New national commission needed to probe state of higher education – Expert

Edwin Naidu. Picture; Supplied

Edwin Naidu. Picture; Supplied

Published Apr 26, 2024


Professor Jairam Reddy, one of the architects behind the founding vision of tertiary education in the post-apartheid era, has called for a review of the state of higher education, writes Edwin Naidu


AS SOUTH Africa prepares to celebrate 30 years of democracy, Professor Jairam Reddy, one of the architects behind the founding vision of tertiary education in the post-apartheid era, has called for a review of the state of higher education.

Having chaired the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) in 1995, during the tenure of the country’s first democratic minister of education, Professor Sibusiso Bengu, Reddy told University World News that the time was ripe for a new commission.

This commission should swiftly review the state of higher education and propose urgent changes.

Unlike the NCHE, which he chaired for 18 months, Reddy said this should be a shorter exercise – perhaps six months – and involve about five experts on higher education, including one international expert.

The NCHE report’s proposals were used to draft the post-apartheid White Paper on Higher Education, which provided the policy outline for the Higher Education Act. A new review would guide the needs of the future.

Reddy, a former council chair at the Durban University of Technology, also called on the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) to review the standard institutional statutes regarding university councils and the suitability of leadership, given the changes in the higher education environment during the past 15 years.

He said the DHET task force, of which he was a member, examined the university councils and made recommendations, among them reducing the number of council members from 30 to 24 or 20, with ministerial nominees reduced from five to three.

The task force asked the DHET to consider requiring institutions to amend their statutes over time to provide for separate institutional laws and rules. A workshop for councils to discuss the recommendations is on the cards.

Considering recent developments in higher education, Reddy’s call for a review of the tertiary system is premised on identifying the strengths and weaknesses of higher education and critically evaluating the effectiveness of certain institutional mergers that were initiated by Professor Kader Asmal, the minister of education, and were implemented by him and his successor, Naledi Pandor. The mergers took place in 2004 and 2005.

Another crucial aspect, he said, relates to the quality of the higher education system. Have the Council on Higher Education and the Higher Education Quality Committee, or HEQC, been successful in improving the quality of higher education, or have they been expensive and cumbersome bureaucracies?

A further question is whether race and its implications have been dealt with in the South African higher education system.


The funding of the higher education system needs to be looked again, too – is it adequate and equitable and what is the efficacy of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), the government’s bursary scheme for students which has been struggling to overcome a myriad of problems?

Reddy said the NCHE recommended a well-thought-out funding model for students in tertiary education in which students who could afford university fees were not to be funded; a second category, which comprised most of the incoming black students, previously denied university education and mostly from poor backgrounds, were to be given bursaries; a third category in the middle who could afford partial fees were to be given loans to be repaid on graduation and entering the world of work.

“The model worked well for a few years, though the loan repayment rate was very low. This model was turned on its head during the presidency of Jacob Zuma and during the #FeesMustFall campaign. Most students expected to be fully funded, which is simply unaffordable, despite a considerable increase in NSFAS funding,” he said.

Reddy, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Durban-Westville (which merged with the University of Natal to become the University of KwaZulu-Natal), said the funds were initially transferred to universities and dispersed according to their student requirements.

Then, at some point, the dispersing of NSFAS funds was centralised. He said this has led to ongoing problems, including the current issues related to the fund.

“If the funding is outsourced to individual universities, they are in a better position to disperse the funds. In some cases, universities would need assistance, which can be easily provided. The whole model of NSFAS funding, as currently administered, needs to be revisited,” he said.

Reddy also proposes an assessment of corruption and mismanagement in higher education. “Regrettably, the pervasive corruption and mismanagement in the country has reached the doors of universities,” he lamented.

Parliamentary assessment

The state of South African higher education since democracy also came under sharp focus in the South African Parliament on 20 March 2024, when Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, the outgoing chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation, presented her team’s final report.

She said there was plenty to celebrate over the past 30 years, but more needs to be done.

The portfolio committee, which oversees the DHET and the Department of Science and Innovation, elaborated on the success of education under 30 years of democracy. Mkhatshwa recalled key achievements and listed critical areas for improvement.

Looking back on the changes in higher education, Mkhatshwa reminded members that, in 2004 and 2005, mergers and incorporations were implemented. This was preceded in 2001 by the merger of 152 Technical Colleges to 50.

In 2009, the Department of Education was split into the Departments of Basic Education and Higher Education and Training. SETAs (sector education and training authorities) were migrated from the Department of Labour to DHET in the same year. In 2012, FET (further education and training) colleges (renamed Technical and Vocational Education and Training colleges or TVETs) were migrated to DHET.

In their recommendations for future members, Mkhatshwa said the committee found that the critical remaining challenges include tackling the sector’s slow transformation, which remains a concern, and inadequate policies and procedures to address gender-based violence.

She said in its legacy report the committee stated it was concerned about governance and management challenges, including institutions being placed under administration, some more than once.

Other areas of concern, according to Mkhatshwa, were the growing student debt and the disparities in the concessions given by institutions, which are causes for concern. Unpaid student debt since 1994 is estimated at around ZAR16 billion (about US$841 million). Funding for the ‘missing middle’ was another priority. This refers to the group of students who neither qualified for NSFAS bursaries nor could afford to study without financial aid.

From massification to focus on student success

Despite enormous challenges, progress has been made since 1994, with the tertiary landscape evolving dramatically over the past three decades, according to Professor Francis Petersen, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and the chairperson of Universities South Africa.

He said the 1997 White Paper on Higher Education focused on equity, quality, excellence, responsiveness and good governance to increase and broaden participation in higher education.

Two years later, in 1999, Petersen added, the higher education landscape was reviewed in terms of size (enrolments, participation rates and number of institutions) and shape (nature of the institutions), leading to mergers to inaugurate new institutions.

A total of 36 institutions have been merged or incorporated, leaving 24 consolidated higher education institutions in South Africa. By 2024, 26 public universities exist, including more recently established institutions: Sol Plaatje and Mpumalanga universities.

“Where increasing access (or massification) to higher education has been one of the critical drivers since democracy, the focus has expanded to student success over the past 15 years. This has resulted in measuring the achievement gap between black and white students, which has been reduced over the past 15 years,” he said.

Petersen said the 2016 #FeesMust Fall campaign was a crucial disruptor in higher education, not only challenging excessive fees students had to pay but framing pertinent issues such as transformation and how universities should become more inclusive spaces, the decolonisation of the curricula, insourcing of staff (social justice imperative), sexual assault, gender-based violence and mental health.

Higher education has grappled with and is still grappling with some of these issues. In terms of the #FeesMustFall protest, students achieved in two weeks what many university leaders have been unable to do in years by sending a wake-up call to the government about the funding of higher education.

One of the country’s top academics, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and now the rector of the United Nations University in Japan, says one of the often-ignored facts about post-apartheid research in higher education is that South African universities do more research today than ever before.

Furthermore, the proportion of people with doctoral degrees in South African universities is also historically high. “What is missing is taking this research into innovation and products,” Marwala said.

Edwin Naidu is a communications professional and education editor.