University funding needs to change to achieve parity

University of Fort Hare, Alice campus
University of Fort Hare, Alice campus
I must first acknowledge much has been done to transform higher education since the inception of our first democratic government.

I have been a student at the University of Transkei, presently known as Walter Sisulu University (WSU), and I currently work within the university.

I am a trade unionist with a passion for the improvement and elevation of education for African and working class children.

The first Minister of Education, Professor Sibusiso Bengu, who was vice- chancellor of Fort Hare University before his role as minister, has been an advocate of redress funding for historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) so they are on a par with historically advantaged institutions (HAIs).

After 20 years of democracy we still have a way to go to address the economic backlogs characteristic of our HDIs.

These backlogs are ever present as management is faced with the challenge of escalating student debts.

According to the Green Paper 2012 for Post-School Education and Training, the current institutional landscape is reminiscent of apartheid, with disadvantaged institutions, especially those in the former Bantustan areas, still disadvantaged in terms of infrastructure, teaching facilities and staffing.

According to Bengu, “the first set of priorities…are to overcome a historically determined pattern of fragmentation, inequality and inefficiency and increase access for black students and women, to generate new models of teaching and learning, and to accommodate a large and more diverse student population”.

From this statement, I would like to raise one issue – inequality. Under the apartheid system, all public sector institutions were created on the basis of race, language and ethnicity.

Access to resources was also based on racial, linguistic and ethnic differences.

Redress funding needs a very strong political will, commitment, and radical approach if it is to be successful.

If we are able to introduce legislation that recognises the past, such as Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, the Employment Equity Act and Land Reform Act, which are all aimed at undoing what the apartheid government created, why can we not do this with an amended Higher Education Act?

I uphold the view we have the capacity to address the imbalances that affect higher education through redress funding, but we need to be unapologetic and radical in tackling it.

Our HDIs need immediate attention as they are mainly located in under-developed, impoverished areas with little economic infrastructure for supporting local development and university expansion.

South Africa inherited a plethora of post-school institutions that included 21 universities, 15 technikons, 120 colleges of education and 150 technical colleges.

In one attempt to redress the past, the department of education introduced the merger system involving various institutions, but this was never costed, and being inadequately funded, created further inequality.

In some cases, particularly in the former Bantustans, some poverty-strickened institutions were combined to make one large, equally poor one.

Little wonder then these merged institutions are a battleground of protest action, with workers demanding better working conditions and students demanding improvements in student life.

While the Department of Higher Education and Training is funding black institutions, it seems to me it does not fully appreciate the problems facing disadvantaged universities.

We must first close the gap between HDIs and HAIs and then move forward together. A one-size-fits-all approach will not assist HDIs. If we can’t radically re-organise our funding formulas, we can’t hope to address the problems.

I strongly believe we need funding that speaks to the rural location of the institutions, as these universities are important contributors to the national human resource of the country.

Our government is able to bail out South African Airways – over the past 20 years it has rece ived R16.8-billion – why can’t it put more money into higher education?

Do we really take the education of a poor black child seriously?

If we are able to bail out SA Airways, why we can’t bail out WSU, the University of Fort Hare, University of Venda, the Durban University of Technology, the University of Zululand and the Mangosuthu University of Technology?

Many of these institutions are going through painful processes of being under administration, and several allegations have been made against the largely black intellectuals in management positions within these institutions, but with no concrete evidence ever produced.

At the core of these are financial issues. These institutions have been

largely underfunded and what is lacking is the political will to undo the evils of apartheid and a willingness to take unpopular decisions to redress funding.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme will never be sufficient to redress funding, even if the scheme has grown from having as little as R44-million in 1999 to R8.5-billion in 2013.

I believe the following should occur:

l The higher education institutions, in particular HDIs, must embark on a radical programme to seek funding from government and other sources.

l The HDIs should improve their administrative management systems and prioritise data to protect their integrity.

l They must continue to lobby government and the ANC about their vision and mission which remains important for the development of the country.

l The government’s funding formula must be skewed towards the poor and working class students and HDIs.

l Infrastructure, teaching and learning technology needs to be fast-tracked as a matter of urgency to improve the quality of education at these institutions.

Without full support from our government and politicians, the future of these institutions remains bleak.

However, in spite of all this, they remain a beacon of hope for many poor and under-privileged communities.

The vision of OR Tambo, NR Mandela, Alfred Xuma and Walter Sisulu must continue to inspire us – it’s time for us to prioritise education, not tenders.

Zwelidumile Mditshwa is branch secretary for the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union in Mthatha and works in education.