What is the Role of the University? Manuel Castells posits four major functions of universities. Firstly, universities play a major role as ideological apparatuses wherein they express the ideological struggles present in all societies. Secondly, they are mechanisms for the selection and socialisation of the dominant elites. How do we respond to this assertion as we expand university access in our country especially for students from poor backgrounds? Thirdly, universities are generators of knowledge. And fourthly, universities provide the training for a skilled labour force.
Geoffrey Boulton, from the University of Edinburgh, asks the question: What are universities for? In answering this question, he presents a series of propositions to consider.
Proposition 1 – Universities play increasingly important roles in modern society. In the last two decades, governments have seen the importance of universities as national assets. They are sources of new knowledge and innovation; providers of skilled personnel; attractors of talent and business investment; agents of social justice and mobility; contributors to social and cultural vitality; and determinants of health and well-being.
Proposition 2 – The University has a diversity of functions but governments focus is on the direct economic role of universities. Government policymaking is focussed on the universities direct economic function and how universities can create economically valuable intellectual resources.
Proposition 3 – It is crucial that the true role of universities in society is understood before mechanisms to promote change are put in place. If universities are only understood within the context of their direct economic role, then the true role of universities within society may be missed.
Proposition 4 – A university is a resource for an unknown future. Put simply, the university is concerned with useful knowledge but this useful knowledge may not have immediate applicability. The university must prepare the knowledge that an unpredictable future may need.
Proposition 5 – The central role of the university is education. Universities make students think. They feed and train their instinct to understand and seek meaning. Students are taught to question interpretations. To identify problems and to resolve them by rational argument supported by evidence.
Proposition 6 – Universities are important parts of the modern innovation process but are not the drivers of innovation. They create an environment that supports innovation, they produce centres of creativity and they catalyse innovation. If innovation is predominantly a process of business engagement with the markets, then universities do not drive innovation, they support it.
Proposition 7 – Universities can stimulate social and cultural vitality. Universities enrich their regions. They stimulate cultural vitality, they attract clever people to come to region and retain them there, and attract the companies they work for. They influence social policy and social provision. Their academics serve as public intellectuals.
So as the City of Ekurhuleni advocates for a university, what is the city’s thinking about the role of the University. Is the university seen for its direct economic role, as important as this is? Or is there a broader thinking about the role of the university that incorporates its primacy in providing education. Or its contribution to an unknown future? Or its contribution to social and cultural vitality.
As we ponder the role of this university, what is the national context within which it fits into? The vision of National Development Plan 2030 seeks to eradicate the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
At the centre of the plan is the development of the human capability to take advantage of the possibilities that the society provides and to contribute to a developmental state.
It is clear that government cannot achieve this vision without the cooperation and contribution of business, labour, and communities. They need to work together to achieve faster economic growth and a democratic society. To achieve this vision, the NDP argues that South Africans should have access to education and training of the highest quality, leading to significantly improved learning outcomes.
The key driver of poverty in South Africa is unemployment. Data from STATSSA shows the proportion of the population living in poverty declined from 66,6% (31,6 million persons) in 2006 to 53,2% (27,3 million) in 2011, but increased to 55,5% (30,4 million) in 2015.
The number of persons living in extreme poverty (i.e. persons living below the 2015 Food Poverty Line of R441 per person per month) in South Africa increased by 2,8 million, from 11 million in 2011 to 13,8 million in 2015. However, this is lower than in 2009 when persons living in extreme poverty was 16,7 million. The most vulnerable groups affected by poverty in our society are children (aged 17 or younger), females, black Africans, and people living in rural areas. The youth (18–24) have the second highest proportion of people living below poverty line in 2015, with more than two out of every five (43,6%) youth living below this line. The high poverty gap experienced by this age group are a reflection of the high youth unemployment experienced in South Africa.
The most likely way to escape poverty in South Africa is through getting employed, meaning you have to be employable. An important way of making one employable is through education.
STATSSA correctly points out that:
“Education has the potential to eradicate poverty and minimise the impact of the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.” There is enough evidence internationally and within South Africa which points to an inverse correlation between qualification and unemployment. Put simply, it means that the higher a person's qualification, the lower the probability of being unemployed. This means with higher qualifications, young people can increase their chances of being employed especially in the formal labour force. This thereby decreases their chances of falling into poverty.
