By David Masango
Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka says higher education is a national resource that is fundamental to the growth and development of a nation and its people.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the University of South Africa's (Unisa) main campus for this academic year, the Deputy President said it was imperative for higher education to develop and generate the qualifications, competencies and skills that the nation needs to drive its development agenda.
The event was also addressed by Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Barney Pityana and Chairperson of the Unisa Council Dr Mathews Phosa.
Dignitaries in attendance included Vice-Principals, executive management, council members, former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide and his wife Mildred, staff, students and other guests.
Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka emphasised the importance of universities to the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AsgiSA) and the Joint Initiative for Priority Skills Acquisition (JIPSA).
AsgiSA aims to achieve 6 percent economic growth between 2010 and 2014, as well as halve poverty and unemployment by 2014. JIPSA was formed to source and develop the critical skills required to achieve AsgiSA's goals.
"Where previously higher education institutions served as sites of relatively autonomous knowledge production that may or may not have been aligned to the countrys human resource needs, there is now an urgent call for those same higher education institutions to respond more specifically to national growth and development imperatives, especially as articulated in AsgiSA.
"While continuing to do the work of education and human resource development broadly, JIPSA must address specific challenges in the short term with the broad education framework set by the Department of Education and the agreed protocols with the sectors," the Deputy President said.
She emphasised that the country should work to achieve the kind of synergy that was required to advance JIPSA.
"How do we ensure that our higher education institutions fulfil their core mandate while contributing in a fundamental way, to the growth and development of our country?
"How do we ensure that Higher Education in South Africa contributes to the development of all-rounded, conscious citizens with the ability to participate in and add value to the culture and practice of democracy in society?" she asked.
She said these are some of the questions that should take priority during the course of the year the as the country continuously grappled with key issues pertaining to the role of education.
Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka explained that the Presidential Working Group on Higher Education had identified some of the challenges confronting tertiary institutions in South Africa today, including:
· Higher education in the context of Africa and the world;
· Higher education and social cohesion;
· The responsiveness and intellectual leadership of the higher education sector;
· The role of higher education in a developmental state
"The above points' criticality resides in the symbiotic relationship we are trying to forge between Higher Education and socio-economic development.
"As a developing country with challenges of inequality and poverty we do not have the luxury of producing graduates who are indifferent to the conditions of their society," she added.
The Deputy President said government needed to find a way of supporting more post-graduate students in critical areas in and out of South Africa and that e-learning at all levels must be seen as a critical opportunity to leap-frog to the 21st Century.
She said it was heartening that government's task team on education was receiving ongoing progress reports from all of the stakeholders in the education and training sector.
"One might feel tempted to say that higher education is coping quite nicely with both the demands for its core mission and the commitment to providing the necessary human capital for our socio-economic development.
"I must however emphasise the critical necessity for ensuring that the "skills revolution' is successful," she stressed.
Vice Chancellor and Principal Prof Pityana said the event provided the university's community with an opportunity to reflect on their achievements, articulate goals for the current year and reaffirm their commitment to the institution.
He said the Deputy President's presence at the event showed that government understood the role of higher education in realising the nation's aspirations.
Prof Pityana highlighted both the university's achievements and the challenges it faced.
He told the audience that 2007 promised to be a watershed year for the institution.
"Never before has Unisa been experiencing so many challenges from so many fronts, all of them integral to the successful functioning and growth of the new Unisa," he said.
He said the areas of service excellence and customer care; Information Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure and systems, and product range and academic review models were important and required ongoing attention.
The Vice Chancellor said the university was in the process of reviewing its institutional performance in all areas and to check what impact, if any, the process had on operations.
This year the university will also train its staff and ensure that all staff members enter into performance agreements by March.
Unisa has thus far recorded a 50 percent increase in registrations ahead of the February 8 closing date.