Speech by Dr. Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, during the occasion of the National Assembly`s Debate on the President`s State of the Nation Address

15 February 2010

Speaker, President and Deputy President, honourable members, ladies and gentlemen, and comrades. Education is an important weapon in genuinely empowering our people. It is for this reason that the slogan, `People`s Education for People`s Power` remains as relevant today as it was in the 1980s. The entire edifice of what we refer to as `colonialism of a special type` was built on the foundation of depriving the black majority of education. It is precisely on the education terrain that we must also seek the total liberation of the majority of our people from poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and skills paucity.

Education must be at the centre of skilling our people, to prepare them for employment, for decent work, and sustainable livelihoods. Skills development is also central to job creation and decent work as articulated by the President in his address. However, education is more than just preparation for employment; it is also about empowerment for meaningful participation in society, for knowledge, for scientific and technological advancement and for innovation.

Precisely because of the above features, education must of necessity reflect us as a people; who we are, and where we want to be. Our education system must also teach and learn from the story of our colonial and apartheid past, about the heroic struggles for national liberation and must prepare our people to tackle our developmental challenges, our envisaged growth path, our location globally and how we wish to participate in the world.

It is for all of these reasons that this government has placed education as one of its five priorities. We must reaffirm the correctness of the President`s decision to create separate Education departments focusing on schooling and post school education and training respectively. It may still be too early to evaluate all the achievements of having two education departments, but the President`s decision to split is beginning to bear some fruit by allowing a greater focus on the key challenges in the two sectors.

The Education system at all levels has made considerable progress over the past 17 years and continues to do so. The most obvious gain has been the advances we have made with regard to improving access to education. Approximately 96% of children now gain access to school in South Africa. In 2009 the gross enrolment ratio for Grades 1 to 12 was 92% and the gender parity has already been obtained. The National Schools Nutrition Programme is now reaching some 8 million school children. In higher education the numbers have almost doubled since 1994, with the total enrolments now nearing 900 000. Between 2000 and 2009, the growth in enrolments was approximately 50% and the growth in graduates was 64%, meaning that the throughput rate has been improving, although it still has a long way to go. We now have more female than male students in our higher education system.

The biggest challenge identified by the Department of Basic Education is that of improving the quality of education and virtually all the DBE`s current interventions are aimed at achieving this. In line with the President`s directive on the three Ts – teachers, text and time – the biggest priority of the department is the improvement of learning outcomes in maths, science and literacy through a variety of activities. These include assessment tests in Grades 3, 6 and 9; increasing Grade R enrolments; one textbook per child per subject; workbooks for all students; targeted teacher education that focuses on areas identified in tests as requiring attention; training of principals, adequate district support to schools; and infrastructure development. In addition the National Education Evaluation Unit (NEEDU) will be launched to ensure that the schooling system is effectively monitored and evaluated. This will also include making specific interventions, like we are currently doing in the Eastern Cape.

These initiatives will assist to improve the quality of schooling. As the quality of schooling improves, it in turn improves the capabilities of students entering the universities and colleges or entering learnerships and apprenticeships. The 2010 improved matric results are a testimony to the fact that we are beginning to put our schooling system on a much better footing.

But unfortunately from the media we have the same ritual every year. If the matric results are bad, this is taken as proof that this government is incapable. If the matric pass rate goes up it means the results have been manipulated. In either case, the arrogant, sneering tone of this discourse is aimed at undermining the confidence of our people in both our education system and government.

In the field of higher education and training, we are tacking the challenge of creating a coherent, but differentiated post school system, responsive to training needs of youth and adults. To this end, over the last year we made some significant strides in putting in place mechanisms to facilitate the critical transition of our youth from school/college/universities into the workplace.

The anchor of government`s intervention on the skills development front has been the adoption of the National Skills Development Strategy 3 (NSDS 3) early this year. This strategy, amongst other things, seeks to build a closer relationship between the SETAs, the public FET colleges, the universities of technology and employers in order to shift the focus of our country towards trade and occupational programmes so that we increase the production of artisans and technicians, as well as to facilitate workplace training.

We have recently reached an important agreement with labour and business to identify additional training capacity to train artisans and technicians. We have established a task team which by the end of February will come back with concrete figures on how many newly trained artisans and technicians will be absorbed for workplace training by both private companies and state owned enteprises.

The NSDS 3 also provides for SETAs and the National Skills Fund to support the training needs of cooperatives and small enterprises as well as supporting NGO, community and worker-initiated skills development and training programmes. In addition the NSDS3 lays out a strategy for improving the performance and capacity of SETAs. Government will work to ensure that every cent of the R8bn of money in the hands of the SETAs is directed towards meaningful skills development for our youth, adults and workers in general.

At the centre of our strategies and plans are the initiatives already underway to strengthen the public FET colleges, restructuring and improving the functioning of the SETA system, and a coordinated focus underpinned by a partnership betweeen the public and private sector players. This partnership is also designed to strengthen governance, management, teaching, student support, and career placement for graduates. Cooperation between colleges and employers, facilitated by the SETAs, is being actively promoted in order to improve the quality of learning through a combination of theoretical learning and practical, on-the-job experience.

In 2011 we have created 60 000 new study opportunities in public FET colleges, many of them for students who will be combining workplace training with college based studies. This process of expansion will continue and increase exponentially, and will be supplemented by growth which is taking place in the private colleges.

This government is committed to progressively introduce free education for poor students up to undergraduate degree. It is for this reason that NSFAS is being strengthened and additional resources are being given to it in order to progressively fulfil this commitment to ensuring that no capable student is denied access to education for lack of money. Cde President, we are already implementing your commitments to providing full cost of study for third year university students and exemption from fees to all FET college students in NCV and N courses who qualify for NSFAS assistance, as from this year.

Steps have already been taken by government to improve career guidance services to young people in order to increase their knowledge of the available study and career options. I have asked the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) to take a lead in expanding and professionalising career guidance, particularly to Grades 10-12 learners and to school leavers. SAQA`s efforts include a helpline, a career advice website and materials development. The DHET has also now initiated a partnership with the SABC in which we have already started, two weeks ago, weekly SABC programmes in the seven indigenous languages radio stations. Broadcasts in Afrikaans will also be added in the near future.

South Africa has a number of excellent universities which compete well internationally and which need to be nurtured. They must continue to provide high quality teaching, research, innovation and community service activities and to progressively improve their capacities. But, we are working to ensure that these universities become more accessible and place student interests at the centre of their activities.

However, some of our institutions need special attention, especially the rural, former bantustan universities, which still bear the marks of their apartheid origin. Our government will give priority to assisting them to build capacity to provide quality education to their students, the majority of whom come from poor, rural backgrounds. In this regard particular attention will be given to strengthening the quality of teaching and learning at undergraduate level. Task teams are also hard at work to prepare for the establishment of universities in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape, as part of the expansion of our higher education system.

In conclusion, the country`s success in education and skills development principally rests on forging a dynamic partnership between government and the people. This is therefore a clarion call to all our people, in their various formations, to lead a struggle for people`s education for people`s power. Equally this is a clarion call to the youth of country, to make full use of these expanded education and training opportunities. And to say to them no tender or expensive social parties will empower you more than education!