Higher education is at critical juncture – Blade Nzimande

We want universities to become African, minister tells Higher Education Transformation Summit


15 October 2015

The programme Director, DG and thank you for the introduction,

Minister Pandor and Chair of ANC NEC Sub Committee on Education and Health

The Deputy Minister, Mduduzi Mañana,

Premier of the Province, Mr Senzo Mchunu and thank you for your kind welcoming remarks,

Cnllr James Nxumalo, Mayor of eThekwini,

The Chair of the Portfolio Committee, Mam Phosa and Members of the Committee,

The Chair of Select Committee, and Select Committee members,

Universities Chairs and Vice Chancellors present,

A special thank you to Prof Bawa and his team for working with my department to pull together this Summit,

SETAs present,

College representatives,

CEOs and Chairs of Quality Councils

National and Provincial Alliance leadership,

Our Education Alliance stakeholders,

All student formations present,

My Special Advisors

My special guests (former advisor Mr Pampallis)

University Management

Government Officials and officials in my Departmental

Ladies and gentlemen,

Members of the media

Good morning.


Let me begin by warmly welcoming everyone who has taken the time to attend this 2nd Higher Education Transformation Summit, which takes place at an important moment for South African higher education. The aim of the Summit is to bring together you, key stakeholders, for a critical dialogue on transformation in the higher education system. This Summit is the second, following the 2010 Higher Education Summit that took place at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.


Introductory words

Since the first Summit, there have been many changes in institutions and in the system as a whole that we should reflect on and exchange views about. We also need to take stock of the current situation and share ideas on what goals we should set ourselves for the future.

There are many different views about the nature of transformation and the pace of change over the past 21 years, but there are few who believe that we have done enough.

In the past few months, social and political activism have placed universities in the public eye, and rightly so. There are high levels of frustration experienced by our students and staff, due to the areas in which change is not taking place, or is taking place slowly, as well as being related to more general frustrations about the economic development and transformation of the country. In some instances this frustration has expressed itself in unacceptable manners. I acknowledge and empathize with the frustrations of all university stakeholders, and hope that we can channel some of the energy constructively in this Summit, to better understand each other, and to develop ways of working together to build our system.

I also want to appreciate the exciting and dynamic debates that are taking place on our campuses. Almost every day, on one of our campuses around the country, there is a seminar, debate, or roundtable on transformation, decolonization, or Africanization. Social media platforms have also been inundated with exciting critiques, new ideas, and dynamic programmes for transforming our institutions.

Summit aims

Clearly, this is a critical juncture for our higher education system. This Summit aims to give space to a wide range of voices, to build, where possible, consensus, or at least better understanding on where we disagree and how to disagree, and what the priority areas are which we collectively need to address. There is a wide range of higher education stakeholders present today. University representation includes representatives from the governance and management structures, as well as a significant student and staff component. Relevant government departments, statutory and non-statutory organizations, civil society organizations, research organizations and unions are present. This is your opportunity to engage on the accelerated transformation of higher education.

The Summit will provide the space for re-imagining higher education transformation, tackling the difficult issues that are currently explosive on our campuses, and building a vision for what a South African university should look like today and in the future. I am hoping that delegates will reflect on questions such as:

-What would a transformed higher education sector look like?

-Where are we as a sector with regard to transformation? What have been the gains, and what are the pressing issues that must urgently be addressed?

-What actions need to be implemented in order to address the issues?

-How do we determine whether the sector is making progress in addressing these issues?

As a starting point in addressing these questions, we need to assess what has been achieved and highlight areas where we need to do much more work.

Policy framework

Honourable Deputy President, colleagues, the White Paper on Post-School Education and Training, adopted by Cabinet in November 2013, provides a strategic framework for all policies and plans of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and identifies major priorities. It lays out a vision to fundamentally restructure and transform the South African post-school system of education and training.

On the basis of the White Paper, the DHET has embarked on a process to develop a comprehensive and integrated national plan for post-school education and training, and the summit is intended to assist that process. The university sector is a crucial component of the post-school system. But it is not the whole system. And while there are serious problems experienced by students and lecturers in the system, I hope you will remember that universities are in most cases the most privileged and most developed sections of the post-school system. Our college students, both TVET and the fledgling community colleges, as well as academic and support staff in these institutions, face more difficult conditions and greater challenges than most universities, and we need our universities to play a major role in building and supporting this system as a whole. Of course this is also in the self-interest of universities, as they will be better off as part of a well-functioning broader post-school system in which university education is not the major route of study for most students. So, while this Summit focuses on the role and functioning of the universities, we should always keep in mind in our deliberations the post-school system and the universities’ role within it. The role of the universities must be considered on the basis of the education system as a whole and of wider society.

