Dear Minister Nzimande ...

... we have produced a to-do list to point you in the right direction and raise alarm bells as you settle into your new portfolio

You should be a worried man. Where are next year’s first-year students going to be accommodated?

‘Massification” occurred this year and many universities are bursting at the seams.
Universities could not accommodate all the 2008 matriculants who achieved university passes because their renovations were not complete.

Is there going to be enough space for first-years in the next five years?

The education ministry targeted a student intake of 820 000 by 2010 and this year’s increased intake of first-years (owing to more students than expected passing core maths) means that figure is close to being achieved. If you allow overcrowding at existing universities, the quality of education will be compromised.

What is your plan for higher education?

What student growth figures do you have in mind and how is the job sector going to absorb an increase in the number of graduates?

Is the ministry going to spend billions in the next six months to build new universities and find the academic staff to teach at them?

Private providers
Your predecessor, Naledi Pandor, alluded to collaborating with private providers of higher education and even providing government loans for students to study at those institutions. The education department has done a wonderful job stamping out the fly-by-night institutions that dogged the system in the late 1990s. It has been stringent about the criteria private providers have to meet to gain registration and accreditation and many are now offering good qualifications. Now is the time to collaborate with them, or you could undermine achieving your mantra:—‘access to education”. Institutions such as Vega, Monash South Africa and St Augustine College are offering niche programmes and their quality and standards could shame some of our more established public universities. Capitalism rules: competition in the market place is good and gone are the days when traditional universities could rest on their past reputations.

Funding failures
It’s easy to massify the higher education system, but access must be coupled with success. The government is funding too many failures and drop-outs: 50% of students who enter the system either fail or drop out as they cannot cope or they lack the financial means to continue. This madness is unsustainable. Universities are overloaded with their core function—teaching and research—and it is unfair to expect them to fix the inadequacies of the school system by introducing a four-year undergraduate degree. But if the four-year degree is the only solution, you need to ensure that academic staff are paid better and that their research time is not infringed upon by assisting first-years in bridging courses. Otherwise, you will not have many academics left. It is obvious the higher education and training sector is haemorhraging academics to the private sector. The government has to improve the salaries of academic staff as well as lecturers in the further education and training sector. The crisis isn’t on the horizon—we are in deep kak. History will judge you on how you handle this nightmare.

It would make sense to interact regularly with vice-chancellors and to understand the complexities of the institutions they head. Some of the universities of technology (UoTs) are wannabe top research institutions—their VCs even earn more than some of the heads of top research-producing universities. But they lack the staff to supervise masters and PhD students. Despite appeals by Pandor for them to engage in ‘positive differentiation”, some are clinging on to the idea of being research universities. They forget that differentiation occurs when the department of science and technology and the National Research Foundation fund research chairs at some institutions and not all. VCs of some of the UoTs need to get real and to have their butts kicked: if the government mandates their status as UoTs, they should behave like UoTs and serve the technological needs of society. And they should avoid duplication. Duplication of programme offerings contributes to academic staff shortages.

It is great that you propose that vice-chancellors be held responsible for transformation and this should be included in performance management contracts. Are you going to provide ringfenced funding for transformation projects and to help former Afrikaans universities to pay the millions they need to implement multilingualism? Doing this will hold them accountable for their actions. There are some vice-chancellor who believe that because they are black African, their institutions need not continue with employment equity initiatives. They take very little interest in transformation. Such VCs do not understand their role as CEOs, or they are terrified of transforming too quickly and upsetting the alumni, whom they rely on for third-stream income. It’s easy for them to blame the human resources department for questionable appointments.
(Note to VCs: as head of the institution, you actually CAN change systems and you CAN surround yourself with people who can get the job done.) Some universities have not bothered to submit employment equity plans and reports to the labour department, despite this being a legal requirement. They ‘forget” to do so because their performance is not pretty. It should become compulsory to submit these documents to you and organised labour.

Ban initiation
Although the 1996 Schools Act of South Africa banned caning a schools, it makes perfect sense for you and Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga to revisit legislation and ban all forms of initiation at schools and universities. The Crain Soudien report recommends this ban for university residences and the Parktown Boys’ High debacle is proof that it’s time to get rid of it in schools. This will save the education system a lot of trouble. Sanctions for this behaviour should be harsh. VCs and school principals should be held accountable for such transgressions. The past two years have seen an increase in government subsidisation of universities. This trend needs to continue for real change to be realised in terms of graduate and research output that meets our human resources needs. The eyes of the local, African and international academy are on you. Fifteen years into democracy means there is no room for fumbling or mistakes.

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