The highest level of poverty is among individuals with the lowest level of education and the lowest poverty level is among those with higher education. This highlights the importance of education in our quest to tackle poverty.
The ‘Not in Education, Employment, or Training’ (NEET) shows similar trends. The majority of NEET youth are those with less than a grade 12 qualification. This indicates that most NEET youth are not equipped with skills that can help them gain employment or make them more attractive to employers. The increasing number of young people joining these ranks is of concern to government and society.
Everyone should work hard to ensure fewer young people join these ranks of NEET. We must emphasize the importance of obtaining post school training rather than dropping out of school or post school institutions. It is not only a role preserved for the state but each adult must make a contribution to support our youth to make their education and training a priority. We cannot as a country allow the youth to join the rank of NEET.
As a country we are committed to building adequate and relevant skills, and this is shown by government prioritizing education as identified in Outcome 1(Basic Education) and Outcome 5 (Skilled and capable workforce to support an inclusive growth path) of the Medium Term Strategic Framework which is used to implement the NDP. Government transfers over R28 billion to universities, over R6 billion to TVET Colleges and about R2 billion to Community Colleges to ensure the functioning of our post school institutions. To increase access to skills development, government invests over R11 billion into NSFAS. The country has invested over R64 billion to post school institutions, that is TVET and Community Colleges, universities in 2016/17, including skills levy grants. Audited budget figures reflect total block grant transfers to Gauteng universities of R10 billion for 2015.
A further indication of the government’s commitment to skills development is shown by the amount of investment the country has made in developing two new universities in the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga. The full development of these institutions require a significant investment over a ten-year period. Total capital and operational costs were estimated in current Rand values to be about R6.6 billion for the Northern Cape (5 000 students) and about R10.3billion for Mpumalanga (15 000 students).
While as a country we are investing more on the supply side, which is the provision of relevant graduates to the industry, it is important that the supply is aligned with demand. Ekurhuleni should invest in the development of a scarce and critical skills database which will assist in determining the type of skills needed by the industry. This will assist in determining whether the skills needed are on the intermediate or high level.
This is important that we guard against youth qualifying and being unable to secure employment, a phenomenon that is slowly developing with some of the qualifications. Not only does Ekurhuleni need to match demand and supply to curb youth unemployment, it also has to develop existing institutions to be of quality and efficient in the way they produce their human capital.
With Ekurhuleni being a part of Gauteng, and the demand for skills is predominately in the Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) sectors, then how is the province fairing? Gauteng universities enrolled a total of 135 413 students in Science, Engineering and Technology by 2015, with the University of Johannesburg obtaining the highest graduation rate at 25% and UNISA with the lowest at 12%.
The supply of skills does not only start at post school but at school level. In order for development to take place, basic education should produce quality outcomes. Gauteng province is one of the leading provinces that contribute immensely towards the achievement of quality basic education.
Likewise, the role played by the Ekurhuleni region in this regard is immeasurable. Ekurhuleni is one of the regions that propel this province and SA towards the achievement of the National Development Plan’s goals. The 2016 matric results illustrate the contribution of this region. Ekurhuleni outperforms the country in all respects as far as matric results are concerned. For instance, it obtained a pass rate of 86%, well above the national pass rate of 72.5% in 2016. It also surpassed the performance of the province of 85.1%. The bachelor pass rate of 35.5% has already exceeded the national target of 34% by 2019 as outlined in the Medium Term Strategic Framework. This performance, in both areas, augers well as far as the priorities and goals of the NDP are concerned.
As much as this region appears to be doing well, it is still lagging behind the 2019 national targets. There are still very few learners who qualify to study Science degrees at university. It is important for the youth to select subjects in science, technology and engineering to be able to take advantage of the possibilities that exist in Gauteng.
Establishing a university is a long term process, and a national process. What is the role of TVET’s within Ekurhuleni? Is there an expanded role that TVET’s could play in bridging some of the skills gaps identified within the city? An argument could be made for TVET’s to play a defined role while the city awaits a university.
What role does virtual learning play? The costs of tuition for virtual learning is less. It does not require extensive bricks and mortar. It aligns to the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Should we not give this some serious consideration particularly in this digital age? Perhaps there is an option to consider digital learning and migrate later into a hybrid model.
By Mr Buti Manamela
Deputy Minister in The Presidency, Republic Of South Africa