A race against disaster

February 24, 1995

Brenda Gourlay on a 'vision of fundamental transformation for South Africa', spearheaded by the education service. The largest social upliftment exercise ever in South Africa is under way. Entitled the Reconstruction and Development Programme, a description of it sells in bookstores for under Pounds 4. It is the new government's answer to 45 years of inequity.

In the words of the White Paper on the subject, the Reconstruction and Development Programme "represents a vision for the fundamental transformation of South Africa". It is a policy framework that seeks to harness the life experiences, skills, energies and aspirations of the people and transform a country that has been devastated by apartheid.

The five key programmes envisaged are:

* Meeting basic needs through housing, water, sanitation, electricity, health care, nutrition, social welfare, etc.

* Developing human resources, mainly through education and training; * Building the economy by using South Africa's strengths, overcoming weaknesses and addressing worker rights;

* Democratising the state and society, by creating a new democratic order at every level; and

* Implementing the programme, by ensuring coordination of programmes with consultation, participation and capacity-building.

Educational institutions can play a significant role. They have the capacity, skills and experience to assist with research, policy-making and implementation.

Some may argue that their entire business is concerned essentially with the programme by virtue of their involvement with developing human resources. They should be dissuaded from using this argument to preserve the status quo.

Higher education in South Africa is highly fragmented. Scant regard is being paid to qualifications received from outside the system, much less non-traditional paths to access.

The distribution of students is also a problem, with the proportions between universities and technikons being inverse to what they should be for a developing country (neither are large enough) and too few students involved in the technical disciplines. Res-ources are unevenly available and not always used to capacity. All the traits of a divided and socially engineered society find expression in the education system.

Higher education has to make some major accommodations.

Improving access

The government has committed itself to the concept of lifelong learning. It has a vision of an education system which people can move into and out of many times and over long periods of time. Such mobility must be facilitated.

A paper on a national qualifications framework has been published that aims to accredit a range of previously unrecognised qualifications.

Improving access must include using available facilities in a way that not only makes them more efficient and effective, but also speeds up educational progress in ways not used in South Africa so far. They include more part-time classes, adult education and short courses, summer and winter schools which offer credit-earning courses and a trimester system.

Distance learning is another possibility. Bringing electricity to areas not previously serviced will enable technology and experience elsewhere to facilitate distance education. Higher education institutions are already responding to this challenge. They will also have to accept that there is a good deal of transportable material and not get trapped by the assertion that only that which is locally produced is usable or relevant.

Curriculum reform

Much has been written about the "Eurocentricity" of South African curricula as well as the uneven distribution of science and technology courses available.

Institutions are going to have to re-evaluate their courses and ask whether the majority of them do contribute to the programme objectives and serve all sectors in a way which has been described as "fitness for purpose". This in no way denigrates scholarship for its own sake, but there does have to be some sense of proportion given that we are truly in a "race between education and disaster".

Course re-evaluation will have to include content as well as process. Orientation towards lifelong learning means that students will have to gain new skills. This indicates a sharp - and uncomfortable - move away from the traditional lectern.

Research

If researchers are unable to contribute anything to alleviate the pressing problems of their host communities, many would claim that as an intellectual or an ethical failure. There is significant research capacity and it should be helpful to the programme initiative. Institutions should encourage research in this direction.

Research capacity is not found in all universities or in all regions. It is incumbent on institutions with capacity to help build it in those that do not. This can be done by pursuing collaborative projects, facilitating postgraduate study and sharing resources. Donors are recognising this need and favour such strategies by giving them some priority.

Building capacity in the private (formal and informal) and public sectors, not least in the area of technology transfer, is another major contribution which res-earchers can make.

Community service

Universities, technikons and other institutions of higher learning have long played an important role in making their resources available to their host communities. Their staff act as consultants in policy-making, they serve on advisory and management committees, they undertake research to explore options for action, they offer their professional services.

All these have constituted an important resource, one that has assisted the process of change. Such important roles should be given credit in the evaluation of individuals and departments.

If communities are not aware of what academics do, what institutional missions and objectives include, what higher education aspires to and the role that it plays, they will feel no ownership and institutions' assertions that they "serve the community" will have a somewhat hollow ring.

One of the much valued principles of the programme is that it should be "people-driven". The White Paper states: "Irrespective of race or sex, or whether they are rural or urban, rich or poor, the people of South Africa must together shape their own future. Development is not about the delivery of goods to a passive citizenry. It is about active involvement and growing empowerment."

Investment in higher education constitutes a national asset and individual institutions which believe they will be able to invoke "academic freedom" and "autonomy" should also ensure that their houses are in order.

Governing bodies and decision-making structures should include people who are representative of the country's demography. This is by no means a simple matter, especially in regard to senates.

Attributes such as accountability and transparency must be seen to be highly valued by our institutions of higher learning. These principles contribute to better decision-making and help em-power people and communities.

The Reconstruction and Development Programme provides scope for the mobilisation of all the nation's energies, ingenuity, creativity and goodwill. For the programme truly to succeed it requires the participation of all.

The world has marvelled at what South Africa has achieved in the last year. In the words of Chief Anyaoku, secretary-general of the Commonwealth, it is "one of the most thoroughgoing transformations of a society by peaceful and consensual means in any epoch".

Only we who live in South Africa know how important the programme is to a lasting peace and democracy - a peace and democracy on which all our futures rest.

Brenda Gourlay is vice chancellor of the University of Natal, Durban.

We want a greater say in the running of institutions," says Elaine Sacco, a University of Cape Town sociology student who wants to become a diplomat. Ms Sacco is currently president of the South African Universities Student Representative Councils, a large non-aligned body set up last year as the first student organisation to cover all campuses.

"In the past students were central in the fight for liberation and became very resistance-oriented. We have redirected the movement towards policy issues. We have called for transformation councils to be set up on all campuses. An important part of transformation is talking to students and ensuring their representation at various levels in institutions. But it is also about transparency, access to information and greater representation in decision-making. We should use our strengths to tackle social, political and economic problems, to redress apartheid's legacy and to rebuild the country. If these things are achieved we will know we have successfully transformed." David Makhura, president of the South African Students Congress, studying quantity surveying at the University of the Wi****ersrand, says students now accept that the government cannot fully fund higher education.

"Sasco, which is aligned to the African National Congress and is the largest campus political organisation, held its first education policy conference in 1992. We formulated a range of new policies on access, admission policies, funding and transformation. We accepted that loans could be considered as a component.

"Now we have to be able to tell students how funds are to be allocated this year, and if institutions are going to respond to the government's moral plea not to financially exclude students. Only if we can be guaranteed that financially disadvantaged students will not be excluded can student leaders guarantee there will be no crisis."

Tsietsi Telite, president of the Pan Africanist Students Organisation of Azania: "The perception in some student circles is that now we have a new government, everything will fall into place by itself. But as a student force that has a vested interest in higher education, it is our task to ensure that the government corrects the imbalances of the past and transforms the colonial style education system."

Of the five major student organisations in South Africa, three were heavily involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. Paso is closest to the Pan African Congress. "Since all three are structures to the left of the previous government we have a lot in common. We have called on the different student organisations to come together in a united front with a common interest. We cannot run away from the fact that we have different political perspectives, but under a united front we would be able to tackle issues that impact on us as students first."

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