One of Dr Blade Nzimande's first moves as South Africa's new Minister of Higher Education and Training was to institute a review of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, a step that heralded his concern with ongoing inequalities in the system and his intention to widen access to higher education for the country's poorest, mainly black students. It was also a sign that he intends to honour the African National Congress' election manifesto commitment to begin the process of providing free undergraduate study to financially needy students.
As Secretary General of the South African Communist Party, Nzimande is no stranger to being guided by political ideology and his discourse frequently reflects his revolutionary roots and his keen sense of a constituency.
To delegates at a December 2009 South African Students' Congress (Sasco) gathering, Nzimande described the higher education and training system as a reflection of "deeply interrelated contradictions of class, race and gender", as well as "a key terrain" upon which to confront these contradictions.
Political rhetoric aside, Nzimande's knowledge of this "key terrain" is not to be under-estimated. He has played a significant role in reshaping the apartheid-era education system, starting with his work in the late 1980s and early 1990s at the Education Policy Unit based at the then University of Natal. After the first democratic elections in 1994, Nzimande moved to Parliament where he was head of the select committee on education.
Now at the helm of a new department which amalgamates the government's entire skills development function together with universities, universities of technology and vocationally-oriented further education and training (FET) colleges, Nzimande says his core mandate is to create a "coherent but diverse and differentiated post-school education and training programme" anchored within the framework of a newly-adopted national human resource development strategy (HRD-SA) administered by his department.
Significant expansion of the post-school sector is on the cards to cater for the 2.8 million or more 18 to 24-year-olds which research funded by the Ford Foundation shows are neither employed nor in any formal education or training programmes.
While Nzimande sees access to universities increasing to some extent, most of the growth is set to happen in the FET sector, although the creation of new universities in Mpumalanga and Northern Cape is also on the cards. In recent weeks, Nzimande has said he expects enrolment in the country's 50 FET colleges to double in the next five years and institutional audits are planned for all of them, aimed at improving quality.
"Universities are only one of the post-school education and training options," he said on 13 January, shortly after the announcement of the 2009 school-leaving examination results, which saw a disappointing 2% decline in the overall pass rate. "We believe that colleges must become institutions of choice and will play a critical role in preparing young people for economic participation."
Despite the emphasis on growing and improving FET colleges, ministerial adviser John Pampallis said universities remain "very important", particularly in terms of their role in expanding opportunities for the higher education sector as a whole. He told University World News the department would be looking at ways to help universities to improve their throughput rates.
Since assuming office over eight months ago, however, Nzimande's major focus on universities has tended towards issues of equity and transformation. Transformation of these institutions is "non-negotiable", he says, and concepts of academic freedom and institutional autonomy cannot be used to frustrate transformation.
A higher education summit is planned for April, at which the idea of a transformation monitoring group will be mooted. Pampallis said the summit would take a wide-ranging look at transformation, focusing not only on issues of equity and discrimination but also on governance and curriculum development.
The minister is also concerned, he said, about the poor performance of university institutional forums mandated by the Higher Education Act of 1997 to advise university councils on a range of issues relating mainly to transformation.
The focus on equity has been noted by Dr Nico Cloete, Director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (Chet), a non-governmental organisation aimed at increasing transformation management skills in higher education.
Cloete said he is concerned by what he called the department's "back-to-1994" approach, which largely conceived of higher education as a tool for redress rather than as a critical agent for development.
"Rather than talking about national development and the positive role of higher education in development, they are seeing higher education merely as an instrument for achieving equity and democracy," he said.
Cloete said there had been very little encouragement for and support of the activities of successful research-led universities. "What [the minister] is not talking about is research at top-end universities. Rather, these institutions get criticised for not admitting enough black, poor students and for not being democratic enough," he said.
Compared with his predecessor Naledi Pandor, Nzimande's approach to transformation is a matter of emphasis rather than principle, according to Pampallis. "His tenure comes in the wake of the Soudien report and he [Nzimande] has a different political history and constituency," he said.
Commissioned by Pandor and published in May last year - the same month as Nzimande's appointment as minister - the so-called Soudien report, prompted by a racist incident at the University of the Free State and produced by a committee chaired by University of Cape Town education professor Crain Soudien, exposed the persistence of racism and other discrimination on South African campuses. The new minister had little option but to take the matter further.
But Nzimande's concern with access and participation rates is also evident in his proposal for a central applications system for higher education institutions and he has indicated he intends to meet with a range of professional bodies to talk about how to improve the numbers of black students entering professions such as accountancy and engineering.
In the face of some fears of a centralising tendency emanating from the ministry, Pampallis said there would be no day-to-day interference in the running of institutions and government's main instrument for influencing universities would likely be funding. "It's the minister's job to intervene, but it will be largely at the level of policy and there will be engagement with vice-chancellors and stakeholders," he said.
Pampallis admitted that Nzimande's SACP ties raised fears from certain quarters. This was evident when, amid concern from the official opposition Democratic Alliance, the minister announced his intention to review the current higher education funding formula, which he said perpetuates "apartheid-type inequalities in higher education", maintaining privilege in some institutions and keeping others perpetually disadvantaged.
But such thorough-going changes require people with expertise. For Cloete, a question mark hangs over the department's overall capacity to execute what is clearly a highly ambitious reform-oriented agenda, particularly in the wake of a recent exodus of senior staff.
"The minister is moving towards redress and enormous expansion of the sector, but he's put together a department without the skills or experience to support these plans," he said.
Cloete said this shortage of senior-level skills could frustrate the department's ambitions to steer the sector by means of a new funding formula. "As soon as you move away from standard formulas, you need capacity to implement and review these procedures. Increased steering, for example, could be seen to pose a threat to autonomy but it could also constitute a threat to the capacity to steer."
Double-edged swords notwithstanding, higher education watchers are in for an interesting ride over the next four years.
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