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CHE > Media and Publications > Che Events Presentations > Address by Professor Kader Asmal to the Summit on strategic partnerships between Higher Education Institutions and Local Government, 24 March 2003
Prof. Kader Asmal
March, 2003

Address by the Minister of Education, Professor Kader Asmal, MP to the Local Government and Higher Education in Johannesburg Summit on Strategic Partnerships that took place at the Hilton Hotel, Sandton on 24 March 2003.

As a Minister I have had the unique opportunity to participate in a wide range of exciting initiatives, full of promise and potential, and all designed to transform higher education so that it contributes to the realisation of important national goals.

Most Education Ministers the world over may simply settle for one exciting, path -breaking initiative in their term of office. However, as a South African Minister, given the significant challenges confronting us as we chart the way in ensuring that all our people have access to high quality education and training opportunities, this has not been and indeed cannot be the case. The combination of the apartheid legacy in higher education and our creativity and determination to ensure that higher education is harnessed towards creating a better life for all South Africans, has presented a host of truly exhilarating and significant undertakings, the benefits of which will be revealed in the years to come.

Only two weeks ago, I had the unique opportunity to engage the Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry on the important topic of the General Agreement on Trade and Services and higher education.

Just a few months ago, I addressed a historic gathering of the leaders of higher education, the captains of industry and heads of various government departments at the Council on Higher Education colloquium on building relationships between higher education and the public and private sectors to address our high level human resource and knowledge needs.

This summit is yet another historic initiative, seeking to continue the attempt to fashion models of engagement between higher education and other public and private economic and social institutions and organisations. The relationship between higher education institutions and local government, and the City of Johannesburg in particular, is an extremely important one for the economic and social development of our country. And yet, despite its centrality, so much more needs to be done to realise this objective, which makes our discussions today all the more important.

This summit occurs at an important point in the development of the higher education system in our country, as we are poised to implement our agenda of transformation and reconstruction. This process of renewal is designed to ensure that the higher education system is able to respond to the country’s high level human resource and research needs for the 21st century in an equitable, effective and efficient manner.

Our White Paper on higher education requires my advisory body, the Council on Higher Education, to provide me with advice on stimulating greater responsiveness on the part of higher education to societal needs, especially those linked to developing South Africa’s economy through mechanisms such as enhanced higher education - industry partnerships. In making such provision, the Government was clearly not content with the historic relationship between higher education and other sectors and was determined to address this. To this end the Council on Higher Education last year initiated a multi-faceted project and process of formulating advice towards putting relations between higher education and other sectors on a new footing.

It is in this context that today’s summit is an important development in the effort to stimulate greater partnerships between higher education and the public and private sectors to address economic and social needs. It is timely in the light of the major restructuring and other plans that the Ministry is implementing. I am therefore extremely pleased to be associated with this discussion and look forward to it leading to concrete collaboration, strategies and implementation.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is no secret that the city of Johannesburg is, of course, synonymous with the economic, financial and manufacturing capabilities of South Africa. Its economy alone is larger than that of some countries in the Southern African region.

This is reflected in the City’s bold plans as set out in its `2030 Report’. The Report speaks to the City’s Vision and refers to improved safety and security, improved life expectancy and health to the population, literacy and skills, strong and sustainable economic growth, strong and sustainable employment creation, increased prosperity through high quality jobs, better distribution of wealth, reduced poverty levels, improved levels of environmental quality and deepened democracy.

Johannesburg’s Human Development Index reflects high disparities in wealth and incomes between and among black and white residents of the city. As many as 120 000 households live below the minimum level calculated in 1999. The Gross Geographic Product per capita has stagnated over the last few years. In the face of this, the Municipal City Council of Johannesburg rightfully insists that it must `intervene in the market in order to assist in job creation and that it must consider a raft of `industrial policy tools’ to support the economy of the city. It also points to financial and business services, transport and communications, wholesale and retail trade and utilities [water, electricity and waste] as the key sectors, on which it will concentrate.