Let’s clarify what we mean when we use the word “transformation”. Much has been said about this term of late, with some student groupings as well as academics arguing that it is time to abandon it, in favour of terms such as decolonization. This Summit is focused on transformation, and we must acknowledge that it is a complex and multi-dimensional term and continue to interrogate its meanings. We understand higher education transformation as part of the transformation of the entire education and training system and especially the post-school system, within a larger project to transform South Africa as articulated in the National Development Plan and other policy documents of the South African government. This is why the Summit theme is “transforming higher education for a transformed South Africa”. The term “transformation” refers to a profound and radical change. In South Africa as a whole it refers to such change from the apartheid system to the type of democratic and equitable society that is envisaged in the Constitution in all aspects of life, including the political system, the law, the economy, housing, internal relations, healthcare, education, and so on. The tasks to deepen democracy and advance social transformation include building a democratic developmental state that is capable of intervening in the economy to reduce inequality and poverty and carry out other democratic functions expected of it, including fighting crime and corruption successfully. They include re-industrialisation, diversifying and raising levels of production, and creating decent jobs.

Taking this broad perspective on transformation, let me briefly consider where we have come from and take stock of our achievements as well as our shortcomings, considering how the environment has changed and to what extent this has required us to rethink or sharpen our goals and strategies.

Achievements since 1994

Our university system does not look anything like the racially and ethnically divided system that we had in 1994. The demographic profile of students at the former white, coloured and Indian universities has changed considerably and many African students and others from poor and working class families have gained admittance to opportunities that were formerly unavailable to them. The proportion of African students in universities has increased dramatically from 49% in 1995 and is estimated to 72% at present, and shows steady and considerable progress since 1994 towards something closer to the demographics of the country. Women, who were previously a minority, now outnumber men in higher education, although many disciplines remain either male or female dominated.

Many poor, particularly black, students have been beneficiaries of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. Universities have introduced innovative programmes including new curricula and academic development and student support programmes. A few excellent programmes have been introduced to support the development of black and female academic staff. Universities have demonstrated seriousness about tackling the issues of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.

As the figures in the discussion documents presented to this Summit demonstrate, in the past 21 years we have dramatically increased the rate at which we are producing black and women graduates in a wide range of fields. Research output has increased enormously, and much of it has raised our profile internationally, and contributed to cutting edge debates and analysis of the problems in various aspects of the natural and social world. Our institutions have also played a positive role in society by increasing engagement in research, initiating and playing leadership roles in important public discussions, supporting students, and engaging with communities.

We have increased the number of international students in our institutions as well as partnerships between our universities and others around the world. Relationships between countries aren’t just about trade, or governments and leaders; they’re about relationships between people. International partnerships are critical in the sharing of ideas and learning from the experiences of other countries, and in this light I am very pleased that my friend and colleague Dr Ibbo Mandaza was able to be present at this Summit, as part of our international network.

The Higher Education Summit in 2010 comprised a wide-ranging discussion on higher education issues and in particular the issue of transformation in its broadest sense. The

Summit adopted a Declaration that set out the main challenges as understood by the participants.

Achievements since 2010

Concrete steps have been taken to achieve most of these. For example, the historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) are being prioritised for infrastructure spending in all areas but mostly student housing and historic backlogs; an HDI development fund has also been introduced to help these universities fund initiatives that can improve their financial sustainability and academic standing.

So too, the expansion of postgraduate studies and research is getting attention as is shown by the increasing enrolments, programmes to expand research outputs and plans to further increase the number of those who complete post-graduate qualifications.

Also flowing from the 2010 summit, the DHET has recently adopted a policy for the revitalisation of the academic profession. A number of programmes have been developed to improve opportunities for young African academics and women; many universities continue to make progress towards developing curriculum in a socially relevant direction; and some universities have made progress in affirming the African languages and African language departments. However much more needs to be done, and I return to this later.

Since the first Summit, the DHET has undertaken a wide range of other initiatives. Some of the most important include major reviews of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, including the costing and a plan on how to implement free higher education for the poor, the provision and conditions of student housing and the funding of universities. Funding obviously remains an extremely important, difficult, and complex area, and I will return to it in this presentation; it will also be addressed by the presentation by my Department later on the programme, and in various discussions throughout the Summit.

The Department has developed a draft policy framework for university differentiation that was released for public comment and those comments are currently being analysed. A Higher Education Amendment Bill was introduced to the National Assembly this year aiming, inter alia, to strike an appropriate balance between institutional autonomy and the public accountability of universities. It also provides for the Minister of Higher Education and Training to determine transformation goals for the higher education system and institute appropriate oversight mechanisms in the best interests of the university system as a whole.

