Social transformation through higher education

DRIVING CHANGE: Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande
DRIVING CHANGE: Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande

As a developing economy, South Africa needs to strengthen vocation and technical training

HIGHER education and knowledge production in Africa has not had the same kind of achievements over the last 50 years or so compared to other parts of the world.

African higher education grew significantly in the 1960s and '70s. However, from the '70s there were huge reversals due to a combination of economic crisis, structural adjustment programmes and particular policy impositions.

A particularly aggravating factor was the World Bank's decision to drastically downscale funding of higher education in favour of primary education. This foolish policy almost destroyed higher education in many African countries, especially postgraduate education.

This also impacted negatively on basic education which depends on higher education to produce its teachers and contribute to developing its curricula.

This weakening of African higher education has led to a crisis in continental intellectual production.

Instead of being producers of knowledge, African academics increasingly became mere consumers of western knowledge.

Instead of being independent intellectuals, they became interlocutors between domestic populations and the metropolitan research establishments.

Often, they were mere collectors of primary data which was then analysed and interpreted by European or North American researchers.

When African intellectuals assisted Western scholars to interpret Africa, they were seldom given credit.

South Africa, ironically, was not as badly affected as the rest of the continent since the apartheid regime protected those institutions serving the white community.

Black institutions were generally weak and not geared to producing, especially post-graduate level knowledge.

South Africa was thus a microcosm of the unequal global intellectual relations, thus validating our liberation movement's description of apartheid as "colonialism of a special type". Transforming these realities is one of my priorities.

In the African context, one of the factors that have affected the nature of knowledge production is the issue of language.

The underdevelopment of African languages is mainly due to the imposition of colonial languages whose paradigms have not been informed by African realities. Languages such as English, French and Portuguese have helped us to connect with the wider world in various ways: culturally, intellectually, politically and economically.

Nonetheless, the marginalisation of our indigenous languages has impacted on the psychology of our people, contributing significantly to what the great Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiongo, referred to as "the colonialisation of the mind of the African people".

In South Africa we are beginning to explore modalities for integrating African languages into training and knowledge production as well as building links with similar efforts elsewhere on the African continent.

We believe African languages can be developed into languages of science and academia.

The problems of African higher education have centrally contributed to the brain drain - the migration of our best academics and postgraduate students to the north.

This phenomenon affects all developing countries and affects our abilities to build sustainable environments, sustainable economies and sustainable, stable societies.

We must therefore strive to strengthen and promote South-to-South collaborations in the study of science and technology, as well as in the social sciences, humanities and cultural production.

We must continue to participate with scholars from the developed world, recognising and respecting their strengths.

We need to reclaim our history. We are, to a significant extent, still prisoners of European interpretations of our histories. We should actively collaborate with one another to challenge Western imposed orthodoxies in these ventures lest we fall into the trap of developing narrow nationalist views of human development.

It is common nowadays for regional blocs across the world to integrate their economies to create larger economic entities.

This is important and can help to raise living standards if handled with sensitivity to issues of fairness and equity.

Proper cooperation between countries on issues of the economy and the environment is essential in developing a sustainable world order.

But this cooperation must go further to integrate our intellectual efforts on post graduate studies and knowledge production, and research should be at the centre of such efforts.

Higher education institutions should play a role in promoting local economies and communities. Universities must become intellectual resources in their communities, linking these localities with the wider national and global context.

A key challenge for developing countries is to simultaneously strengthen technical and vocational education on the one hand, and social sciences and the humanities on the other.

The latter can contribute to the eradication of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination and the building of social cohesion. This is crucial social development.

We are also of the view that building bridges between natural and social sciences is essential in ensuring that the human dimension of science and technology is given prominence. This is one of the things that Cuba has always kept in mind and is a lesson from which we could all learn.

As developing countries, we need to protect current investment into education, including postgraduate studies. Consequently, our expectation from this conference is that it should be an important platform for sharing knowledge among the developing countries.

I cannot emphasise enough the significance of knowledge production and higher education in the drive towards tackling inequalities and promoting sustainable development in highly unequal societies.

Cuban Minister of Higher Education Miguel Diaz-Canel drew a very clear link between economic development and equity when he made the point that a move towards greater equity is a move towards economic development.

I couldn't agree more.

  • Dr Nzimande is minister of higher education and training. This is an edited version of a speech he delivered at the eighth international congress on higher education in Cuba.