring of the higher education system means we now have 11 universities that have 319?927 students, six comprehensive universities that have 419?912 students, and six ­universities of technology that have 153?186 students. South African universities produced 144?000 graduates in 2009 compared with 74?000 in 1994. However, they still produce 1?400 PhDs a year, which is 26 PhDs per million people – compared with 264 ?per million in Australia and 569?per million in Portugal.

So you see, Mr Futhwa, the higher ­education system has challenges, but the reform process, government investment and the ability of institutions to ­attract third-party funding has moved the system forward. Of course we have a long way to go.When we are quiet it does not mean that we do not put our shoulders to the wheel of national development.

It may be that we are, as the wise man advised, like ducks – calm on the surface, but ­paddling like hell below the surface.

God Bless
Saki Macozoma
Port Alfred, Eastern Cape

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