It has become almost trite in South Africa that, each year, as the academic calendar commences, student strikes become the dominant feature because of the inadequacy of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande is on record as saying that the scheme cannot satisfy the ever-growing demand for financial assistance.
The government is doing its best through the scheme to ensure that more poor students can pursue tertiary education.
This year alone, the government contributed R9.5-billion for the benefit of at least 200?000 at technical and vocational education and training colleges (TVET) and 205?000 at universities. They would never have entered the system had the scheme not been in place.
The stark reality is that our fiscus cannot fund free higher education and training. The government has many pressing social delivery needs that it cannot relegate to the back burner. NSFAS is the single biggest contribution the government can make.
The department has called for the private sector to make its own contribution to the challenge of financing higher education and training.
We recognise and appreciate the role that some companies play in the skills levy training regime, we recognise that some companies have bursary schemes and we also recognise those companies that have responded to the minister’s call to build partnerships with
the training colleges to produce critical skills.
But all of this is not enough to meet the country’s educational challenges. The corporate sector, in general, has been a bystander when it comes to funding higher education and training.
South Africa is a middle-income country but has acute cleavages between affluent and indigent communities. In 2013, 472 predominantly South African companies were listed on the JSE with a market capitalisation of $182-billion. A cursory glance at the top 40 index shows the financial sector was dominant, with 41% overall, mining with 19% and tele-communications with 13%.
European countries such as Germany and Switzerland lead the way, with companies making huge investments in especially vocational education to meet industry needs. For them, investment in education
is a sine qua non for business sustainability. They have perfect internship systems to absorb graduates into the workplace.
We, as a country, are already beneficiaries of German companies doing business in South Africa and training our young people.
The minister has just returned from Switzerland where he had engagements with the secretary of state to strengthen the working relationship between the two countries on education and training. Our bilateral relations in this regard are guided by high-level consultations established in 2008.
The major contribution has been the Swiss-South Africa Co-operation Initiative, a public-private partnership involving a dual apprenticeship system working through Swiss companies trading in South Africa.
It is against this background that it must been seen that the responsibility for funding higher education and training cannot be a government responsibility alone.
Business Unity South Africa, the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Black Business Council and other organisations should mobilise their industries to help develop a funding mechanism for higher education and training that goes beyond the skills education and training authorities (Setas).
The Setas should be the link between the TVET colleges and industries, playing a facilitative role for the development of skills.
There is a strong relationship between a skilled society and sustainable economic growth for the nation. The absence of the former inhibits the possibilities of the latter.
Interventions in education should be seen as a long-term solution to resolve the skills issue. They must be seen as a long-term investment in human capital and the economy – and are also a medium- to long-term solution to the frightening numbers of those dependent on the government for social grants.
For the private sector, this corporate social investment may constitute one of its greatest contributions to our future.
Education and training is a great leveller, with which a winning nation can be achieved. That requires commitments in real terms from both the government and private sector.
Khaye Nkwanyana is the media liaison officer for the minister of higher education and training