Local government has a critical role to play in the service of society, since it undertakes a number of very important tasks. In a country characterised by racial and other social inequalities, local government faces huge, complex and multi-faceted challenges in reorganising and reorienting previously divided and fragmented cities and towns in pursuit of new inclusive and democratic mandates and social provision for all, and especially the historically excluded and marginalised.

The services provided by local governments must deal with a range of competing demands which means that efficient and wide scale provision of services must be
accompanied by redistributive strategies that deal with the problems of historical disadvantage. Local government in particular shoulders a large part of the responsibility for dealing with the problem of apartheid services delivery, which is characterised as the unequal and racist allocation of local government services to poor communities. This responsibility presents local government with an extraordinary and difficult challenge. The effects of poverty alleviation strategies, including through the creation of new jobs, is directly related to the performance of local government.

As in the case of schools, it is in a range of services falling in the domain of local government that the direct successes and benefits or weaknesses and failures of government intervention can be felt. Real improvements in the lives of the poor can be vastly improved by the actions and behaviour of local government.

The city of Johannesburg has developed its plans in relation to interventions to improve the life of its communities, especially its poorest and most disadvantaged ones. It has taken the first step. A huge responsibility now lies with higher education and other social and economic institutions and organisations to join with the Municipal City Council of Johannesburg in its endeavour to alleviate the gross effects of apartheid in order to create an economically, socially, culturally and intellectually enriched life for all of its inhabitants.

How will higher education respond to these challenges? But I may be moving too quickly. In the light of previous experience, perhaps I should ask, will higher education respond to these challenges?

Local government’s ability to effectively discharge its role and myriad functions requires a much higher level of personnel competence, skills and knowledge. It requires the development of the leadership, management and administration expertise of the city’s workforce. The Government, at every level, is severely constrained by the paucity of high-level knowledge, competencies and the skills necessary to discharge its wide range of functions and services.

This is one of the reasons that the Government developed the Human Resource Development Strategy, of which the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labour are the custodians. Understanding the human resource development and knowledge needs of the Municipal City Council of Johannesburg and their relationship to the challenges of development is essential.

Local government also confronts various policy-related issues requiring policy analysis, formation, development and implementation. It is seized with the challenge of producing and sustaining continuous innovation in provision and delivery systems in a wide range of fields related to municipal services, finances, personnel and local government infrastructure.

Finally, and crucially, local government has to also address the important issue of how to engage with citizens and increase their consciousness about both their fundamental social rights as well as their obligations as citizens.

Higher education institutions can and must engage with the diverse needs of the local institutions of government. They must respond to the demands for high-level personnel to meet the requirements for the high-level knowledge and skills presupposed in the City’s plans.

These demands are consistent with the demands of the national Human Resource Development strategy, which is an investment in the economic and social future of our country. The strategy is profoundly mindful of the discriminatory practices that characterised education and training in the past. It is also mindful of the place of South Africa on the African continent and in the global economy. As such, the strategy asserts human dignity as the fundamental value informing human resource development and puts the realisation of the potential of each individual at its centre. It also sees employment and work as the instrument to bring about social justice for all.

The human resource development and skills development strategies are, of course, part of the broader policy and planning interventions of the Government, which include interventions which seek to address the challenges of health care, scientific innovation, competitive trade and industry and local government transformation. All of these speak in their different ways to the crucial role of developing the knowledge, skills and competencies of our people.

The City’s policy related and implementation challenges require higher education institutions to provide the intellectual resources for rigorous and creative scientific research of a basic, strategic, development and policy related nature. Such research is critical to planning and can make it possible for local authorities to better frame, investigate, understand, analyse and plan their processes, policies and strategies. Development is predicated on the ability of societies to produce continuous innovation in social and wealth creation processes so that difficult socio-economic challenges can be tackled. Research is essential to such innovation. The Ministry of Education and others such as the Ministry of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology have developed frameworks and policies to promote research and development for innovation. The Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme [THRIP] and the Innovation Fund are good examples in this regard.

