SOUTH AFRICA: Free education to boost skills levels?

A mismatch between the supply of and demand for certain skills needed by South Africa's labour market has led Deputy Minister of Basic Education Enver Surty (pictured) to call for extending provision of free education to cover students in further education and training and in higher education institutions - not just the compulsory seven- to 15-year-old category.

This was among key resolutions agreed to at a recent cabinet lekgotla - a gathering of key decision-makers in government - which focused on addressing the country's skills shortages.

A media briefing document released by the office of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga afterwards, and quoted on, reported that the lekgotla resolved to examine further the option of "extending the provision of free education to cover students in other years of study".

An additional measure considered was to cover the full costs of further education and training and higher education in the case of poor students undertaking studies in scarce-skill areas.

The briefing document stated that a ministerial committee chaired by businessman Cyril Ramaphosa "has been established to review the funding framework of universities and make recommendations thereon, taking into account the needs of universities over the next 15 years".

The committee will apparently also consider ways of improving the funding framework to ensure that rural institutions are strengthened and that historically disadvantaged students are supported within the system.

Professor Duma Malaza, CEO of Higher Education South Africa (HESA), agreed that there must be greater financial support to academically deserving students.

"The provision of free education whenever possible will assist in the production of the graduates needed for social and economic development in South Africa, especially with regard to ensuring equity in participation and success in higher education," Malaza told University World News.

He said that in addition to increasing the gross higher education participation rate, there was a need to grow enrolment in science, engineering and technology fields of study if the critical shortage of skills needed for sustained economic growth was to be addressed.

Malaza, whose organisation HESA represents the vice-chancellors of 23 public universities in South Africa, said actions needed to strengthen higher education included an urgent restructuring of the post-school education system and a review of the current funding formula.

"The post-school education system should provide a greater set of study opportunities for school-leavers than it does currently," he said.

Malaza was concerned that a large number of school-leavers cannot be accommodated within the present public higher education system.

He said this pointed to the urgent need for the development of a coordinated, flexible and differentiated post-secondary education system comprising all post-school institutions.

"The funding formula needs to be sensitive to the diverse mission and needs of the higher education system. It should enhance the international competitiveness of the system's research efforts, strengthen the pipeline for the production of the next generation of researchers, and enhance the sector's innovation capacity and capabilities to contribute to national economic and social development," Malaza said.

The skills lekgotla supported the call for more efforts to promote research and development in higher education institutions.

And those who have graduated were urged to pay back their student loans to free up funds to be used to support others.

Surty suggested that support for postgraduate students by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) was key to developing a new generation of academics.

Speaking to University World News Bonny Feldman, the NSFAS communications and development officer, confirmed that as of 2011 the NSFAS had started providing financial aid to postgraduate students.

She said the applications and awards process for postgraduate student funding was the same as for undergraduates, with applicants being required to work through the university financial aid offices, which allocate funds to eligible applicants.

The funds are loans and must be repaid when the student begins working one day and earns a minimum of R30,000 per annum, Feldman said.

Another area on which the lekgotla focused was the need to strengthen and reposition the public service sector education and training authority so it could play a more effective role in skills training for the public service, with a stronger focus on workplace experiential learning.

Said Surty: "The intake of interns into the public service, municipalities and state-owned enterprises should be expanded, while the training within the public service as the largest single employer also needs to be fully utilised."