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Wearing his HE hat, Nzimande backs department merger

Image: GovernmentZA [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr

South Africa’s minister of higher education, science and technology has backed the merger in May of the country’s science and higher education departments under one ministry.

Blade Nzimande gave the budget vote address of the Department of Higher Education and Training on 12 July. The budget vote for the Department of Science and Innovation took place on 9 July. The DHET budget of R73 billion (US$5bn) is almost ten times that of the DSI.

“This strategic realignment will further open huge opportunities in the production of both knowledge and skills and significantly contribute to innovation in our country,” he said. In his DSI budget speech Nzimande also placed an emphasis on innovation.

Delivering the higher education budget, he said that combining the departments was not just for “greater administrative efficiency or bureaucratic streamlining” but to combine the work into what he called a post-school knowledge and production system that will drive the country’s development goals.

Nzimande said that a national plan for post-school education has been completed and will soon be released. He called the plan a “roadmap for a more integrated, transformed, articulated and effective post-school system”. He added that the ministry is also working on a “skills master plan” which will focus on the skills requirements of the fourth industrial revolution. And a plan to combat gender violence in higher education will be finalised in the 2019/2020 financial year.

Nzimande warned that some wayward universities will receive closer scrutiny: “We are taking expeditious steps to prevent and rectify instances of maladministration, malfeasance and mismanagement of our institutions,” 

Buti Manamela, the deputy minister, promised that the department will give attention to mental health on South African campuses. Trauma and issues of mental health rose to the fore after the suicide of celebrated researcher Bongani Mayosi in the wake of the Fees Must Fall protests. A recent report on racism at the University of Cape Town also highlighted the mental strain faced by students and academics. Manamela said the department “will design and implement appropriate and relevant interventions to tackle the psycho-social issues that students face”.

Overall, MPs gave a more fiery response to the higher education budget speech than to Nzimande’s address at the DSI budget debate.

Philemon Mapulane, the African National Congress-affiliated chairman of the parliamentary portfolio committee for science and higher education, denounced students using violence to raise attention for their grievances. He also said that the committee is concerned about governance failures at universities, and that it is predominantly taking place at historically disadvantaged institutions.

Democratic Alliance shadow science minister Belinda Bozzoli backpedalled on what she said during the DSI budget vote, where she bemoaned the merger of the DHET and DSI. She now said the DA welcomes the merger. She said that learning, teaching and research is neglected by the DHET, which she claimed pays more attention to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and student funding in general. Student funding, she claimed, is unsustainable. 

Bozzoli also criticised quality control at universities and underfunding for the Council for Higher Education: “Many universities have become parochial, and inward looking, failing to provide the quality required.”

The Economic Freedom Fighters rejected the budget, as is usual. The EFF’s Khonziwe Hlonyana said that black PhD students should receive a “conditional once-off grant of R1 million” and reiterated the EFFs election manifesto claim that each student in the country should be given a laptop. She punted the party’s role in the Fees Must Fall protests, arguing that NSFAS does not work and that students are receiving their payment late, while accommodation issues remain crucial.

Hlonyana also said government should expand current universities rather than build new ones and establish satellite campuses in rural areas to relieve crowding in major cities.