/ 1 June 2012

From aliens to natives: Nzimande’s higher education demands

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande.
Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande.
Every university must have a dining hall, every university student should have an email address, and the provision of laptops to certain students would be explored, Nzimande told a dialogue series convened by the ANC at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus on Thursday.
At the event, which the Mail & Guardian understands to be part of an ongoing series of engagements with all sectors leading up to the party’s policy conference in June. 
Nzimande also addressed the burning issue of capacity at higher education institutions and the need to improve the quality of teaching at further education and training (FET) colleges.
The meeting, convened by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, was titled “The State of Higher Education in South Africa: Prospects and Challenges”. All 23 vice-chancellors of universities were invited – but only one attended, the University of Johannesburg’s Ihron Rensburg. Four other universities sent representatives.
Speaking about improving infrastructure at higher education institutions and the need to assist students who could not afford to buy their own food, Nzimande said there should be a dining hall at every university. 
“There are some universities that don’t have dining halls. Students don’t go to university to cook, they go to university to learn.”
Dean of the faculty of science, engineering and technology, at Walter Sisulu University Phinda Songca, said the “revolution in information and communication technology [ICT] brought competencies that can be appropriated by all sectors and have an enormous impact on society”.
‘ICT aliens to natives’
He recommended that higher education address ICT setbacks “so our universities, FET colleges, students and lecturers are converted en masse from ICT aliens to natives, and they will perform better”.
In response, Nzimande said: “if you are a university student you must have an email address and access to wifi”. He said the department was “considering” the idea that National Student Financial Aid Scheme of South Africa (NSFAS) students be given a laptop along with their textbooks. 
“We are just exploring that. Don’t say next year ‘where is it?’,” he said, to laughter in the auditorium.
Trying to accommodate all prospective students in higher education was “a big challenge for the state”, he conceded, and added that creative approaches to increasing capacity and expanding infrastructure were needed.
“We require multipurpose education centres. We need to find out for how many hours this campus is being used a day? If it goes silent after 3pm, what other programmes can be [adopted] here?”
Unisa must not be the only institution that offers long-distance education either, he said. Other institutions must offer it too.
Students and student leaders were also invited to the open forum. Comments and questions were encouraged, to which Nzimande as well as Mantashe responded.
‘A big problem’
Sakhile Buhlungu of the sociology department at the University of Pretoria said having “mega universities” with as many as 60 000 students and only about 1 000 teaching academics is “a big problem”.
“Look at the number of students who come to university underprepared from a troubled school system. Sometimes you find yourself with 500 students in one class. Some will lag behind and you don’t have time to give them extra teaching. A good 30% are going to be weeded out in their first year. This is just one of the implications of expansion.”
“If you’re going to pump up the [student] numbers without expanding teaching resources [you will have] a big problem.”
The biggest challenge is not just infrastructure expansion but increasing human resource capacity, Nzimande reiterated.
“We are looking at extending the retirement age [of lecturers] and getting people to come in part time. It’s not ideal but, that’s something we might have to do for a while.”
A UJ student who had friends and family at FET colleges said “unproductive lecturers” were one of the main reasons why these institutions had a poor reputation among prospective students. 
“Students at FET colleges who get good marks will then teach other students in the following year and they do this without in-depth knowledge and research,” he said.
‘Unemployed and frustrated’
An “unemployed and frustrated” UJ graduate spoke of “government talking about policies and plans but when it comes to implementation they are lacking”.
“Young people are getting an education with the help of NSFAS funds but the problem is that we are not given resources to start our own companies. We go to the National Youth Development Agency but we are told that government doesn’t give them enough money to help us to start our own businesses.”
In conclusion Mantashe encouraged attendants to “write more about what you think”.
“Intellectuals must come to the fore and claim their space and engage in ideas. We must read more and listen more.”
Any society without intellectuals is an extinct society, he said.
“We want to get a diversity of views in the newspaper. We want critical thinking and critical analysis in South Africa.”