State of the Nation 2015: Opening the doors of learning

South Africa has made enormous strides in increasing student numbers in schools, universities and colleges over the past two decades, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande said during the State of the Nation debate. But with these higher numbers have come a massive need for expanded educational infrastructure.

Nzimande education article South Africa effectively achieved universal primary education in 2013 when 99.3% of eligible children were enrolled. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Blade Nzimande Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande

As we were reminded in this year’s State of the Nation Address, 2015 marks 60 years since the adoption of the Freedom Charter. As a government we have come a long way in translating the vision of the charter into reality.

The Freedom Charter demands that “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened”. That is precisely what we have been doing. Since 1994, education has been a priority as we have rebuilt our country into a nation. Our intensive efforts, undertaken all levels, are starting to bear fruit.

• A major achievement has been tripling the Grade R enrolment from 272 000 in 2002 to 813 044 in 2014.
• South Africa effectively achieved universal primary education in 2013 when 99.3% of eligible children were enrolled.
• Technical and vocational education and training college enrolment has increased by 94% in just the last five years – from 345 566 in 2010 to almost 1-million this year.
• Student enrolment at universities doubled between 1994 and today, to some 1-million students.

To expand education, we have had to expand our infrastructure. We were victims of our own success: the rapid growth in learner numbers resulted in a backlog of educational infrastructure. We now have programmes in place to deal with this bottleneck. We are moving forward, as the president emphasised in his State of the Nation Address.

Highlights of these infrastructure developments include:

• In 2011 the Accelerated School Infrastructure Delivery Initiative was established to replace schools built from substandard material. Important progress has been made in building new schools. Water, electricity and sanitation has been provided to many more.
• Plans have been developed for building 12 new technical and vocational college campuses and the refurbishment of two existing campuses. Construction has already begun at three sites.
• Three new universities – Sol Plaatjie University in the Northern Cape, University of Mpumalanga and the Sefako Makgatho Allied and Health Sciences University in Gauteng – have been established. Major new infrastructure programmes will be rolled out at SPU and UMP over the next 10 years.

The government has invested over R13-billion in university infrastructure over the past decade. In the last three-year cycle (2012/13 to 2014/15), R6-billion was invested in all categories of infrastructure. The largest tranche of funding, more than R2.5-billion, has been allocated to historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs). One of the most urgent needs is for student housing, especially at the HDIs. Of the R1.6-billion allocated to student housing at all universities, R1.4-billion has been allocated to HDIs.

A priority focus of new tertiary education infrastructure is universally accessible facilities, to ensure disabled students, staff and visitors are able to use all campus spaces and buildings.

As our President said in his State of the Nation Address: “Siyaqhuba. Siyasebenza. We are a nation at work.”

Helping poor and working-class households

Our educational programmes assist poor and working-class households. The number of no-fee schools have been greatly increased and the school nutrition programme extended. In 2009 46% of learners attended no-fee schools. By 2014, 87% of all schools were no-fee schools, accommodating around 79% of all learners – an increase in excess of 4-million learners over 5 years. By the end of March 2014 the school nutrition programme was providing meals to 9.1-million learners, an increase of more than 2-million over the last five years.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme has enabled more than 1.5-million students from disadvantaged families to further their education after high school. For many families this is the first generation afforded the opportunity to attend college or university. In 1999 NSFAS disbursed R441-million in financial aid to students; this has now increased to over R9.5 billion. For 2015, NSFAS has earmarked R69.3-million to provide financial aid to disabled students.

We have expanded financial aid programmes, but problems remain, issues that have led to campus disruptions. In part this can be ascribed to the inevitable administrative problems resulting from the massive expansion of the system.

We have also received allegations of corruption and fraud involving both students and people working in the administration of funds. A forensic investigation into financial aid provided through NSFAS to determine the levels of corruption and fraud will be conducted in 2015.

Innovation and research capacity

The National Development Plan recognises the importance of research and innovation for the development of our country. For this reason, research support is among the top priorities of this government.

The research output subsidy mechanism has been instrumental in stimulating the South Africa’s research productivity. Over a five-year period, 2008 to 2012, the sector’s journal publication output increased by 44.5%.

To address distortions in the system, research development grants have been largely allocated to historically disadvantaged institutions or those that are less research-intensive to enhance their research capacity and capabilities, primarily through staff development programmes.

Government support has improved the quality of research infrastructure through the allocation of grants for different specialist requirements, including but not limited to new laboratories, equipment and research support facilities.

The Department of Science and Technology, through the National Research Foundation, provides advanced research equipment to ensure universities are fully equipped to support research and innovation in various scientific fields.

A highlight of the past five years has been the expansion of broadband connectivity to all the major campuses of tertiary education institutions through the continued implementation of the SANReN programme. A total of 173 research and educational sites have been connected with high-speed networks, ranging from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 10 gigabits per second. Close to 1-million researchers and students now have access to broadband connectivity for collaboration between national and international institutions.

The government’s wireless mesh network technology project has connected 190 schools in the Nkangala (Mpumalanga) and Sekhukhune (Limpopo) districts to increase internet access penetration in rural areas, and to support teaching and learning programmes. This project has since been expanded to a further 55 rural schools by launching the Northern Cape phase of the wireless mesh network technology initiative.

The announcement on 25 May 2012 that South Africa had won the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project was of massive scientific significance to South Africa, Africa and the southern hemisphere. This is significant as it includes the recognition of the MeerKat telescope, a South African product, as a critical component of the SKA project, which will also see the training of a large number of students in radio astronomy and attract high-level researchers to our country.

Protecting the gains of the past 21 years

The destruction and vandalising of public property, including critical infrastructure, deprives communities of much-needed services and creates the additional burden of resources being diverted to restore and repair these damages.

The Freedom Charter principle that “The people shall govern” is embedded in our Constitution, which forms the legal basis for the expression of the people’s will. The right to protest and express oneself freely is an important element of our democracy, which every South African has enjoyed since 1994. Kodwa sithi kubantu bakithi masingalimazi impahla yomphakathi nezindlu zokufundela. Ukuphatha izwe kusho ukuthi Maqubela yithi miphakathi esivikela impahla eyakhiwe nguhulumeni ngoba ingeyethu.

The destruction of government infrastructure when expressing dissatisfaction infringes on the rights of others, impacting negatively on the country’s development by hampering all efforts to create a better life for all, undermining our hard won democracy.

Masingavimbeli izingane zethu ukuba ziye esikoleni uma kukhona okungasiphethe kahle. Loku kubulala hayi nje kuphela ikusasa lezingane, Kepha elesizwe imbala.

The life of most South Africans has improved since 1994, and continues to get better.

• This is an edited transcript of a speech delivered to the National Assembly by Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande during the State of the Nation debate in parliament on 18 February 2015.