Challenges remain despite “tremendous strides” in varsity transformation


By Vivian Warby

Although "tremendous strides' had been made in transforming higher education institutions, much still remained to be done, said Deputy Minister of Education Enver Surty.

The deputy minister made this observation Monday in Cape Town, at the Centre for Conflict Resolution’s seminar on Transformation in Higher Education.

Mr Surty said there had been, in particular, "tremendous strides' in broadening access to higher education.

In 1994, he said, there were 495 000 students enrolled at these institutions. In 2005, the number had leapt to 734 000. This figure, said Deputy Minister Surty, was set to increase to 800 000 by 2010.

In addition, Government’s contribution to higher education has also gone up steeply from R20 million in 1994/95 to R1,2 billion in 2006.

This year the Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, upped that to R2,2 billion to support the university sector to meet its objectives of increasing enrolment and producing more science, engineering and technology graduates.

The education sector received the largest budget in this year’s national budget.

The number of black students at higher education institutions had also doubled since 1994, said Deputy Minister Surty.

The challenge now, he said, was to ensure that access equalled outcomes.

Mr Surty told BuaNews that only 22 percent of those enrolling at higher education institutions actually graduated after five years.

This low figure raised a number of questions, he said, such as whether institutions were giving students access but without a fair chance of output.

Deputy Minister Surty described the underlying reasons for low graduating rates as being "numerous and complex.'

"We are not satisfied with this (22% that graduate after five years). It is important for higher institutions to understand the legacy of the past and the cultural diversity,' the deputy minister said.

"We need dedicated teacher and learner development. We will not compensate those institutions that are not grappling with these issues.'

He said the road ahead for higher education institutions was as complex and challenging as that for schools.

"They are somewhat similar debates. The challenges speak to the nature of society - diversity, the legacy of the past and where to move forward to.

"We’re looking to institutions to recognise the challenges and bring about ethos change but not change the quality of higher education.'

The deputy minister went on to highlight the importance of higher education to the country’s economy.

"Universities are incubators for knowledge. They are knowledge generating. One of their purposes is to share knowledge and that is important not only for higher education but for the economy. "

In the 10 years since the implementation of the Education White Paper 3, as well as the higher Education Act, one of the most important moves has been the establishment of a single coordinator in the higher education system.

In 1994 there were 19 departments of education, and universities were split on racial, ethnic and language lines.

The deputy minister said better defined roles for councils, vice chancellors and other officials were now also needed.

Financial assistance would also possibly be broadened.

The department, he said, was also looking at reviewing assistance to students to include those suffering with "the same financial plight as the African'.

"In 1994 when we only had R20 million we had to reach out to the most disadvantaged - the African girl child from a rural area.

"We don’t want to exclude coloureds, Indians or whites who are of the poorest of the poor and, with bigger budgets, we are looking at reviewing our assistance to include those suffering the same financial plights as the African,' said Mr Surty.

Highlighting the importance of a synergy of government and stakeholders as well as effective and efficient structures, the deputy minister urged institutions, the private sector and citizens to work with the department to bring about new changes to transform the higher education sector.