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Address at the Beyers Naude Memorial Lecture,22 September 2005, Minister Naledi Pandor speeches


Address by the Honourable Minister of Education Naledi Pandor, MP, at the  Beyers Naude Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Kagiso Trust at the University of Pretoria

22 September 2005

“Access to Higher education: is it a right or a privilege?”

This is an unusual yet very appropriate approach to a series that celebrates the life of Oom Bey. He was a man who strongly rejected privilege and its companion benefits, and strongly asserted the importance of rights as an attribute of human security.

In the South African post-apartheid context there has been much attention to rights - correctly so, and very little affirmation of the important obligation of responsibility.

It is an accepted fact that greater opportunity to succeed must be made available to those previously denied such opportunity, and the new democracy has been committed to this. The fact that disadvantage was imposed and not a result of failed ability has introduced many complex dimensions to the challenge of expanding educational and other opportunities.

Furthermore, the racial character of the impact of disadvantage has added to the problems. In the area of access to higher education there have been divergent debates on rights and privilege. Certain organisations claim the right to free higher education primarily as result of poverty and the burden of the high cost of education at this level. Apart from a few academics, the call tends to be made by student leaders who are already in university. The demand is stated without any well-reasoned argument and with little distinction drawn between the ability to pay and inability to pay. Further, very little is said about merit or academic achievement.
While there may be a strong argument for focused attention to ensuring talented and able students are not denied opportunity, it is difficult to accept free higher education as an untrammeled right. Particularly given that we do not yet have free compulsory education for all.

The student organizations are not wrong in calling for greater access for the poor. Given our history it is obvious this must be attended to.

The privileged corner believes access for the poor adds a nuisance factor to higher education. Some of the commentators here are those who have been the beneficiaries of apartheid policy and who have forgotten that it was not always talent but opportunity that granted them a university place.

So, right or privilege, the issues are challenging but have to be attended to in order to address the human development tasks of South Africa.

All would acknowledge that universities are a core part of expanding opportunity and social justice. Any person who succeeds at university should enjoy far-reaching benefits. This is not always the case today, but a university degree raises your intellectual and social value.

South Africa is fortunate in having a public higher education system that is a national and continent-wide asset. Several of our institutions offer quality programmes, promote innovation and carry out research that sometimes ranks us among the best in the world. For many young people higher education qualifications have been a major factor in guaranteeing success and opportunity.

One of the matters we have to address as a country is the preservation and further support of acknowledged quality. We must protect our strengths in higher education and provide resources that support these. In other words, we need to strike the right balance between equitable access and responsive financial and other resources for higher education.
With respect to access we can assert some pride in South Africa’s achievements since 1994.

The number gaining degrees has doubled in the last decade. Completion rates for students are beginning to improve. More overseas students are studying here. Our research capacity is strong and sometimes even world class.

Widening access has also been one of the key thrusts of education reform since 1994. We have widened access and opportunity to those whose parents were excluded by decades of racial and gender discrimination. Headcount enrolment of female students in higher education has increased from 44% in 1994 to 53% in 2003, and black students account for over 72% of enrolments in higher education (only 64% in contact universities).

We have also removed the geo-political footprint of apartheid through the merger process in the further and higher education systems. In further education and training, institutional reform has been achieved with the formation of 50 colleges from 152 technical colleges, and 21 higher education institutions from 36 universities and technikons, some of which bring together historically black and historically white institutions. The challenge of all this is, of course, to create success out of these changes. 

Despite these positive developments, higher education in South Africa is confronted by a number of pressing cost challenges.

The first challenge is to ensure that tuition fees do not restrict access to universities. We have taken steps through NSFAS to provide state support to students, using primarily a model of deferred payment (“study now, pay later”) with the carrot of a loan transfer to a bursary for early and successful completion. In addition, the sector may benefit from the development of a national framework policy on university fee increases. But any recommendation in this regard needs to be part of our review of overall funding that is currently under way. While this is ongoing, I know that many are anxious about the cost of higher education and the extent to which increases in tuition fees prevent access to higher education.

The second challenge is to ensure that enrollment planning does not restrict access to the privileged few. We face hard choices on funding, quality and management. We know that universities are struggling to employ the best academics, because of the loss of academics to other systems and to the science councils. We also know that there is an investment backlog in teaching and research facilities.

There is a “golden triangle” of cost-sharing in higher education. We have to balance tuition and user fees against financial support to students and take into account population incomes. That is, the one point of the triangle offers the option of increasing unpopular tuition and other fees, which in turn tugs at the second point of the triangle that comes in the form of student support (grants, loans, exemptions), which in turn is determined, or should be determined, by the third point, which is the level of population income and purchasing power.

Over the past three decades, universities all over the world have witnessed both the rapid rise of enrolments and a declining contribution from tax-payers. There has been a political imperative to widen access so as to promote equality and development, and at the same time a shift towards student loans or the introduction of student fees where education had previously been grant maintained by the state.

There has clearly been a move away from higher education as the privilege of the few, where universities existed primarily, to quote Noel Annan, for the “cultivation, training and exercise of the intellect”.

