UP hosts World Bank and Higher Education Minister for debate on tertiary education enrolment figures

Posted on January 31, 2019

A World Bank report titled South Africa Economic Update: Tertiary Education Enrollments Must Rise asserts that government’s decision to offer free tertiary education to poor, academically eligible students, to meet the national goal of doubling Post-School Education and Training (PSET) enrolment by 2030, will put a strain on the fiscus.

This could result in fewer public resources to increase admission capacity in the tertiary education sector, as well as improve the quality of education.

The report’s findings were debated at a panel discussion hosted recently by the University of Pretoria (UP), in partnership with the World Bank, at UP’s new Future Africa campus. The event was facilitated by UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe, and was attended by Minister of Higher Education and Training Naledi Pandor. The panel debating the report was made up of Professor Chika Sehoole (Dean of UP's Faculty of Education), Mr David Kabwa (UP SRC President), Mr Ari Katz (CEO, Boston City Campus), and Professor Mary Metcalfe (education expert and former Gauteng Education MEC).

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Prof. Tawana Kupe facilitated the discussion.

In late 2017, then-President Jacob Zuma announced that the government would provide free tertiary education to the poor, following the #FeesMustFall protests that affected the country in 2016. However, questions have been raised about how sustainable the provision of free education would be.

The World Bank report looked at how to expand student enrolments in the PSET, in a bid to upskill South Africa’s youth and thereby reduce unemployment, poverty and inequality. It reviews the impact of the new National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which provides grants instead of loans to pay for education and costs such as accommodation, transportation and books. According to Sébastien Dessus, World Bank South Africa Programme Leader and the author of the report, under the previous NSFAS rules, the risk of failing was entirely borne by students and the uptake of NSFAS loans was low.

“The new NFSAS scheme is attractive, as it covers all costs and risks,” Dessus said. But it will be costly for the fiscus, and ultimately unsustainable – thereby reducing space for improving quality in universities and expanding their admissions capacity.

The report says for the country to grow faster and in a sustainable way, it has to address its skills gap, which perpetuates inequality. This requires enrolling more students in PSET, as well as raising graduation rates and improving the relevance of skills taught to labour markets’ needs.

Prof. Mary Metcalfe, Education Expert; Dr Paul Noumba Um, World Bank Country Director for South Africa; Prof. Chika Sehoole, UP Dean of Education; Prof. Tawana Kupe; Minister Naledi Pandor; Ari Katz, CEO of Boston City Campus;  David Kabwa, President of the UP Student Representative Council; and Sébastien Dessus, World Bank South Africa Programme Leader and report author.

However, trade-offs are required. South Africa could increase enrolments more rapidly and reduce inequality faster by rebalancing budgetary resources and policy reform attention towards interventions that improve the quality of education, while simultaneously expanding PSET admissions capacity. The report suggests comprehensively improving South Africa’s PSET system by strengthening the quality of education in Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, community colleges, distance-education institutions, and historically disadvantaged universities.

TVETs are viewed as the poor cousins of the university sector, and there is a stigma attached to those students who attend them, while the quality of education is perceived to be low, and lecturers there are inadequately trained. They offer courses in industry fields such as agriculture, arts and culture, business, hospitality, commerce and management.

The report suggests the following solutions:

  • Diversifying the PSET sector from a mostly government-funded, university-centric model
  • Encouraging private sector participation
  • Strengthening quality assurance mechanisms
  • Improving resource mobilisation
  • Ensuring greater equity in supporting students.

The report says implementing such options would be fiscally possible by targeting financial support to the poorest students, while extending income-contingent loans to more affluent students. As the quality of TVET and community college education improves, the report notes that “the high private rate of return to PSET would make such a proposal equitable, sustainable, rewarding and safe for new student cohorts to enrol in universities, TVET and community colleges”.

Minister of Higher Education and Training, Naledi Pandor

Defending the government’s policy of providing free tertiary education to the poor, Minister Pandor said government has an obligation to ensure this new plan is sustainable and “[the government] will not reverse its decision of providing support to the poor.” Furthermore, the country needs engineers, scientists and researchers, while she agrees that the government needs to promote low- and middle-level skills that emanate from the TVET sector.

She explained that the rapid enrolment growth at universities is a dilemma and since 1994, two universities (Sol Plaatje University in the Northern Cape and the University of Mpumalanga) have been built. “We need to look at how to expand campus provision but not build more universities.”

She said the education system needs regulation of fees, especially by universities. “Some [universities] agreed to [a recommended fee increase]… while some increased their fees beyond what we agreed to. This shows contempt for the current economic situation.” She said the leaders of higher education need to address these issues.

Minister Pandor conceded that the TVET sector is under-developed and under-funded. But she fought back against criticism of TVET colleges, saying, “TVET colleges are not all totally useless.”

She said the TVET sector needs quality improvement, infrastructure and to train lecturers to generate skills required in the workplace and the economy. “As we make changes again to the TVET sector, we need to move to specialisation.” A large number of private colleges offer courses in business management and public relations, and “the country needs to go for skills where there are gaps.”

For Minister Pandor, in partnerships between government and private education institutions, government should determine what courses should be offered, based on the country’s scarce skills needs.

Furthermore, distance education is failing South Africa in the use of technology, and more open access is needed.

UP Vice-Chancellor Prof. Kupe said, “The debate on the funding and financing of the post-secondary school architecture is vitally important for producing the human capital necessary to address unemployment, poverty and inequality in South Africa.”

- Author Primarashni Gower

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