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DA: Statement by Wilmot James, Democratic Alliance shadow minister of higher education, on the Higher Education summit (25/04/2010)

25th April 2010

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The Stakeholder Summit on Higher Education Transformation, which concluded on Friday, steered away from the main problem our country faces, which is to build quality in teaching, research and governance - in knowledge therefore - at universities. In seeking ways of taking care of the higher education sector as a whole - to build social cohesion - failing to tackle issues of quality and stratification will result in the spreading of mediocrity throughout the system.

Required is quality in the student learning experience, in the competence of the lecturing staff and in the manner universities and colleges are run. The fact is that the Ministry of Higher Education & Training does not have the money to grow student enrolment or build quality. Universities therefore have to do more with the money they have and the students they must graduate. Current levels of misery will therefore inevitably spread.

No solution was found for the lack of fit between our further education and training colleges, of which there are 50 in the country, and the 23 universities. Students in the one sector cannot easily move into the other. The Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAS) were not discussed at all, nor was the fact that the National Skills Fund sits with R2,7 billion in unspent funds that now is the responsibility of Dr Blade Nzimande.

It is the Democratic Alliance's view that the summit was a talk shop about marginal issues in higher education. Still, some good recommendations were made such as (1) the introduction of a 4 year long undergraduate degree (2) the retention of foreign African graduates in lecturing posts (3) strengthening governing structures (4) professionalising student support services and (5) tackling tender corruption.

The summit was a consultative and therefore a listening exercise for Minister Blade Nzimande. We hope that he did listen and do what he is not good at doing, which is to start making strategic decisions for the sector. Nzimande is excellent at appointing committees and commissions. We will now see a succession of talk-shop summits. But Nzimande has not made a single meaningful decision regarding the future of universities and colleges since he took office.

Nzimande faces making the most critical decision of all: where to invest the money he has to help universities make progress. Does he put the funds into selected strategic projects or does he dissipate the effort by spreading the misery around? If he invests in projects, what is the process of selection? Nzimande should start making the difficult decisions now and begin to provide some certainty and stability to the university and college sector.

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