There are reportedly just over one million students at our universities. That makes about 1.8 percent of the country's population. But, to my mind, that 1.8 percent makes 100 percent of our future. And we should all care about that future.
It was against this background that I joined the indaba on higher education in Kempton Park last week. It was valuable to me to learn and understand the issues involved. The students' near disruption of the meeting notwithstanding, I was impressed with the debates that took place. Below are some of the insights I took from the meeting.
First, the challenges facing higher education, and the current impasse in particular, have mutated beyond being the challenges of one minister. Higher Education Minister Dr Blade Nzimande cannot, on his own, resolve these problems.
President Jacob Zuma and his Cabinet must be seized with this matter. Unfortunately, apart from the usual statements they make on the crisis, one does not get the sense that they are. Neither did the student leaders - which is why they were not impressed when the President left the meeting shortly after addressing it.
There is an expectation that the President, as head of state, should grab this challenge by the scruff of its neck and deal with it decisively. Alternatively, his Cabinet should show the same urgency and resolve to deal with what is, essentially, the future of this country.
In the past, we have seen the President and Cabinet forming inter-ministerial committees to deal with less urgent, albeit important, issues. We have had inter-ministerial committees on the FIFA 2010 World Cup, e-tolls, climate change, investment, the blacklisting of Gupta-owned businesses and a number of other issues. On this issue, it would seem, Dr Nzimande is expected to produce a miracle on his own.
I don't know the reasons for the Treasury's absence at last week's indaba but I found it odd that those who control the nation's purse weren't part of the discussion. Students, and citizens in general, must be engaged on how the country's finances’ work and how much, in this instance, is being invested in higher education. The best placed institution to do so is the national Treasury. In the absence of such information, a distorted picture might emerge and the politics of impossible demands could hold sway.
While there was agreement at the meeting, as there seems to be even in greater society, the struggle for free higher education for the poor is a noble one, one does not get the sense that there is an appreciation of the strides made since 1994. For example, experts on higher education report that the proportion of African students in universities has increased dramatically from 49 percent in 1995 to 72 percent at present. Indeed, South Africa is a better educated country than it was two decades ago.
The challenge is how we are going to build on that in a sustainable manner - the operative word being “sustainable”. Given the current stalemate and the real threat of losing the 2016 academic year, the achievements in and through higher education made to date could be stunted and the repercussions felt for many years to come.
For starters, there will be no places at universities next year for current matriculants. Faced with cash constraints arising out of no new first year registrations, universities will have to cut back on staff, research and other imperatives needed to keep a university going. There will be no new graduates absorbed into the economy. I am appealing to our students not to throw the baby out with the bath water. They need to go back to class and save the academic year. Their demands are understandable and collectively, as the government, business and parents, we need to respond to them.
Our higher education system is at a crossroads. How we collectively respond to the crisis will determine the future of our universities. Friends from all over the continent have warned me about how some of their universities were once glorified and exalted as the epitome of knowledge. Today, they are a shadow of their former selves and the middle class in those countries are sending their children to overseas universities. It is my sincere prayer that our higher education system does not reach that sorry state of affairs. And with our collective resolve, we can prevent it.
Pastor Ray McCauley is the president Rhema Family Churches and co-chairman of the National Religious Leaders Council