The past year must have been extremely challenging for the Department. What have been the challenges that have been most difficult to deal with, and what was your approach to dealing with them?
Obviously the most difficult aspect of 2015 has been the student activism, which brought to the fore important issues of transformation in the higher education system. This began with a symbolic targeting of a statue of Rhodes, behind which was a demand for transformation at the University of Cape Town in relation to an academic staff profile that is still excessively white. At Stellenbosch University, protests were centred on language policy and institutional culture. We took initiatives in all of these by ensuring that these institutions put up measures to confront and address these questions. We are pleased with the progress being made including, more recently, by the University of Pretoria on language policy.
The second difficulty was the #FeesMustFall campaign. A lot occurred including violent protests and damaging of institutional buildings, which is a new disturbing phenomena. It is a matter of record that government intervened on this fees issue and made available R2.3-billion to universities to compensate what students were going to pay as a result of fees increases. We also made available R4.5-billion to finance, through NSFAS, more than 71 000 students who owed universities because in 2013/14/15 they were either partially financed by an NSFAS loan or NSFAS ran out of money to loan them. We also made available R10-billion for NSFAS to give loans to all qualifying students this year.
There is a lot of emotion on all sides of the student uprising debate. Could you comment on the issues and the processes in order to provide greater understanding?
Students must understand that higher education is costly, not only in SA but internationally. However government is intervening to expand access, especially for those who are from poor households. Apart from the NSFAS, a lot of work has been done to address the students in the ‘missing middle’. These are students who cannot qualify for NSFAS funding because of household income but are also too poor to get any bank loans. A task team headed by NSFAS Chair Sizwe Nxasana is addressing the matter of accommodating these students.
The presidential commission on free education for the poor is underway and it will submit recommendations on modalities for implementation.
In light of the above, can you provide a glimpse of what our education system and its offerings might look like once we have worked through the current problems?
The future is bright for the SA higher education system. We are leading the continent and compete with the best internationally in terms of quality output in programme offerings and research. But the focus for government is expanding access for women and the poor, which has been unfolding well since 1994. We are now addressing a challenge that has resulted from success – that is student housing, which has become a challenge because of greater access.
What positives have come out of the student uprisings?
The positives of the uprising vary but notably, a presidential commission was tasked to look into funding options for the poor. There is extensive work going on to find ways and resources to provide financial support to students whose parents fall in the “missing middle”. These include nurses, police, clerks and others in private sector. Of course the more general positive is that more people begin to take interest in the real cost of education.
The private sector is slowly coming on board by way of pledging funds into NSFAS coffers and some are directly supporting students through bursaries and related means.
What role does the Department play in terms of students at risk?
The Department, through the Minister, had a dialogue with the Minister of Police. The agreement is that police should provide security during protests by way of ensuring property and lives are not lost during unruly protests. Students and others who seek to destroy property or intimidate non-striking students will be arrested and prosecuted for offences arising from their unruly behaviour.
What do you think we can look forward to in terms of education and which opportunities should we focus on for the greater socio-economic benefit of South Africa?
Opportunities in education, training and skills development have been multiplied and access has been expanded, particularly for previously disadvantaged individuals. We are rolling out 12 new TVET college campuses in select colleges across the country to extend reach into deep rural areas. These are areas that never had any form of a post-school institution so that youth could further their studies. Examples of such areas include Nkandla, Thabazimbi and Bhambanana. We have three new universities – taking the count to at least one university per province. We now have Sol Plaatje University in Northern Cape, the University of Mpumalanga and we have re-engineered the focus of the medical university in Pretoria, presently known as Sefako Makgatho Medical Sciences University.
Enrolments in universities has grown by 16% since 2009 whereas in TVET colleges enrolments grew by 67%. Enrolments from African and female students have increased significantly over the last six years. There are nine Community Education and Training colleges across all provinces. These colleges incorporate over 3000 former Adult Learning Centres accommodating people who could not access formal education and training in the past. The colleges will assist them acquiring a range of skills to enable them to seek employment or become self-employed.
Do you have any game-changing strategies or plans for driving education in South Africa forward in the coming years?
We have alluded to some of our strategies in earlier questions here but in we seek to firmly drive the following programmes:
We will continue to develop the university sector by expanding access and ensuring success through various support programmes. Programmes include student funding, accommodation, academic excellence, strengthening the research capacity of universities, training more academics, adopting a conscious bias towards academic and skills development for women, and thereby achieving transformation in universities and the broader education sector.
We wish to strengthen the capacity of colleges through improved infrastructure, better resources, well-trained lecturing staff and good governance to ensure that these colleges are reputable institutions of first choice.
Overall infrastructure funding has almost doubled in the last 10 years, moving from R3.6-billion to R6-billion in the current financial year.
We have aggressively increased opportunities in learnerships, internships, skills development programmes, ensured increased access to Africans and female students into the post-school system. We have dramatically increased financial assistance through NSFAS to almost R10-billion in bursaries and loans at an unprecedented rate of about 340% over the last six years.
We have a dedicated focus on career development through our Career Development Services that run a full-time programme called KHETHA.
We have dedicated funding within the National Skills Fund to provide financial support to students who pursue careers in scarce skills.