Higher education still inaccessible

Sixteen years after attaining political democracy, South African higher education was still inaccessible to most potential learners because of a combination of hurdles, South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said as he opened the Stakeholder Summit on Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town on Thursday.

Motlanthe said it was troubling that a majority of students did not complete their studies but dropped out because they were not suitably prepared for university. "I also find it disheartening that research output in the natural and engineering sciences remains dismally low," he said.

"In this regard, how are we to address the reality that the research profile at most universities still does not reflect the country's demographics? Most importantly, how are we to address the question of who and what informs the research agenda?"

Motlanthe said the primary role of higher education was to develop people's potential and their capacity to contribute meaningfully to serving the needs of their families, communities and ultimately the nation.

The right of every young man and woman to education and training that empowered their lives was enshrined in the preamble to the constitution, he said.

"We need a catholic and integrated approach to tackle the human resource needs of the country. By human resource development we refer to the enhancement of people's skills levels, knowledge and abilities with the ultimate purpose of increasing their productivity in areas of work and improving the lives of their families and society at large."

It was imperative to increase the country's human resource capacity by producing high-level and scarce skills needed by the economy and for effective service delivery to the population, Motlanthe said.

"I am convinced that if we can reach a workable consensus on identifying the challenges and solutions to South Africa's education transformation potential, we would be better placed to respond to the five government priorities of education, health, rural development and land reform, creating decent jobs as well as fighting crime and corruption."

Referring to the announcement two weeks ago by archaeologists at the University of the Witwatersrand of the latest hominid fossils discovery, Motlanthe said this had once more "elevated South Africa to an international intellectual pedestal, giving further credence to Africa's claim as 'the cradle of humanity'."

"When we say government has identified palaeontology as a scientific area in which South Africa is uniquely placed to contribute to global knowledge, we say this for the simple fact that these discoveries practically symbolise and underline the unity - the oneness - of the people of the world."

"While there may be differences in culture and beliefs in people in society, we are bound by a singular ancestry to endeavour to realise the potential of all our people to fulfill their educational goals, irrespective of race, class or gender."

Motlanthe said there were other research areas where South Africa distinguished itself. But the output remained low and was "a far cry from what we are capable of producing". The readiness of universities to nurture researchers must be encouraged, he said.

South Africa was not adequately able to maximise its research pool, however, and was hampered in producing a social capital base needed by the economy.

Although higher education enrolments had increased since 1994 by 70% and the racial composition of student bodies had changed substantially, transformation in the tertiary institutions remained a major challenge.

"Broadly speaking, by transformation we mean a process that addresses the accumulated disabilities in our society, ranging from cultural, economic, racial and gender exclusions as they manifest themselves in numerous institutions and organisations."

But Motlanthe said that if South Africa failed to attend to the challenges of "holistic transformation", then freedom would have limited meaning for many of its people, "especially the poorest of the poor".