Similarly, as mentioned earlier, ensuring that institutions provide particular programmes to support the development of the high-level human resource capacity required to address the City’s challenges is also important. Historically the City has provided some funding for students to pursue programmes at higher education institutions. This needs to continue, if not be increased! In doing so I would like to encourage you to direct this funding through the Government’s highly successful National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which has played an important role in broadening access to our public higher education system for those academically talented students from disadvantaged communities. Through the Scheme your contribution could be ring-fenced towards those areas of study, which are critical for the City’s development, thereby ensuring maximum gain for both the City as well as for our public system of higher education.

The responsiveness of higher education institutions is sometimes seen from the point of view of the needs of industry and commerce alone. Their needs are often treated as synonymous with the enterprise of scientific and technological knowledge production, which is viewed as no more than a response to the demands of economic development through industrial and trade strategies. These strategies are of course critically important. No country can hope to survive the harsh realities of global trade, financial and production regimes without a well-developed economy and a manufacturing, commercial and industry strategy.

The resources of higher education institutions must be harnessed to serve the larger society. This requires a fundamental change in the relationship between higher education institutions and society and communities. Let me re-emphasise, while in the past higher education could have been described as an institution in society, now it must be an institution of society. The social contract that links higher education institutions and society must be accordingly revised.

In this regard the notion of the ‘Civic University’, an institution that is rooted in and serves the needs of the broader society must be placed at the fore. While institutions are national assets, they also have a role to play in serving the city or the community in which they are located.

We must therefore examine the extent to which the curricula, research agenda’s and out reach programmes connect with the body politic. We must explore the way in which we can strengthen the interface between the academy and the public arena, beyond simply placing community representatives, or even local government representatives for that matter, on the governing structures of institutions. While this is clearly an important part of ensuring the link, we need to critically look at the extent to which for example local government representatives perform their role on these bodies, with respect to issues of accountability.

The changes in the relationship between higher education and society are however, in part, a consequence of the changes that have taken place in society in general, but particularly in the organisation of the world of work. This, in turn, has brought about a redefinition of the skills, competencies and knowledge that employers, whether public or private, expect to find in their staff, at all levels of employment.

However, I wish to re-iterate what I have said many times before, higher education institutions must be geared to be not only economically responsive but also socially responsive. They are also fundamental to the development of a conscious citizenry, the process of democratisation and a vibrant civil society.

Our concept of development must be broader than an industrial strategy, even though they are integral to each other. The demands of knowledge production at the local level go beyond the imperative of industrialisation and commerce. They speak equally to social empowerment, political engagement, cultural roduction and high levels of public participation in all aspects of society. For this to happen it demands the enrichment of individual capabilities and educated and cultured citizens. It is here that higher education institutions can and must develop creative partnerships, plans and roll out processes for the improvement of public life and for fostering public participation of citizens in the critical issues of the day. To quote the Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen

‘Freedom is both the primary objective, and the principal means of development... What a person has the actual capability to achieve, is influenced by economic opportunities, political liberties, social facilities, and the enabling conditions of good health, basic education, and the encouragement and cultivation of initiatives. These opportunities are, to a great extent, mutually complementary, and tend to reinforce one another.’

The fundamental point is that education is and must be more than about skills and competencies narrowly defined in relation to the needs of industry. Skills and competencies related to economic development are vitally important. The key issue, however, especially in the light of the Enron scandal and the lax business ethics it revealed, is to ensure that the skills and competencies we develop are embedded within the broad set of ethical and moral values and principles that give meaning to human existence.

These values and principles must be safeguarded against the incursions of international trade regimes that seek to designate education as just another service and commodity to be bought and sold. Education is surely not such a commodity, nor is it simply an instrument for the transfer of skills because of its wider intellectual, social, political and cultural role in the development of society and its institutions.

