The term “transformation” refers to a profound and radical change. In South Africa as a whole it refers to such change from the apartheid system to the type of democratic and equitable society that is envisaged in the Constitution in all aspects of life, including the political system, the law, the economy, housing, internal relations, healthcare, education, and so on.

This week’s National Higher Education Transformation Summit takes place at a critical time for South African higher education. While there are many different views about the nature of transformation and the pace of change over the past 21 years, there are few who believe that we have done enough.

In the past few months, new expressions of social and political activism have placed universities back in the public eye. We need both to assess what has been achieved and highlight areas where we need to do much more work.

The aim of this week’s summit is to bring together key stakeholders for a critical dialogue on transformation in the higher education system. This follows from the 2010 Higher Education Summit that took place at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Since then, there have been many changes in institutions and in the system as a whole that we should reflect on and exchange views about. We also need to take stock of the current situation and share ideas on what goals we should set ourselves for the future.

The White Paper on Post-School Education and Training, adopted by Cabinet in November 2013, provides a strategic framework for all policies and plans of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and identifies major priorities. It lays out a vision to fundamentally restructure and transform the South African post-school system of education and training.

On the basis of the White Paper, the DHET has embarked on a process to develop a comprehensive and integrated national plan for post-school education and training, and the summit is intended to assist that process. The university sector is a crucial component of the post-school system. While this summit will focus on the role and functioning of the universities, it should always keep in mind the post school system and the universities’ role within it.

The role universities must be considered on the basis of the education system as a whole and of wider society. Higher education transformation regards the transformation of the entire education and training system, especially the post school system. It also coincides with the National Development Plan and policies of the government regarding transformation in South Africa.

As we reflect on the state of higher education transformation, it is worthwhile to consider where we have come from and take stock of our achievements as well as our shortcomings. We should also consider how the environment has changed and to what extent this has required us to rethink our goals and strategies.

The Higher Education Summit in 2010 comprised an extensive discussion on higher education issues and in particular the issue of transformation in its broadest sense. The summit adopted a Declaration that set out the main challenges as understood by the participants. Concrete steps have been taken to achieve most of these for example:

The historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) are being prioritised for infrastructure spending in all areas but mostly student housing and historic backlogs
HDI development fund has also been introduced to help these universities fund initiatives that can improve their financial standing

The expansion of postgraduate studies and research is getting attention indicated by:
The increasing enrolments
Programmes to expand research outputs and plans
Increase the number of those who complete post-graduate qualifications

Pertaining to the 2010 summit, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has recently adopted a new policy for the revitalisation of the academic profession; a number of programmes have been developed to improve opportunities for young African academics and women; most universities continue to make progress towards developing curriculum in a socially relevant direction; and some universities have made progress in affirming the African languages and African language departments.

Since then DHET has undertaken a wide range of other initiatives. Some of the most important include major reviews of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, the provision and conditions of student housing and the funding of universities. The Department has also developed a draft policy framework for university differentiation that was released for public comment and those comments are currently being analysed. A Higher Education Amendment Bill was introduced to the National Assembly this year aiming, among other things, to strike an appropriate balance between institutional autonomy and the public accountability of universities. It also provides for the Minister of Higher Education and Training to determine transformation goals for the higher education system and institute appropriate oversight mechanisms in the best interests of the university system as a whole.

In addition the Department has developed the “Staffing South African Universities Framework” to ensure that in the future the number and quality of academics is suitable and that the academic profession becomes more representative in terms of race and gender. In support of this initiative, the teaching development grants have become earmarked grants so that they cannot be used for anything other than their intended purpose.

Starting in January 2014, the Minister established the National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, which is expected to make a major impact on teaching and research in these disciplines. The Central Applications Clearing House has been established to assist people who wish to study at a university or college and either did not apply in time or were not offered a place at their institution of choice.

This is the first step in the establishment of a Central Applications Service. Significant progress has also been made towards creating a career guidance capacity in the system. Taking into account both the achievements and challenges, we need now to examine the way forward in the context of policy developments in the last five years, and in particular of the White Paper for Post-School Education and Training (2013). Blade Nzimande is Minister of Higher Education and Training.

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