21 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Comments on the tertiary education green paper

South Africa’s Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande, in an article following his attendance at a universities conference in Havana, raised some very important issues for this country’s higher education debate – which, as he suggests, is completely moribund, from bottom to top.

The great irony is that he had to go to a country that has not had an election in 50 years to be stimulated.

In the Umsebenzi article, the minster’s main issues seem to be around the knowledge economy, neo-liberalism, internationalisation, sustainability and the country’s new universities.

The knowledge economy question

The minister and one of his bag carriers (ideologically and materially) have often raised the ‘knowledge economy’ question.

I think one can look at it in two ways.

The first is about whose knowledge and for what, which is a very political question that we debated often during the period of the National Education Coordinating Committee, NECC [an action group formed during the height of apartheid in the 1980s to wage the struggle for ‘people’s education’ and develop alternative education policies].

This is, of course, a very important issue, which is at the heart of redistribution. But my disillusionment with it was that those who endlessly engaged in this debate seldom produced any useful new knowledge themselves.

Second, and in contrast, at the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, CHET, the knowledge economy is used in the empirical sense: knowledge is now a more important component than capital or labour in production.

At the 2012 World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab, the CEO of Davos, said that ‘capitalism’ is an outdated term; it developed when capital was the most important component of production. He said that it is now knowledge and talent that are key – and suggested the term ‘talentism’.

The information technology revolution is informative. Both the rich and the poor need it – the former to become richer and the latter to escape poverty, according to renowned sociologist Manuel Castells.

What capitalism does, even in an African National Congress-Communist Party neo-liberal alliance, is to skew the usefulness of IT towards the rich. So the issue is not the knowledge, but who controls it (the old means of production issue) – after all, it is produced and used by both rich and poor.

CHET uses knowledge economy as code to promote mass participation in higher education, skills and innovation.

This is counter to the notion perpetuated by many communist regimes – Russia being the prime example – that wealth is not in the ‘head’, but rather under the ground. Minerals must be mined with low knowledge and cheap labour, and then transported across great distances for infrastructure projects that have vast payoff opportunities.

(Previously Africa shipped metals and minerals to the West and called it colonialism; now most of it goes to the ‘neo-communist’ East. Perhaps our children will call this anti-knowledge, or simple stupidity.)

But very important for South Africa’s draft Green Paper for Post-school Education and Training is that China has completely embraced the knowledge economy.

China has had the fastest growth in higher education enrolment in the history of humankind, and a growth of over 40% in PhD production in the past five years. By contrast, South African higher education student growth has stagnated at a 17% participation rate for the past five years, and PhD production has grown by a meagre 5%.


It could be argued that ‘neo-liberalism’ is the same category of concept as ‘transformation’. After visiting South Africa, Manuel Castells said that South Africans use these terms when they stop thinking and start making small talk.

Is ‘neo’-liberalism something like ‘neo’ communists, who now drive knowledge economy gas-guzzlers costing a million bucks, and some of whom even go to church? Neo-liberal is a very obfuscatory concept that contributes nothing to understanding South African higher education.


Internationalisation is totally misconstrued in South Africa, and the green paper reflects this.

Annalee Saskian from the University of California – Berkeley, did a study showing that 35% of all new knowledge innovation companies in California are started by ‘foreign’ East Asian and East European postgraduate students who had studied in the highly differentiated California university system.

In South Africa, internationalisation means two things.

One version refers to American and European undergraduates doing transformation tours to gain ‘community service’ credits. When my daughter was a student leader at the University of Cape Town, she had to put a quota on these ‘foreign’ students wanting to do ‘township work’ while trying to recruit more South African students who were less enthusiastic.

The second version is at the level of postgraduate studies. CHET has just produced data that show that in 2010, for the first time in the history of South Africa, more African students than whites enrolled for a PhD. But only 44% of the African students were from South Africa.

In our higher education studies in Africa masters course at the University of the Western Cape, we advertised for five masters students with scholarships of around R170,000 (US$22,600) each. We had 120 applications, and only one was from South Africa.

There clearly needs to be a serious discussion about internationalisation: on the one hand, how to ‘milk’ the ‘transformation tourists’ and, on the other hand, how to keep the brightest non-South African doctorates in South Africa.

The draft green paper is simply incomprehensible on this issue, which Minister Nzimande has correctly identified as very important.


The minister’s concern about sustainability is also spot-on. Cuba, where neither the economy nor the political system is sustainable, must have focused his mind.

At the United Nations COP17 climate change conference in Durban in December, it became clear to me that the future of higher education will have to be intimately connected to new knowledge production and a sustainable environment.

But it is disappointing that the green paper is so ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory, about new knowledge, and does not even mention the environment. The sciences, engineering and to some extent the medical sciences, are already into environmental problems big-time.

By contrast, the social sciences and humanities, which themselves face a sustainability crisis, have demanded a charter (Ministerial Committee on the Humanities and Social Sciences 2011).

But perhaps this is not surprising because a number of the ‘neo-charterists’ are those very same ‘no new knowledge endless debaters’ from the NECC period.

New universities

Lastly, to the issue of the three new universities: Northern Cape, Mpumalanga and the Communist University.

Soon after the announcement of Nzimande’s appointment as minister of higher education and training, at a meeting of a university council, Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, said that he had nothing against the minister but opposed a communist becoming education minister.

He said this was not about being anti-communist. Rather, it was because the central tasks of education are to transmit skills and open the minds of students, while the central project of communism – and Catholicism, one might add – is to close minds.

A consultant who participated in a feasibility study regarding the proposed Northern Cape University told me that there were not enough students with appropriate skills to make this sustainable.

A suggestion for the green paper, in order to bolster the numbers, would be to merge the new Northern Cape University with the Communist University and locate it in the disused buildings of De Beers on the site of the Kimberley ‘big hole’ with no diamonds.

This will provide material for endless debates, and it will also remind students that diamonds are not forever, and the knowledge economy (in CHET code) may be our future.

* Dr Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town. He is also extraordinary professor of higher education at the University of the Western Cape; visiting professor to the Erasmus Mundus masters programme in higher education at the University of Oslo; and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town. He has published widely in psychology, sociology and higher education policy.

* This article is a personal reflection and not a CHET position paper.

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