Better the devil you know ...

Gregarious Kader Asmal threw the university and technikon sector into a tailspin as the minister of education by merging them to create 23 institutions from the original 36. His successor Naledi Pandor inherited a multifaceted mess.

Apart from dealing with a school education system that was chaotically grappling with the new outcomes-based education curriculum, here was a disparate higher education system crawling out of the sewers of apartheid education.
She had merged institutions that had a myriad problems ranging from different institutional cultures to academic standards, physical infrastructure and staff qualifications; and universities of technology that are still searching for their rightful place in society.

Many of these problems still haunt the sector and will continue to do so for some time. Higher Learning columnist Belacqua aptly said two years ago that Pandor has played the role of “uber housekeeper”—she has allowed the higher education sector to consolidate itself without meddling too much, thereby respecting institutional autonomy.

While she recently lashed out at underperforming teachers and officials in the Eastern Cape, she has not been publicly critical of some vice-chancellors who equate their positions to dictatorships, running their institutions like medieval fiefdoms, making life unbearable for staff.

Instead Pandor has had a diplomatic approach, in some cases waving the big stick privately. Some VCs are now uncomfortable: splitting the education ministry into higher education and school education could mean having a minister who has time to meddle in their business. Fearful that SACP boss Blade Nzimande could become their new minister, a few VCs prefer Pandor staying on after the April elections. “Better the devil you know ...”

While little in terms of policy changes in higher education has occurred, a physical renaissance at institutions has unfolded: R3.9-billion in infrastructure and efficiency funds has been allocated to universities. The education department has rightly steered the expenditure with a bias towards historically black universities. These institutions have experienced such radical upgrades that they are starting to look like real universities.

While there have been complaints about the ring-fencing of these funds and the fact that not all universities received the same amount, what choice did Pandor have? The impact of the funding would have been lost if it was divided equally. A further R3.2-billion is to be allocated to universities for the 2010-2012 financial years, again to be used to help the higher education sector achieve specific national social and economic development goals.

While education analysts have moaned that this earmarked funding may not be used in the operational running of institutions, the public higher education system suffered a decline in government subsidisation from about 2000 to 2006 and universities have had to operate on tight budgets.

However, the sector is to benefit from R700-million extra in government subsidies over the medium-term expenditure framework and another R344-million has been allocated to keep tuition fee increases in check, thanks to Pandor playing a role.

These additional amounts could signal the start of a turnaround in the subsidisation of higher education. And if it is sustained in the next 10 years, benefits could be experienced in terms of graduate and research output.

She has been instrumental in getting more funding for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, thereby widening access to poor students, but a high student dropout rate remains a reality and low academic salaries have caused unhappiness. Pandor will be judged by the performance of this year’s intake of first-year students who wrote the first National Senior Certificate exam, which some critics said had low standards.

There were more students who got into university than previously, which saw the start of the “massification” of the system, placing a strain on teaching loads.

Having observed the work of three education ministers since 1995 (Sibusiso Bengu, Asmal and Pandor), I believe that the “school marmish” Pandor is the best of the lot. Although she is no fairy godmother who could fix all the problems overnight, she understands the plight of students and academics. She appears to have a good, functioning brain and the common sense to do more good in South African education. (Read: JZ, she should be retained as an education minister.)

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