Unfolding the canvas of higher education: unpacking the 2023 budget vote for Higher Education, Science, and Innovation

After the Honourable Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation (DHET), Dr Blade Nzimande’s speech during the Department of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation’s 2023 Budget Vote, the Higher Education (HE) sector is presented with both exciting opportunities and challenging obstacles. At Sol Plaatje University (SPU), we are supportive of the ambitious goals that have been set, but we also recognise the complex dynamics that are necessary for successful implementation.

The minister’s dedication of the budget to the fallen heroes and heroines of the Post-School Education and Training (PSET) sector serves as a reminder of the significant loss of human capital and intellectual resources we have experienced. The loss highlights the significance of supporting and safeguarding the current and upcoming talent in our education industry.

Expanding Community Colleges and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions can greatly transform the educational system by making it more accessible and diverse. This proposed massification and diversification has the potential to revolutionise the South Africa’s educational landscape. We need to be watchful to make sure that the expansion doesn’t compromise the quality. For this ambitious vision to succeed, it is crucial to establish a strong educational infrastructure, attract and retain top-notch educators, implement contemporary and dynamic curricula, and ensure that these institutions are sufficiently funded and managed. At SPU, we are dedicated to education and national development, and we are pleased to offer our expertise in addressing these challenges through formal short courses and formal diploma/degree programmes.

SPU would like to propose a more comprehensive and flexible skills development framework in response to the Skills Development initiatives. The objective should not solely be to fulfil present industry standards, but also to predict future needs that may arise due to technological progress and worldwide changes in labour and industry patterns. We strongly encourage increased engagement and collaboration among academia, industry, and government to identify and address the anticipated needs.

Although the government’s efforts to empower Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEET) youth through Community Colleges are commendable, it is important to recognise the pressing need for job creation. To ensure long-term success, it is worthy to establish sustainable career pathways for individuals by collaborating with industry and entrepreneurs, rather than providing temporary solutions.

Investing in the advancement of blended learning and implementing the New Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP) is a positive step towards enriching the educational sphere. It is important to ensure that the nGAP initiative goes beyond simply increasing numbers. It is essential to establish a conducive atmosphere that supports academic development, encourages a research-oriented mindset, and facilitates global partnerships and communication. We continue to see young, vibrant, and talented young prospective SA academics being pushed away from entering the HE space [as academics] in favour of old retired non-national professors by executive management of universities. As such, we argue for stringent monitoring and evaluation of nGAP and recruitment patterns to safeguard the SA academic brain drain that is evident in all our public universities.

It weighs heavily on our collective conscience to witness a trend that is eroding the core of South Africa’s future intellectual capital. Young, vibrant, and profoundly talented South African academics, ripe with potential and the desire to serve our higher education sector, find themselves pushed to the periphery. Instead, they are replaced by retired non-national professors, as a result of recruitment policies set forth by some universities’ executive management. This seemingly systematic repudiation of our young academics not only stifles the growth of our own intellectual talent but also threatens the progressive transformation of our HE landscapes. As custodians of the academy, we have a moral and intellectual responsibility to ensure that our universities nurture and harness local talent. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that we enforce stringent monitoring and evaluation of programs like the nGAP and university recruitment patterns. In so doing, we can stem the intellectual drain that is currently threatening our HE sector and instead, pave the way for a vibrant, diverse, and intellectually robust future for SA academia.

We are pleased to see the additional NSFAS funding and the shift towards a more inclusive student funding approach. The increase in NSFAS funding and the progress made towards finalising a new Comprehensive Student Funding Model demonstrate a crucial acknowledgement of the financial difficulties that students encounter. However, it is imperative that we do not limit ourselves to solely offering monetary aid.

In addition to academic support resources, it is imperative that we also consider the socio-economic factors that affect student success, including access to mental health services and secure accommodation. It is also crucial to emphasise the significance of tackling the wider socio-economic obstacles that numerous students encounter, including obtaining quality [mental]healthcare, secure housing, healthy food, and academic resources. While financial assistance is undoubtedly important, it should be integrated into a comprehensive strategy for supporting students.

As we progress, we urge the DHET to continue engaging in open and collaborative discussions with universities to guarantee that their financial stability is not jeopardised in the pursuit of enhancing access to higher education.

It is crucial that we carefully examine and discuss the implications and practical applications of the proposed initiatives in the Minister’s budget, now that its objectives have been clearly outlined. The budget encompasses more than just a set of numerical figures and statistical data. This statement represents our concrete priorities, values, and aspirations for the higher education sector in South Africa.

It is encouraging to see a focus on enhancing the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector and Community Colleges. The statement brings up important concerns regarding the need to balance the increase in educational opportunities with the preservation of educational standards. At Sol Plaatje University (SPU), we are fully equipped to participate in this conversation. Our faculty’s expertise and our dedication to providing top-quality education make us well-suited to contribute.

Furthermore, we acknowledge the praiseworthy endeavours to broaden and adjust skill enhancement initiatives to align with the requirements of various industries. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that the job market is continuously changing. Our approach should be dynamic and forward-thinking. The main objective should be to encourage critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving abilities among our students. These skills will prepare them for the future job market, which will likely include many positions that have not yet been created.

Last but not least, we acknowledge and pay tribute to the brave men and women who have lost their lives in service to our sector. Their impact on our educational landscape is undeniable, and their memory serves as a continual reminder of our dedication to cultivating a dynamic and diverse educational community.

SPU fully supports the ambitious objectives outlined in the 2023 Budget Vote, while also recognising the substantial obstacles that must be overcome. We believe that by working together and having open and collaborative discussions about education, we can overcome any challenges and create a higher education system in South Africa that is inclusive, focused on quality, and innovative.

The Budget Vote 2023 holds the potential for exciting advancements in the field of higher education. At SPU, we strongly believe that achieving transformation necessitates a thorough analysis, strategic collaborations, and ongoing evaluation. The objective should not solely focus on numerical expansion, but also on establishing a comprehensive, quality-oriented, and inventive higher education sector. Only by doing this can we ensure that the legacy of our fallen heroes and heroines continues to inspire and guide us towards a brighter and more educated South Africa.

Percy Sepeng is a Full Professor of Mathematics Education and an academic at the Sol Plaatje University.

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