Furthermore, the Department has developed the “Staffing South Africa’s Universities Framework” to ensure that in the future the number and quality of academics is suitable and that the academic profession becomes more representative in terms of race and gender. In support of this initiative, the teaching development grants have become earmarked grants so that they cannot be used for anything other than their intended purpose.

Starting in January 2014, I established the National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, which is expected to make a major impact on teaching and research in these disciplines. In a world in which some countries were focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects at the expense of the humanities and social sciences, we have continued to argue for the importance of all these groups of subjects, including the latter two, and have taken concrete and direct steps to support them. We took this step because we know that when universities, both in terms of teaching and research, are considered with short term economic goals in mind, what is lost is insight into the social and economic complexities of our past, our present, and our possible futures.

The Humanities and Social Sciences are crucial to ensure that we understand our world, and understand where we come from, in order to be able to shape our future. Subjects taught in these areas refine the ability to think critically and examine the arguments of politicians, to keep them accountable, and promote civil and reasonable styles of debate. Of course, like all disciplines, those in the Social Sciences and Humanities also need transformation: they can best transform society and our understandings of our complicated world when the works studied draw from many times and places, and not just a narrow European tradition.

I am particularly proud that the Institute has already renewed funding for 121 South African doctoral students who enrolled in 2014, and has awarded another 140 fellowships to South African students this year, as well as awarding fellowships to 74 African Pathways students from other African countries. It has also given seed money to a range of research in new areas that are key to the transformation of research and teaching.

Dymanic partnerships between all disciplines will enable us as Africans, together with other developing societies, have to play a leading conceptual and scientific role to solve our local and global challenges.

Another achievement of my department is the establishment of the Central Applications Clearing House to assist people who wish to study at a university or college and either did not apply in time or were not offered a place at their institution of choice. This is the first step in the establishment of a Central Applications Service. Significant progress has also been made towards creating career guidance capacity in the system.

These are some of the things we have achieved, in changing our higher education system from what we inherited from the apartheid state to something closer to what we would want it to be. And of course, these achievements are not due only to the policy and funding frameworks and other interventions of the DHET, but to the hard work of our staff in our universities, including progressive student and academic struggles. Much has been achieved by the dedication and energy of many of our academic, support, and management staff, often working in conditions that are far from optimal, but committed to going the extra mile, asking the hard questions, and in many cases challenging themselves and their students.

We are proud of these achievements, and I hope that all of you are too. While many challenges remain, there is much to celebrate as well.

We also recognize these achievements have been realized while many of our academic staff have been working in difficult conditions. The discussion document prepared by my department indicates that our academic staff have had a difficult time over the past 21 years, with a dramatic increase of student numbers which have not at all kept pace with lecturer numbers. Addressing this is a challenge for all of us in the system.


Many other challenges confront us. Racism and discrimination still persist in universities and make life difficult for many students and workers, and even unbearable for many. I have repeatedly expressed my abhorrence of any form of continued racism and other forms of discriminatory practices at any institution of higher education and training in the Republic of South Africa. Ensuring that all higher education institutions are places of equality, respect, and tolerance is a priority for all in the sector. Conditions in residences in some historically white campuses are of particular concern where cultures of intolerance and exclusion prevail, and universities must do more to tackle this creatively and in a non-defensive manner. Institutionalised racism also prevails in many contexts, and is often invisible to those who are secure in their positions.

Underprivileged, mainly black, students do not perform as well as their fellow students from wealthier families and better-off schools, even when they study in the same universities. The reasons for low success and high drop-out rates are multi-fold and include problems associated with inadequate funding, poor student accommodation and living conditions and inadequate academic preparation for university studies.

Most poor students are studying in a language in which they are not sufficiently fluent. This problem is aggravated in institutions which are primarily Afrikaans medium. The issue of language is a complex one, and a Ministerial Panel on Languages has recently released a report on the weak implementation of what are in many instances fairly progressive language policies at most of our institutions. All of our 26 universities must serve all South Africans, but in particular, must make it their business to support the learning needs of the majority of our population who have been denied access to education in the past. Particular problems are experienced where the Afrikaans language is a prominently used as a language of instruction in teaching with non-Afrikaans speakers provided English interpreting aides. This method has many problems and in the main is seen to disadvantage non-Afrikaans speakers. We are not on a level playing field, and we cannot ignore the legacy of the past. All of us have to actively fight to build a more just and equal society. Language policies or practices which exclude black students are not acceptable.