This has been true of developing and developed countries. For example, in Kenya, enrolment in public universities rose by 400 per cent between 1987 and 2000, while government funding increased by only 30 per cent. Or in the UK undergraduate enrolment increased by 70 per cent between 1989 and the mid-1990s, while public funding for institutions per student fell by 25 per cent. As a consequence, the UK recently introduced student tuition fees. Even in China, students pay fees ranging from US$500 to US$2,600 in public universities, and these fees account for 21 per cent of higher education costs.

Over the last thirty years there has, throughout the world, been a decline in the commitment to mass public higher education, as state aid to students and state support for universities have been reduced; and university education has been largely refigured not as a public good but as a private investment in human capital. In the United States, this has led to a reduction in the numbers of working-class students in higher education and the effective end of affirmative action policies.

This decline in public commitment has also led to an international higher education system in which knowledge is increasingly a commodity. The flow of students is overwhelmingly from the developing to the developed world. Of the 1.5 million students studying outside their countries of origin, more than a third are in the US and the remainder in Europe, Australia and Canada. Our 40,000 foreign students are a small proportion of this group when set against these numbers.

Still some argue that the government has reneged on its commitment to widen access, to fulfill that hunger for education that our oppressed people have so clearly articulated. They point to what happened over fifty years ago when access to our higher education system was expanded to fulfill the aspirations of the white Afrikaner, only recently in power. The 1963 Steyn Report into higher education opposed more stringent admission criteria, contending that by “putting up the standards, potentially good white university material might be excluded from a university training and ... thereby the much-needed, trained manpower in the country might be limited”.[1]

However, familiar problems of drop out and failure followed. Only half the students in universities in the 1960s graduated. That was a revolving door. And the failure in the sciences was similar to ours today, with a familiar set of explanations - poor school preparation, and weaknesses in university teaching and learning. But government then did not recommend that admission requirements be tightened up. Quite the contrary. And there was no outcry about compromised standards. That was affirmative action for whites under apartheid.

However, it was a time of a laissez-faire approach to higher education.

And it was an irresponsible approach to higher education.

We are not going to repeat that history in an era of democratic transformation, when we are accountable for the spending of public money.

Moreover, contemporary pupil and student demography is vastly different to the apartheid period. In 1970, only 43 000 pupils passed the senior certificate; in 1990, 191 000 passed, and in 2004, 330 000 passed. The growth in university endorsements or university exemptions increased from 16 000 in 1970 to 60 000 in 1990 and to 85 000 in 2004.

There is a worry that the racial participation rate in higher education remains skewed, despite our best efforts to widen access. According to Servaas van den Berg’s reworking of DoE data, only 5% of each 18-year-old cohort of African pupils (820,000 in 2003) and only 7% of the Coloured cohort (76,400) earn a university endorsement. In contrast, the figure for whites is 36%, and 41% for Indians.[2]

It is important to remember the further education sector. The thwarted potential that exists can often be better fullfilled in the further education sector. Investment in further education is one of the most cost-effective ways of tackling the cumulative effects of our historical legacy of skills deprivation.

At the moment state support is heavily weighted towards higher education. We have begun to shift funds and attention towards further education. It is not a zero sum game in which we spend more on further education at the expense of higher education. But we have to do more in expanding access to further education if learning is really to be our engine of growth.

This is why our emphasis on skills is so urgent.

We have to move towards a measure of funding equity for post-school education, so that both further and higher education is affordable and sustainable.

We know that our student enrolment in higher education has grown too quickly over the past four years and that taxpayers’ money has not kept up.

We also know that the number of disadvantaged students in the higher education system increased over this period at a higher rate than that of students from advantaged backgrounds. The provision of the academic staff needed to teach these students grew at less than one third of the rate of increase in student enrolments.

This can no longer continue. We have to intervene to prevent a revolving-door syndrome.

We have about 760,000 headcount students in the system at the moment. In 2003 we had 718,000 (488,000 at universities, and 230,000 at technikons) and a sober projection is that by the year 2010 there will be close to a million.

In an attempt to attend to this pattern of growth the department will be initiating an audit and consultative process directed at the further development of an enrollment-planning framework. This will support the development of agreed student enrollments for each institution.

These discussions will be based on an analysis of the latest institutional data and, will include consideration of the role the sector can play in advancing national human resource development and innovation and knowledge production in higher education. Pending finalisation of this process, we will stabilise funding to the system through maintaining institutional shares of the state subsidy. Thus far there appears to be broad agreement that this framework lays the basis for a viable enrollment-planning model for the country.

It is somewhat obvious to state that the policies of our democratic state have provided the opportunity of higher education as a right to many and increasingly laid the basis for eroding privileged enjoyment of this. But, I think, as Chief Justice Chaskalson will explain, it is not an unqualified right and is subject to progressive realization and available resources and does not have first call on our tax-payers’ Rands.

[1] Quoted in Mokubung Nkomo and Salim Akoojee, “Back to the future”, Mail and Guardian, 7 September 2005.
[2] S. van der Berg, “School education and transformation”, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, 2004.

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Written By: Administrator Account
Date Posted: 6/30/2008
Number of Views: 730

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