Think of universities as an investment, not a burden - Mbeki

2015-07-30 14:20
Former president Thabo Mbeki

Former president Thabo Mbeki (Nelius Rademan/Foto24; Gaut)

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Johannesburg - Many African governments began thinking of university funding as "burdensome" after the institutions were seen to be acting in opposition to political leaders, former president Thabo Mbeki said on Thursday.  

"As all of us know, at independence and for some time after that, our countries viewed our universities with great pride. Indeed, many of these were a direct product of our liberation from colonialism," he said at an Africa Universities Summit at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

"In very practical ways, these universities were situated at the centre of the African development agenda through the supply of the required educated cadre, the generation of ideas to advance the development agenda and engagement in the upliftment of communities."

He said this "healthy relationship" between the states and the universities was then weakened and destroyed.

"In many instances, if not most, this was linked to... the perception among the African ruling elite that universities were serving as centres of political opposition to this elite."

New investment needed

This lead to the governments in many African countries starting to view expenditure on universities and therefore higher education as a burdensome but unavoidable cost, rather than an absolutely necessary and beneficial investment, Mbeki said.

Mbeki said African universities had to convince "the so-called political class in Africa" that they were at the centre of development on the continent, and therefore needed new investment.

Only then would governments lead the process which would result in the substantially larger public funding required, and without which many of the radical changes that need to be made would not see the light of day, Mbeki said.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura said the problem was not so much with the perceived "opposition" of universities, but rather how funding them was seen as a burden.

"I entirely agree with him [Mbeki]... that universities need to be seen as investments, rather than a burden," he told the media after the former president's speech.

"We live in a world that is innovation and knowledge-based. [There]... are critical for the growth of economies."

‘Huge capabilities’

He said without a skilled population, governments had to rely on skilled workers from Europe and North America.

"South Africa is very exceptional in that we have huge, huge capabilities in our university system.

"South African universities, compared to other dispensations... are relatively well funded, but [I'm not saying] they may have no needs themselves. In other parts of the continent the situation is dire."

He said funding for universities was taken seriously in South Africa.

"The make-up of these universities have changed a lot. I used to be a student leader. This university [UJ, which was formerly known as Rand Afrikaans University], was an Afrikaans-speaking, white university. You can't see that when you look at the students here [now]," Makhura said.

"Of course more work needs to be done in academia and research, but we are making tremendous advances."

Read more on:    university of johannesburg  |  thabo mbeki  |  david makhura  |  johannesburg  |  education

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