Ed­u­ca­tion is part of the real world

CityPress - - Voices - Sizwe Nx­as­ana voices@city­press.co.za

It is time to stop treat­ing ed­u­ca­tion as a sep­a­rate en­tity to what hap­pens in the real world. That is one of the pri­mary lessons to be learnt from the re­cent #FeesMustFall protests that swept like a rag­ing bush­fire through South African uni­ver­si­ties.

The in­ten­sity and co­he­sion of the cam­paign left gov­ern­ment, civil so­ci­ety and in­sti­tu­tions reel­ing and scram­bling for so­lu­tions that would not only plug the un­rest, but pro­vide last­ing so­lu­tions to the grow­ing chal­lenge of fi­nan­cially sup­port­ing de­serv­ing stu­dents, par­tic­u­larly those from poor homes – house­holds with an an­nual in­come of less than R120 000.

One of the pri­or­i­ties must be the for­mu­la­tion of a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship be­tween busi­ness and the uni­ver­si­ties with­out de­tract­ing from the in­de­pen­dence of uni­ver­si­ties. This im­proved re­la­tion­ship must be fo­cused on the rel­e­vance of pro­grammes run by the uni­ver­si­ties.

The prob­lem is that far too many of these pro­grammes are aca­dem­i­cally sound but are not in de­mand out­side cam­pus. The re­sult is that in­stead of be­com­ing as­sets to our so­ci­ety by ad­dress­ing our se­ri­ous skills deficit, tal­ented young peo­ple, through no fault of their own, are pass­ing through the gates of higher learn­ing in­sti­tu­tions straight into the bloated ranks of un­em­ployed grad­u­ates.

Not only are these un­for­tu­nate, un­der­stand­ably dis­il­lu­sioned peo­ple a bur­den on the econ­omy, they also ex­ac­er­bate the grow­ing prob­lem of ac­cess to fund­ing for poorer stu­dents.

The re­al­ity is that 60% of stu­dents who re­ceive as­sis­tance from the Na­tional Stu­dent Fi­nan­cial Aid Scheme (NS­FAS) drop out. And if 60% drop out and don’t get work af­ter leav­ing uni­ver­sity, that means 60% of those loans are lost, and can­not be re­cov­ered and re­cy­cled to help new batches of stu­dents.

Our man­date, as the NS­FAS, is to raise fund­ing, and pro­vide bur­saries and loans to poor stu­dents. We have done a great deal. We fund about 460 000 stu­dents, but cru­cially, there are 60 000 stu­dents at the 26 pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties en­ti­tled to fund­ing who are ei­ther un­der­funded or not funded at all.

That was one of the el­e­ments that trig­gered the Oc­to­ber #FeesMustFall protests.

The spark that ig­nited said protests was the 2016 fee in­crease that sev­eral uni­ver­si­ties were fi­nal­is­ing, but an­other ac­cel­er­ant was the sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of stu­dents who had ac­cu­mu­lated debt and were fac­ing the prospect of be­ing barred from writ­ing ex­ams be­cause they owed money that they could not re­pay.

Doubt­less, the NS­FAS could have done bet­ter. If we had been more ef­fi­cient in grant­ing the loans, and post­grad­u­a­tion re­cov­ery of that fund­ing had been bet­ter, it is pos­si­ble that we could have sup­ported many more of those un­for­tu­nate stu­dents. But the prob­lem is far greater than one of ef­fi­cient lend­ing and re­cov­ery mech­a­nisms, though these must be – and are be­ing – ad­dressed.

The re­al­ity is that al­though our bud­get has more than dou­bled in five years, it has not kept pace with de­mand. Spend­ing on higher ed­u­ca­tion has de­clined in real terms. Com­pound­ing the prob­lem is the bur­geon­ing num­ber of as­pir­ing learn­ers emerg­ing from school with uni­ver­sity ex­emp­tions. They are bent on uni­ver­sity place­ment, but the growth of ca­pac­ity of our uni­ver­si­ties lags way be­hind the swelling num­bers of these school-leavers.

That, again, brings us back to higher ed­u­ca­tion’s vi­tal role in pro­vid­ing skills for the coun­try and cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for em­ploy­ment for all those who ben­e­fit from the ed­u­ca­tion, par­tic­u­larly the poor stu­dents.

While the NS­FAS’s man­date is to sup­port poor stu­dents, some things could have been done bet­ter. But the NS­FAS it­self is con­strained by un­der­fund­ing. Govern­ment pro­vides a sep­a­rate R146 mil­lion an­nual ad­min­is­tra­tion al­lo­ca­tion of the scheme’s R10 bil­lion bud­get. It is not enough and it leaves the NS­FAS to do what it must with one hand tied be­hind its back so it is, in a sense, be­ing set up for fail­ure.

I have, since the start of the protests, been can­vass­ing the pri­vate sec­tor for as­sis­tance. The Bank­ing As­so­ci­a­tion of SA, for ex­am­ple, has been amaz­ing. It has sec­onded a num­ber of peo­ple to the NS­FAS in the past few weeks to as­sist us in all sorts of ar­eas, at no cost to the NS­FAS.

I am also do­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion to the board of Busi­ness Lead­er­ship SA (BLSA), not just on the NS­FAS’s needs, but in terms of sup­port needed by the stu­dents and the uni­ver­si­ties. The BLSA is ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in­for­ma­tion from its mem­bers about the bur­saries and other sup­port pro­vided to stu­dents and uni­ver­si­ties by cor­po­rates. It be­lieves these in­ter­ven­tions should be in­cor­po­rated into a more co­he­sive ap­proach.

Part of this ap­proach has to do with iden­ti­fy­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing what skills and oc­cu­pa­tions are in great­est de­mand. We must de­velop a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship be­tween busi­ness and the uni­ver­si­ties so the lat­ter can of­fer pro­grammes that de­liver grad­u­ates who are in de­mand.

What I call an “educon­omy” ap­proach will go a long way to­wards im­prov­ing the qual­ity of the pro­grammes and the way in which knowl­edge is pro­duced. But to be ef­fec­tive, we must stop look­ing at ed­u­ca­tion as sep­a­rate from what hap­pens in the real world.

What we have to do – which I am ac­tu­ally do­ing – is to cre­ate a plat­form for peo­ple to get in­volved. Nx­as­ana is for­mer FirstRand chief ex­ec­u­tive

and is now chair of the board of the Na­tional Stu­dent Fi­nan­cial Aid Scheme. This an edited ver­sion of the ar­ti­cle pub­lished in the

Busi­ness Lead­er­ship SA news­let­ter for De­cem­ber

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