In the wake of the #RhodesMustFall movement, the minister is pushing for “urgent” demographic changes at the country’s universities.
Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has vowed to turn 2015 into a year in which he would “uncompromisingly” push for the transformation of the country’s universities.
Delivering his budget vote speech in the National Assembly on Wednesday, Nzimande laid out his plans to foster transformation at tertiary institutions.
“This year I will pay close attention to accelerated transformation in our universities, including setting concrete targets and transformation indicators. I urge the portfolio committee [on higher education and training] to do the same,” said Nzimande.
“I am also resourcing the transformation oversight committee to assist us in this regard,” he said.
The committee, set up in 2013 and headed by former University of KwaZulu-Natal vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba, has been criticised by academics for being ineffective.
Now it’s Stellenbosch’s turn
Nzimande said a higher education summit his ministry is convening later this year would also focus on university transformation.
“Some institutions have made substantial progress in transforming themselves, but others have lagged behind. Focused attention by all of us is required on this matter,” he said.
This contentious topic returned to newspaper headlines recently when the #RhodesMustFall campaign gained momentum at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Black students at the university, supported by sympathetic staff members, are demanding that it does more to transform.
Now that UCT’s Cecil John Rhodes statue has been removed, the new Open Stellenbosch movement is also campaigning for transformation at Stellenbosch University.
The group describes itself as a “collective of students and staff working to purge the oppressive remnants of apartheid in pursuit of a truly African university”.
Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, dean of the faculty of humanities at UCT, recently told a seminar that universities “fudge and skew” how transformed they are by citing international African academics in their statistics as candidates of redress, equity and access.
‘Failing the poor’
Nzimande described how he wants universities to transform: “Despite the significance of symbols such as names and statues, we must not conflate these with more fundamental matters of transformation.
“There remains an urgent need to radically change the demographics of our professoriate; transform the curriculums and research agendas; cultivate greater awareness of Africa; eliminate racism, sexism and all other forms of unjust discrimination; improve academic success rates and expand student support.”
Opposition parties took Nzimande to task on a number of bottlenecks they believe the government is failing to address, thus hampering most black people in accessing higher education.
Yusuf Cassim of the Democratic Alliance told Nzimande his plans are “destined to fail the majority of our people, particularly the poor and vulnerable.
“Your honourable minister and your department have become a curse and disease to the students of this country.”
Cassim decried that the allocation to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) will increase by less than a billion rand in the next three years. “This, while it is common knowledge that less than half of students who are financially needy can be assisted with the current budget,” he said.
‘Corruption’ in student financial aid scheme
The students’ funding situation is even “worse” at the Lovedale technical college in the Eastern Cape, according to Cassim. “NSFAS students have not received a single meal allowance, not just this year but the whole of last year.
“Those staying more than 10km away do not receive a transport allowance and many NSFAS beneficiaries were forced to pay an upfront registration fee at the beginning of the year.”
For Sipho Mbatha, an Economic Freedom Fighters MP, “the less said about NSFAS, the better”.
“No matter how you grow it, it still funds half the deserving students,” said Mbatha. “We need free education now.”
But the ANC’s Sibongile Mchunu blamed NSFAS’s inability to fund all qualifying students on the fact that university fees keep increasing above the inflation rate.
Nzimande said NSFAS has helped educate more than 1.5-million poor students to the tune of R50-billion since its inception as the Tertiary Education Fund of South Africa in 1991.
But “sadly, we have found evidence of corruption in the application of NSFAS loans and bursaries within the system”, said Nzimande.
“By the end of May 2015, a forensic investigation will have commenced to determine the depth of corrupt practices in the administration of NSFAS.”