Access to a university education for many qualified youth is still a serious problem. This is partly because of problems of affordability, which has been progressively addressed through NSFAS, but more is needed. Access has also been increased through the establishment of new universities in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape. The Department is also significantly expanding the number of places available in further education and training colleges and other vocational institutions.

An important curriculum issue is the study of African languages. In some of our leading urban universities as well in some of the rural ones, African language departments have actually become weaker over the years. Strengthening them is a central strategy in developing the languages of the majority of our people, in particular because of the role these departments can play in producing African language teachers and developing African language literature, something that can help in developing a culture of reading among children and young people.


The issue of funding remains probably the most important one for all of you in this hall. I am well aware that it looks like we have a lot of money in the DHET because of surpluses in the National Skills Fund. The fact remains that we don’t have the money to fund systemically at the levels at which we want. We are competing for funds with a whole range of very serious and pressing priorities—health, basic education, housing, infrastructure. Our fiscus is limited. I acknowledge that although the subsidy for universities has increased, it has not kept pace with inflation. Indeed, the Review commission on the funding of universities, chaired by the Deputy President made this observation. We recognize that the situation is precarious and difficult for many institutions.

We are in the process of modelling various possible funding scenarios arising out of the review commission on the universities' funding formula. Once we are complete I would publish this for engagement and final consultation with all the stakeholders so that we arrive at a better informed and transformation based funding formula. We have however started implementing some of the obvious recommendations, including the significant increases in NSFAS, increase in bursaries for scarce skills, increased infrastructure and other grant to HDIs, as well as new generation of academics programme. I already have decided that we need more ring-fenced funding to promote African languages in our universities.

We have already agreed with the university vice chancellors that we urgently need to engage the whole sector on the pressing issue of cost drivers in higher education, including the issue of the size of increases in university fees.

My department is committed to working with all stakeholders to find ways of addressing the funding challenges of the system, and we should therefore welcome the recent establishment of the Presidential task team to look into improved and sustained funding of the sector. We must be sustainable and we must grow to meet the policy expectations placed upon us. The paper prepared by my department, which will be presented later and is available to read, presents a detailed overview of how funds are allocated, and what the changes have been. The National Plan for PSET process will look closely at this, incorporating a number of initiatives examining the funding needs of the system.

I also invite you to discuss the matter of funding and financing of university educated to be seriously discussed at this Summit. But I urge sober and informed discussion and to avoid the temptation of turning this Summit into a bargaining and negotiating forum, which it is not.

Against the backdrop of discussing funding, and indeed all other issues that are a subject of this Summit, it is important that we place the issue of corruption in the sector high on our agenda. Like in broader society our sector is not immune from corruption in virtually all its components in a number of institutions, whether it be broadly in the supply chain, in infrastructure money, outsourced services, securing of private student accommodation, and NSFAS. Corruption involves both some of university officials and some of the SRC leaders. If there is a major struggle we should commit to wage, as part of the struggle for transformation, it is that of the fight against corruption. We have started with the forensic investigation into possible corruption in the management of NSFAS funds in our institutions.



We also need to be critical of how we use the limited funds that we do have. Internationally there has been a trend towards managing universities as if they were businesses. Businesses aim to sell commodities to customers. Efficiency in business means profit-maximization. Systems developed to ensure profit maximization are not appropriate for organizations that have fundamentally different aims. University education is not a commodity, and students are not customers.

I think that as regards the trends towards managerialism, with inflated salaries for administrators and casualization of academic staff, South Africa has managed to holdout somewhat against the international trends, and we must continue to fight this. However, it is distressing to read the paper prepared by my department for this Summit and see the extent to which support staff have been casualized at our institutions. Some of our Vice Chancellors have said that they will reverse this if additional funds can be leveraged, and others are trying to find creative ways of insourcing. As stated above, I acknowledge that universities are short of funds. But when we are dividing up the meagre funds that we do have, we would do better to think of all our staff, academic, administrative, and support, as part of the same project and community, as we cannot do without any of them if our institutions are to function.

Sometimes it seems as if the resistance to insourcing is ideological: it is hard to understand how the amount currently spent on profit making companies who have to pay their management and staff could not be spent on paying the same amount of management staff and using what currently goes to profit margins in these companies to raise workers’ salaries. Universities should be presenting alternative models to society, showing how we can develop inclusively and taking care of all.

We have also had an engagement with the Council Chairpersons that they need to look into the huge wage gap in university remuneration. They have recently reported to me that they are making progress in this regard and they will give a report with proposals in due course.


