Nzimande: we will not uphold the status quo

It is really a great pleasure to present this 2013 Solomon Mahlangu Lecture, one that the Centre for Education Policy Development has held annually since June 2006, when it was delivered by the then deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. 

It is very appropriate that such a lecture on education and training policy should be dedicated to the memory of Solomon Mahlangu, the young hero who forfeited his education and gave his life so that we may enjoy ours. 

The Centre for Education Policy Development was responsible for co-ordinating the development of one of the key documents in our educational history, the ANC's 1993 policy framework for education and training — the so-called "Yellow Book". 

Although it has become dated in some respects, the principles set out there are as relevant today as they were in 1993. These include the state's central responsibility for the provision of education and training, non-racialism, non-sexism, democratic participation, redress of historically derived inequalities, as well as "horizontal and vertical mobility" (that is, articulation) between various parts of the system. 

The Yellow Book also emphasised that the education and training system should be "planned as part of a coherent and comprehensive national social and economic reconstruction and development programme, including a national strategy for the development of human resources and the democratisation of our society".

Universities and development
Higher education has a crucially important role in realising South Africa's national development goals and transforming the social, political and cultural life of our country for the benefit of all its people. Universities are central to the production and dissemination of know-ledge and skills and therefore critical for economic development. 

Universities should also see themselves as an important component of the post-school education and training system, which includes further education and training colleges, adult education institutions, regulatory bodies, the sector education and training authorities (Setas), and workplaces in which training takes place. 

Academics and students, especially postgraduate students, have an important role to play in researching, analysing and critiquing the post-school system, evaluating how it is functioning and whether it is making progress in achieving its objectives. They should also engage in the policy debates around the education and training system as a whole to a greater extent than is the case now. 

Development priorities
However, development can mean different things to different people and the question is: What are the main development challenges at the current stage of our history? And also, what should be the role of universities in meeting them?

I believe that South Africa's most important objective at present is to overcome the triple challenge of unemployment, poverty and inequality. To do this, we must grow and develop our economy. I refer not only to the formal economy that must grow and absorb millions more into relatively secure employment; we must also recognise that millions of people still make a living outside the formal economy and that universities must find a role to play here too. 

In the struggle to eliminate the scourges of unemployment, poverty and inequality, universities have a particularly crucial role to play. They are equally important as institutions producing research and innovation, creating the knowledge that helps us to understand and shape our societies and our environment.

Transformation oversight committee
When we talk about transformation we should talk, above all, about changing our country to deal with the triple challenge. We do not only need economic growth per se, we also need to ensure that it takes place in such a way that we progressively eradicate unemployment and poverty and overcome inequality (and I include here, discrimination, which is largely a reflection of inequality of one kind or another). 

The term "transformation" is not a very precise one. In common usage, it has come to mean the elimination of discrimination based on race, gender, disability, religion, sexual orientation and so on. Last year, I appointed a transformation oversight committee whose focus is precisely on this meaning of transformation. The committee's terms of reference assign it tasks associated with eliminating unfair discrimination and promoting social cohesion.

Even this quite limited, if very important, initiative to bring about transformation has been criticised by sections of the university community. This criticism has largely been on the basis that the committee undermines university autonomy — in other words that it may prevent autonomous universities from discriminating. Maintaining the right of university leaders to "autonomously" hold sway over their institutions is, apparently, more important than the rights of students and staff to be protected from racist, sexist or other forms of unfair discrimination. 

Beyond the oversight committee
A more complete meaning of transformation would encompass the improvement of the quality of teaching and learning; the elimination of weak administrative systems; the provision of adequate infrastructure so that all universities can adequately meet their fundamental mandates of teaching, learning, research and community engagement; the expansion and improvement of research throughout the system; the expansion of access to university education to many more students; and so on. Transformation in this broader sense must inevitably be the aim of the entire system at national and institutional levels. 

Historically, we come from a system that had inequality at its heart, and universities were part of the repressive political system. Our people — and especially the black majority — made huge sacrifices for the overthrow of apartheid and the establishment of a democratic dispensation. 

Democracy has of course benefited all South Africans to some extent and provided formal, legal and political rights. A significant number have benefited economically. However, for millions of people, a lot more still needs to be done despite the huge improvements brought about by the ANC government. 

Our people have elected a government they legitimately expect should prioritise their interests and create conditions that assist them to improve their lives. One of the most important ways of doing this is through the provision of adequate, high-quality education and training in well-functioning institutions.

Although there has been progress towards the transformation of higher education, probably our biggest failure since 1994 has been our inability to ensure that the historically black universities, especially the rural, former Bantustan universities, get significantly more resources to invest in infrastructure and that they improve their management and governance as well as the quality of the education they provide. These should by now have become institutions that we can be proud of and that provide education of a quality that is equal to that of the best universities. 

I am afraid to say it appears that the quality of education and the conditions under which students and staff live and work or study has actually deteriorated at some — although not all — of these institutions. This is injustice towards their students, almost all of them black students from the poorest rural communities. And it is the duty of the state — working with other stakeholders — to ensure that these universities function optimally. 

