No money for more students

Although Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has publicly announced plans to grow the further education and training (FET) vocational college numbers from 400 000 to a million in the next five years, Higher Learning has learned that senior education officials have been telling colleges not to grow their student numbers because the government cannot fund the mooted growth.

The effect that financial constraints are having on the intake of FET students was confirmed by newly appointed Director General of Higher Education and Training Mary Metcalfe in an exclusive interview with Higher Learning.

Metcalfe said: “It is the intention of government to grow FET enrolment—this is clear in all major policy statements of government. However, this expansion is expected in challenging fiscal conditions. The budget allocation for 2010-2011 is way below what is needed for the expansion hoped for in 2010.”

This is an edited version of the interview with Metcalfe:

What do you want to achieve as director general of higher education and training?
A significant improvement in the efficiency, reach and quality of the post-school education and training system for young people and adults—and that includes innovation and knowledge creation.
We have to build an administratively and intellectually strong department that is driven by a strong policy research and monitoring capacity and enjoys respectful and robust relationships with its partners and stakeholders which must provide strong leadership. The most critical period ahead is to make sure that we are able to appoint creative, energetic and rigorous leaders at the level of deputy director general in the subsystems of colleges and skills development.

The first national plan for higher education was produced in 2001 and university student numbers are almost at the 820000 target. When is the sector going to get a new national plan for higher education?
The enrolment target for 2010 is on track and the department is working closely with universities for the next cycle beyond 2011. The department will embark on a review of the performance of the system and needs to assess the national plan and, in particular, the performance targets outlined in the plan. In this regard, due cognisance will be given to the mandate of the new department of higher education and training, in particular the role of the universities, government’s medium-term strategic framework and long-term human resource planning, the outcome of the current (2005-2010) and future (2011-2016) student enrolment planning.

Vice-chancellors have had an uneasy year not knowing what to expect from the newly created department. What relationship can they expect with you?
The department has an excellent relationship of mutual understanding and respect of respective mandates, roles and responsibilities. I am not aware of any anxiety expressed by the leadership of our universities. On the contrary, in meetings that the minister and the department have had with Higher Education South Africa, which represents all university leaders, the sector has expressed commitment to working with the department.

You indicated that University of Free State vice-chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen’s act of dropping charges against the Reitz Four was fundamentally flawed. Is the department interfering in institutional autonomy?
To criticise publicly a decision of a university is an open invitation to a discussion. This has been the spirit of my engagement with Professor Jansen. I look forward to receiving his report and considering his responses to our questions, which have been made publicly available. It is not my understanding of institutional autonomy that universities cannot be criticised or engaged.
That is inconsistent with the essence of the academy. I also expect that universities will criticise and engage the department.
The more this debate is in the public eye, the more the rationale for our decisions will be interrogated and the more we will all learn—including the department. Public debate also means that we will be more accountable for the positions we take.

Universities will receive ring-fenced funding of R3,2-billion during 2010-2012 for projects including student accommodation and upgrading of facilities in health sciences and engineering. Will there be more ring-fenced funding in the future?
Government has in the last period continued to increase investment in our universities, in recognition of the important role they play. Up to 2009 an amount of R3,855-billion was invested for improving academic infrastructure and efficiency of the system.
The investment for the period 2010 and 2011 will see a continuation of this investment, particularly to support institutions in responding to the need to increase enrolment and output in targeted scarce and critical skills. The department will continue to invest in our universities, subject to available resources.

The FET sector is plagued by dismal learner performance and high absenteeism and millions of rands in the form of bursaries have been thrown at it. How will you address this?
Improving teaching and learning in both the college and the universities subsystems is a priority. We need differentiated interventions that are well informed to respond specifically to challenges at both the individual and systemic levels. We are close to finalising a rapid audit of governance and management of FET colleges. Organisations in the sector are going to be crucial in assisting us to develop concrete and targeted plans.

The FET sector has the wrong image of comprising institutions that “lower-class” youngsters attend, when it has been recapitalised by nearly R2-billion and some of the programmes look impressive. What is the strategy to change this perception?
Colleges must be “cool” institutions of choice. Changing perceptions will be a function of both education (some might say marketing) and demonstrating the worth of the sector.
We have to show that colleges are relevant, provide quality education and training, have strong links to industry and employment or to viable entrepreneurship and are a route to ongoing education. They must be vibrant social and intellectual spaces.
The imbalance between university and college enrolment has to be reversed. These are huge and urgent challenges, but the restructuring of the college sector from a provincial to a national function during 2010 will mean that the department will not be able to drive towards these goals as firmly as we would like. We will need to work with organisations to provide leadership during the transition.

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