Higher education institutions must therefore exercise vigilance against these incursions that seek to redefine the meaning of education in ways that profoundly affect the core of the values and social purposes that our institutions must serve. The Ministry of Education is busy, as you all know, with the re-organisation of the higher education system. We seek to achieve a number of objectives in developing a system to meet the diverse needs of society, to increase access to higher education for poorer students and communities, to effect dramatic improvements in the outputs and efficiency of the higher education system as a whole, and of the staff and administration of these institutions, and to make qualitative leaps in the provision of education, research and community service in all institutions.

We have consistently argued that these achievements cannot be realised through solely the improvement of single institutions in the system. Wholesale transformation of the entire system is required. Systemic transformation presupposes much greater levels of cooperation and collaboration amongst and between institutions. And nowhere is this more necessary than in cities where there is a large and complex array of institutions. As the Municipal City Council of Johannesburg’s 2030 Report states:

‘Johannesburg and Gauteng are home to the majority of the countries scientific community, research institutions as well as a dozen tertiary institutions. Linkages between these sectors reached their zenith in the 1970s with relations between the mining industry and key universities and research councils. These relationships slowly eroded as the economy to some extent lost its direction. Now that a new vision with a new economic trajectory has emerged, the time is ripe for the strengthening of these relationships.’

Regrettably, the political geography of apartheid institutions prevented system wide collaboration around research, teaching and innovation. Where this did happen it was largely by chance, not deliberate and carefully thought through. In my view, this failure to collaborate has had adverse consequences for both the role of institutions and for public perceptions about them.

The complex and varied problems of development cannot be resolved by individual academics and institutions alone, even if an individual academic or institution might play a leading role in the resolution of such problems. The need to tackle problems on an interdisciplinary basis and bring together large-scale intellectual resources implies better coordination and higher levels of cooperation. It is also becoming impossible to compete in the global arena with the resources available to individual institutions. Collaboration is therefore both unavoidable and necessary.

The content and context of this collaboration is of great importance. Institutions in responding to the demands of society must seriously consider both th
e content of knowledge and skills and the capacity they bring into such collaborations. They need to respond to the challenges of the day in considered way in order to understand what the issues are, to look at the capacity requirements of dealing with these issues and to evaluate the capabilities that individual institutions have to participate in such collaborative efforts.

In the city of Johannesburg, for example, the renewal of the inner city poses a wide range of policy planning, financing and implementation questions. These relate both to the infrastructure of the city, its capacity for service provision and also to the social implications of interventions. It raises questions across conventional academic disciplines about the legal, economic, social, physical engineering, commercial, educational and indeed philosophical implications of such interventions.

Let me conclude on the issue of institutional mergers. The merger of institutions commenced by the Ministry are a very important aspect of institutional restructuring. However, the merging of institutions is not an end in itself. Mergers are part of a broader strategy for systemic transformation. They have to do with changes in curriculum, programme diversity and niches, qualifications offered, quality of outputs, composition of staff and students, research outputs and all those things which together imply a fundamental re-orientation of the work of institutions to the local and global contexts of their practices.

The current configuration of the higher education system is unable to respond adequately to the diverse challenges that confront our society. Unless our institutions are re-organized to function effectively and efficiently and with close attention to equity and quality they are unlikely to be innovative, dynamic and responsive institutions. This would inhibit their ability to make a powerful and critical contribution to the economic, social, cultural and intellectual development of South Africa. I have no doubt that the restructuring process and the incentives of funding will help to provoke systemic changes for the good of society and locate higher education institutions more firmly within their contexts.

Our country needs creative and bold approaches to difficult problems. We must understand that what we do or do not do today will have long-term social
consequences, including for higher education itself. I wish you every success with your deliberations and I am looking forward to hearing about the conclusions you reach and any recommendations that you may come up with.

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