In my experience, very often the reasons that universities — and not only rural universities — fail to perform at optimum levels has to do with corruption. Corruption is not necessarily because of corrupt leaders, but is at times because of weak leadership and systems that open the doors to corruption through of a lack of proper controls. 

Let me give just a few of the worst examples that we have found. At one university that was placed under administration, a forensic audit instituted by the administrator discovered large numbers of blank diploma and degree certificates in the offices of university employees. It can only be assumed that these were meant for the manufacture and sale of false qualifications. Another university had over 90 bank accounts with a number of different signatories. Clearly no one had control over the university's funds. 

At another university, the council insisted that it wanted to appoint someone as vice-chancellor who had a fraudulent PhD certificate. This situation, which could have had a seriously negative effect on the reputation of our entire higher education system, was only averted through government intervention. 

The Higher Education Act has always allowed for the minister to appoint an independent assessor from a list of suitable persons identified by the Council for Higher Education. 

The assessment made could lead to the minister appointing an administrator to temporarily take over the functions of the council or the university administration, or both. 

However, the Act's effectiveness was greatly reduced where an institution resisted the efforts of an independent assessor. Until the recent amendment to the Act, the legislation only allowed the assessor to make a recommendation based on evidence presented to him or her during the investigation. 

An independent assessor now has the right to enter any university building or other facility to conduct an investigation or assessment and to copy any documents relevant to the investigation. Previously, the independent assessor did not have the power to call a witness to give evidence in the investigation, even if the person had information critical to the investigation. This is remedied in the amendment. 

The amendment also provides the minister with the authority to issue a directive to university councils to take action where there are serious allegations of financial impropriety or mismanagement, or other reasons such as the council being unable to perform its functions effectively, acting unfairly or in a discriminatory or inequitable way against someone to whom it owes a duty under the Act, or failing to comply with the law. Where the council does not take action, and taking into account due processes, the minister may appoint an administrator.

As with the transformation oversight committee, the main argument against the amendment to the Act is the issue of university autonomy. I am not opposed to university autonomy, but it cannot mean that university leaders have the right to behave in a way that is prejudicial to the interests of students, staff and society. 

Motivations of those opposing transformation initiatives
The main reason my ministry is taking actions such as establishing the oversight committee and amending the Higher Education Act is to increase the capacity of the state to intervene and ensure that the interests of citizens and students, and especially those from less empowered sections of the society, are taken into account. 

Most critical voices come from the often elite groups that want to reduce the role of the state, not only in education but in all aspects of our society. Some are probably looking to benefit from corrupt practices, but the opposition is far wider than this. 

The agenda is not primarily an educational one but a political one; it is an agenda that tries to roll back the state or at least keep it from encroaching on privileged interests. It comes mainly from liberal groups that believe that the role of the state should be restricted as much as possible. 

This is largely a reactionary agenda that seeks to protect the privileged interests of the already advantaged. A minimalist approach to the role of the state in society can only result in the current social inequalities remaining largely unchanged. Unless the state is prepared to intervene decisively in all spheres of public life  to ensure that transformation takes place, then it will not. 

The free market inherently favours the strong and the privileged: it does not favour "one person, one vote" as a democratic political system does; it favours a system of "one rand one vote". And an educational system that has been part of a social structure designed to favour an elite will not change fundamentally without the decisive intervention of a democratic, people's state — even if the elite has partially changed its composition or colour. 

Progressive mass structures
It is therefore important for all progressive student, worker and academic organisations to grasp the threats to transformation. To tackle the triple challenge we need a fundamental reconfiguration of economic and political power in favour of the mass of our people. 

Today we are faced with a liberal offensive that seeks to minimise the role of the state so that the market can continue to reproduce racial, class and gender inequalities and protect many of the privileges acquired during apartheid. Some, though not all, of the resistance to the legislative amendments on higher education is informed by this. 

The liberal offensive is now also trying to use the courts to try to roll back transformation. Progressive forces cannot just fold their arms when this happens because many of these court battles are about contesting transformation. Our battles cannot be only in the courts, but must also be on the ground and in our institutions through mass mobilisation. We must effectively combine both our mass and state power to drive transformation. 

While we seek to transform the system as a whole, it is important that institutional mobilisation is intensified, but it should not be violent or destroy property. It must be progressive mobilisation to confront racism, sexism, unfair discrimination and "sex for marks" practices. 

It must be a struggle against outsourcing, labour broking and casualisation of workers in our universities. It should also be a struggle for a diversified social sciences curriculum that does not seek to impose a totalitarian, single idea that the market is the only solution to our problems and that the state is the enemy.

The state is not the only actor that promotes transformation. Our government seeks to co-operate with various social groups and organisations that share its agenda of transforming society and also to engage others to find common ground. 

And while we believe that there must obviously be limits on the powers of the state, we resist those who wish to see the state reduced to a protector of the status quo that is reluctant to intervene decisively in the interests of those who — like Solomon Mahlangu — have struggled for the (still incomplete) freedom that we now enjoy. 

Dr Blade Nzimande is minister of higher education and training. This is an edited extract from the Solomon Mahlangu Lecture, titled The Imperative for Accelerated Transformation in South African Universities, which he delivered on June 10

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