Students changed course of education

Thursday, November 5, 2015

By Communications Minister Faith Muthambi

It was renowned philosopher Franz Fanon who famously said that “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it”. These profound words have come to describe the students in their pursuit of quality education at an affordable cost.

As part of our vibrant democratic society, university students voiced their concerns and began a movement to bring about change. Government heard the plight of our young people and responded.

Importantly, the issues that have been raised by students in their #FeesMustFall protest are in line with government’s own priorities of ensuring quality and affordable education.

We firmly believe that post-school qualifications should not be an elitist preserve. Since 1994, we have made it a priority to expand access to education so that all South Africans can pursue their dreams and become part of rebuilding our society.

Our work is motivated by the Constitution, which provides everyone the right to basic and further education. It requires the State to make education available and accessible through all reasonable measures.

Government understands the difficulties experienced by many students, particularly those from poor households, who find the cost for higher education prohibitive and inaccessible.

It was under President Jacob Zuma’s leadership at a meeting with student leaders and university management last week that a zero fee increase for the 2016 academic year was agreed.

The constructive manner in which all stakeholders engaged demonstrated that we have more that brings us together than divides us. However, the destruction of property by some students in a democracy where government promotes the rights of people to express themselves is unacceptable.

The President also used the opportunity to gain a first-hand account from students on challenges experienced in higher education and announced plans to tackle these as part of a wider solution.

Students expressed concerns over transformation, living conditions, free education, institutional autonomy, racism and what they referred to “black debt’’.

The President broadened the mandate of the recently established Presidential Task Team on university funding to include these areas. Their work will ultimately bring about a long-term solution in student funding that relieves the financial pressure on poor households.

The funding quagmire at our institutions of higher learning are rooted in our divided past where it was a stumbling block for poor black students who wanted to enter higher education and training institutions.

Since 1994, government has made strides in transforming our higher education institutions to reverse the distortions created under apartheid where the majority of South Africans were denied quality higher education.

While transformation at universities may have been slow in some instances, our post-apartheid education system is a non-racial, non-sexist, integrated and quality system as opposed to what it was previously.

Moreover, government had begun to make study loans and bursaries more available. Through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme we have steadily increased student funding from R300 million to R9.5 billion.

However, the increased funding was not able to match the surge in the number of new students attending university. In this academic year, government is supporting 45 000 poor and academically deserving students.

Our bursaries and study loans are part of a suite of measures to transform the post-apartheid education system from a racially segregated, fragmented and unequal system into a non-racial, non-sexist, integrated and quality system.

The current system builds on a number of incentives that serve to motivate students and promote academic excellence.

We are determined to transform our higher education sector because we understand the power of education to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty which goes beyond being deprived of an income; it extends to a lack of empowerment, knowledge opportunity and capital.

It is only through educated and skilled individuals that we can grow the economy to the level that can reverse the triple challenge of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

This year will no doubt go down in history for starting a movement that will forever change the course of higher education in the country. The process to find a long-term solution to access to education must now be allowed to unfold.

Our students rightfully poised to take their place as future leaders in our society and chart the way to move our country forward.

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