In the words of esteemed Kenyan scholar Ngugi wa Thiongo, "We cannot afford to be intellectual outsiders in our own land". We want our universities to become African universities in a developing country that has a history of racist and gender based, class exploitation. These universities, all of them, must shed all the problematic features of their apartheid and colonial past. To be Africanised means they must become universities capable of contributing in all respects (research, curriculum, etc) to the developmental goals of our country. They must be conscious of both backward and forward linkages in the task of transforming themselves and our country. We are a country faced with the fundamental challenge of socio-economic inequality and poverty, and requiring a huge societal effort to confront and overcome these. Our country's university system is still largely a reflection of these inequalities, which are not merely a legacy of the apartheid past, but are daily being reproduced in the here and now. The students in our universities are themselves a product of these socio-economic realities that require transformation, hence our theme of transforming our universities for a transformed South Africa.

Our own department has argued that in our current situation the task of transformation must be guided by seeking to address inequalities based on the following contradictions: social class, race, gender, disability, geography, age and HIV/AIDs stigma. Much as these contradictions are societal in character, our universities must still ensure that, within the context of their own institutions, they make serious efforts to address these.

We are not arguing for universities that will be an exact replica of each other. In fact we need a differentiated university system, precisely so that we can confront our socio-economic realities and developmental challenges. Therefore the fundamental task of each of our institutions is to find a developmental niche for itself so that it can effectively contribute towards addressing challenges, against the background of the local and regional challenges where it is situated as well as contributing towards our national developmental goals. We live with the reality that our institutions still carry the scars of the past - that of having been black, Zulu or Sotho, white or Afrikaner institutions. We have to confront this past as part of Africanising our universities. This does not mean suppression of the multi-cultural and multi-lingual nature of our society, but must essentially protect this as part of building African universities. I wish to emphatically reject the notion that a move away from the ethnic past and outlook of our universities constitutes an attack on the Afrikaans language and Afrikaner culture. Afrikaans and Afrikaner culture are under no attack, but these, like all others, have to be exercised in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual environments that are part of our African reality!

Building African universities does not mean creating universities that are globally disengaged. They should be globally engaged, but not only by being consumers of global knowledge. They should be producers of knowledge as well, knowledge that is of relevance locally, continentally, in the South and globally. We must reject the old idea that is still being recycled in some quarters that the African continent must exclusively focus on primary education to the exclusion of higher education. This means the North must continue to be the producer of knowledge and Africa and the South continue to be consumers of such knowledge. This would be continuation of our colonization well into the 21st century.


I want to say a particular word to the students. The voices of students are important. Social change has often come about because students are engaged with the social problems of society, and we welcome the role of our young intellectuals in sharply raising the painful and important issues of the day. We also agreed at our 2010 Summit that we need to make our universities to be student-centered by prioritizing student friendly environments. Our interventions with infrastructure money, NSFAS funds, etc are all part of working towards the realization of student-centered and student-friendly institutions. This is a crucial component in building truly African universities.

We also acknowledge that experiences of institutionalised racism causes tempers to rise, and acknowledge the real difficulties faced by students, as well as workers on some of our campuses. Nonetheless, we urge all members of the higher education community to treat each other with respect, and conduct difficult and painful debates in a humane and constructive manner. Violence is unacceptable in the public institutions that we are trying to build to serve our nation. Violence and destruction is unAfrican and therefore contrary to building our institutions as African universities.

We urge students to have recourse to proper channels as far as possible instances of disagreements. We accept that the formal representative structures are not always conducive or sufficiently functional, and this is something that this Summit must address. We must build structures and systems in our institutions through which we can engage constructively with each other, and students must channel some of their energy into the design and implementation of such structures. We urge management to engage and listen to students, even if they will not always agree on everything.

I also want to remind students that by virtue of their structural position they not always privy to all necessary information and analysis, and may at times be misinformed about problems in institutions. Student organizations also need to guard themselves against being manipulated. Finally, I encourage students to read widely, as many of the views that are raised today have been explored and debated by your predecessors. We have launched a student leadership capacity development programme, and we urge you to make use of this to better inform and equip yourselves to lead the various student bodies.

Closing words

Finally, I would like us all to remember that higher education is a public good, and its value and importance is cultural, scientific, and intellectual—ultimately higher education is about extending human understanding of our natural and social world, expanding humankind’s great intellectual and cultural achievements. It is also about questioning authority and unsettling common sense, and imagining and building a better world. I urge each and every participant to do their utmost best in contributing to the improvement of the higher education sphere in South Africa, which has a very important role in contributing to the building of our young democracy.

Thank you.

Statement issued by Blade Nzimande, minister of higher education and training, 15 October 2015

This speech was delivered to the Higher Education Transformation Summit, Inkosi Albert Luthuli ICC, Durban, on 15 October 2015