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Responding to the President’s Zuma’s State of the Nation Address: Reflections on the Challenges confronting Higher Education

12th June 2009

By: Adam Habib


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What is required of a Presidential State of the Nation address at the dawn of a new political administration? Two elements are important in such an address. First, the President needs to map the agenda of his administration for the next five years. Second, since mapping such an agenda requires making choices and undertaking trade-offs, the President needs to explain the policy choices and the prioritization thereof, and thereafter inspire the nation behind this political agenda. Did Jacob Zuma do this? NO!

Instead he promised everything to everyone. There is not much that I would disagree with in his speech. He gave business what it wanted. He gave labour what they wanted. Students got what they wanted. Middle and upper middle class citizens got what they wanted. But sometimes when we say everything, we land up saying nothing. No choices were made. No trade-offs were undertaken. As a result, I am no closer to understanding how this political administration is different from its predecessor on the basis of this address.


What should the President have said? From the perspective of Higher Education, he should have pinned his mast to the issue of cheaper if not free higher education. This is after all what the Polokwane conference committed him to, and what his Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, has promised in his term. As Minister Nzimande put it to the University Vice-Chancellors when he met them, ‘it is imperative that poor students should not be denied the opportunity to quality higher education. He also urged Vice Chancellors to make higher education more affordable. But herein lies the dilemma. For every rand universities forsake in student fees, government has to make it up. Otherwise we are likely to go the route of the rest of Africa in the last two decades of the twentieth century, where increased access was not tied to greater resources. The net effect in such a case is not only does one provide free or cheaper higher education, but one also provides a sub-standard higher education for the poor and the working class.

This is what South Africa needs to avoid. How do we bring down the cost of higher education without reducing the operational budget of our universities? Minister Nzimande has of recognized that this will not happen immediately and would most probably have to be phased in. He has also suggested that the likely route would be to expand the focus of the National Student Financial Aid System (NSFAS) so that it captures a bigger cache of students. But there is a danger here. Universities in South Africa have differential fees with some almost double the cost of others. If higher education is to be expanded using the NSFAS system, then, the net effect will be that universities will be subsidized at differential levels, with the most well endowed receiving the greatest grants. This obviously would go against the spirit of Minister Nzimande's agenda. The mechanism for advancing affordable or free higher education must therefore be thought through much more carefully.


The second post school education priority, also identified by Minister Nzimande is the need to expand vocational and artisanal training in South Africa. This is necessary not only for generating the necessary human resource needs for the economy, but also for creating a more inclusive society through the provisions of skills to millions of black youth thereby enabling them to break their own family and community cycles of poverty and hopelessness. It would involve revitalizing the Further Education and Training (FET) institutions and the college sector, which are in an abysmal state at the moment. Again, this is going to require a significant investment of resources. As importantly, it requires addressing the racial perceptions that exist about diplomas and degrees in SA. Historically, under apartheid vocational training was reserved for the working class. Traditional academic training was seen to be the preserve of the middle classes, particularly, but not only, in the white community. This class and racial hangover still defines popular perceptions with diplomas being perceived as second class qualifications. So long as this perception is not addressed, South Africa is going to struggle to get its vocational training to take off with all the obvious adverse consequences for its economic development.

The final challenge that urgently needs to be prioritized is the enhancement of South Africa's research and innovation profile. This is not required for some abstract academic need. It is absolutely essential for the country's economic development. In this knowledge based global economy, high level human resource capacities, research abilities and innovation is necessary for economies to retain their competitiveness. And despite some attempts in this direction, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that South Africa is lagging its competitors if one were to simply cast a cursory glance at the investments being directed to research, innovation and higher education in China, India and Brazil. In all these cases new universities are being built and enormous investments are being made in academic appointments. To take one example, on average, Brazil's leading universities have twice the number of permanent academic appointments that South Africa's institutions have for the same number of students. One consequence of this better endowment of staff is that Brazil's higher education system produces 10 000 doctoral graduates a year compared to South Africa's 1 500. South Africa's dismal number of doctoral graduates significantly inhibits its innovation ambitions, thereby undermining its economic and developmental potential.

Compounding the problem is that most of the research funding in South Africa is targeted in specific areas largely defined by state bureaucrats on the basis of what they perceive as important for economic and social development. The result is that very little resources are directed to generic research, undermining the establishment of a broad base research foundation from which an innovation profile can emerge. The problem becomes even bigger if one recognizes that a significant amount of research resources are really spent on institutional bureaucracies themselves. This was really striking at a recent academic conference in Europe where South Africa had more institutional bureaucrats (research managers, program officers) from the Department of Science & Technology (DST) and the Science Councils than actual academics and researchers. Finally, unlike countries like France which have a seamless flow between their Science Councils and universities, in South Africa these institutions report to different departments: Science Councils to DST, and the universities to the Department of Education. Research resources are therefore not expended optimally, and research decisions not made efficiently, because of the competing bureaucratic claims and agendas that emanate from this institutional arrangement. Clearly, if we are to address the science and technology challenge South Africa confronts, not only is much more significant resources required, but a complete overall of the management of our scientific infrastructure is also warranted.

Do I expect President Zuma to explain the details of these dilemmas in his State of the Nation address? Obviously not! After all there are as many dilemmas in other priority areas. But I would have expected the President to recognize these issues, and in particular the fact that major investment is going to be required to address them, and as a result trade-offs between competing priorities will have to made. The President should have also been urging the business sector to recognize the necessity of these needs and its own obligations in this regard. Is this not one of the fundamental purposes of the state? Individual business leaders, driven solely by shareholder value, sometimes do not see the bigger picture. It is the responsibility of the state bureaucracy to recognize and create the enabling environment for long term economic development. Zuma should have indicated the necessity of high level human resource skills, research and development for long term economic development, and made the case for increased investment in these areas. He should have also challenged the business community and other more privileged stakeholders to partner the state in addressing some of these needs.

In short, the President should have provided leadership, challenged stakeholders and citizens, and urged them to rally behind a collective national agenda. He should have inspired the nation. Instead he merely parroted what its most important stakeholders wanted to hear.



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