There is increasing evidence that high levels of educational attainment contribute to global competitiveness and sustainable socioeconomic development. This has resulted in a number of countries placing higher education at the core of their development strategies.
In this context, one may legitimately ask how South Africa measures up and whether the government's National Development Plan (NDP), released in 2012, articulates the role of higher education in contributing to achieving the ambitious goals and targets outlined for 2030.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2013 Economic Survey asserts that South Africa is failing to achieve its considerable potential because of persistently high levels of unemployment and inequality.
In his new year's message to the nation, President Jacob Zuma pointed out: "We have a long road to travel to prosperity … [T]he comprehensive National Development Plan … outlines the type of society we should be in 2030, where all will have water, electricity, good health, libraries, good schools, roads, good hospitals and clinics, safety and security, recreational facilities, a growing economy and jobs. Government alone cannot build that type of society, but will need to work with people from all walks of life to find solutions."
The NDP openly acknowledges that the triple challenge of overcoming poverty, unemployment and inequality can only be achieved by uniting South Africans of all races and classes around a common programme to promote more inclusive economic growth.
The NDP's vision puts education, training and innovation at the centre of South Africa's long-term development, stating specifically that "inadequate capacity will constrain knowledge production and innovation unless effectively addressed".
The NDP says the three important roles for higher education are to:
• Produce new knowledge and discover pioneering innovations to respond to pressing societal challenges;
• Educate and train high-level human resources for a wide range of employment needs in the public and private sectors, while simultaneously equipping pupils to be job creators and entrepreneurs; and
• Contribute to democratic consolidation by strengthening equity, promoting social justice and advancing an active citizenry.
But in international comparative terms, South Africa is not performing well in respect of producing new knowledge. In a 2011 background paper for the National Planning Commission, Nico Cloete and Nasima Badsha wrote that South Africa's entire higher education system produced just over 9 000 Institute for Scientific Information research publications in 2010 — compared with the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, which produced 8 200.
Added to this, South Africa has about 1.5 full-time equivalent academic staff per 1 000 employed, which is significantly less than countries that have a similar ratio of research and development spending to gross domestic product (GDP), such as Portugal (4.8) and Italy (3.6).
The NDP also aims to produce 100 doctoral graduates per million of the population, up from the current 28; and to increase PhDs among academic staff to 75%, compared with the current 34%.
When contrasted with the NDP targets, it is clear that we need much higher levels of investment.
It is worrying that, although the NDP embraces innovation as the basis of future competitiveness, South Africa's level of research and development investment of 0.87% of GDP is significantly lower than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 2.3%.
Nationally and internationally, there is increasing pressure on higher education to enhance the employability of graduates by ensuring that curricular and co-curricular activities that form part of the student experience contribute to inculcating the knowledge, skills and attributes that graduates require to function optimally in a rapidly changing society, continent and world.
Such attributes are often called "soft skills" and include critical thinking, adaptive expertise, problem solving and effective interpersonal skills.
Unemployment levels in South Africa are high, particularly among youth. In 2013, the official unemployment rate was 25.6%. If discouraged work seekers are included, this increases to 38.4%.
The recently launched White Paper for Post-School Education and Training indicates that the unemployment statistics demonstrate the value of an education in that the highest unemployment rate (30.3%) was among those without a grade 12 school-leaving certificate or equivalent, whereas the unemployment rate was only 5.2% among those with a university qualification.
With almost 50% (3.2-million) of the 18- to 24-year-olds in South Africa not in employment, education or training, increasing higher education participation rates and enhancing graduate employability remain perennial challenges that will require a collaborative response from higher education, industry and the government.
Given the diverse schooling backgrounds of university students in South Africa, focused intervention is required to ensure the best chances of success, through effective teaching and learning, academic support and mentoring programmes. This is especially significant in an attempt to improve the graduation rates of South African universities.
These rates remain unacceptably low, and the target the NDP sets amounts to increasing the total number of graduates from the current 167 469 to 425 000 by 2030. This could be regarded as extremely optimistic if one considers that the undergraduate graduation rate improved by a mere 3% between 2000 and 2010.
Finally, higher education has an important contribution to make in promoting democratic values, social justice, redress and a culture of civic agency. These ideals can be achieved through socially responsive university curricula, teaching practices, and knowledge generation agendas.
Universities should also serve as models for democratic participation and inclusiveness through their own institutional cultures, structures, processes and practices. This will, in many instances, require universities to embark on a journey of transformation to foster enabling and humanising institutional cultures in which diversity is affirmed and celebrated as a precondition for excellence.
It is therefore clear that revamping the education system in its totality may well be the most critical aspect of the NDP and will, to a large extent, determine whether the other priority areas succeed in the long term.
By 2030, South Africa needs an expanded higher education sector that is able to contribute meaningfully to the development of high-level human potential, and enhanced competitiveness through a shift to a more knowledge-intensive economy.
To achieve this, funding and quality improvement arrangements need to be clearly articulated in government policies and programmes to ensure that implementation strategies are sustainable and yield the desired outcomes in building a better life for all. The challenges we face as a nation require a concerted, collective and co-ordinated effort by all role players.
The question is: Are we ready and willing?
Professor Heather Nel is senior director of institutional planning at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University