Provision of free education lets all of us help build Mandela legacy

The writer asks if the announcement of fee-free education by the president was meant to advance the agenda of one faction of the ANC during the party's elective conference last month. / Moeletsi Mabe
The writer asks if the announcement of fee-free education by the president was meant to advance the agenda of one faction of the ANC during the party's elective conference last month. / Moeletsi Mabe
Image: MOELETSI MABE

The universal refrain that education is the ultimate equaliser and an eradicator of poverty remains true.

In South Africa, since 1994, the quest for quality and affordable education has been the government's top priority.

A major breakthrough in this regard occurred with the announcement by the government of free higher education for the poor.

As from this year, first-year university students from families earning below R350000 will be exempted from paying fees. This is the first phase of ensuring quality and affordable higher education which will be expanded in time.

Equally important is the move to make education at technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges more accessible.

In our rapidly changing world there is a need to match education and training with the skills needed in the market.

Research has shown that skills shortages in South Africa are often linked to a mismatch between education and the required skills that business needs.

The government strongly believes that TVET colleges can deliver the skills and training that are essential to addressing the skills gap in the economy. Efforts are under way to strengthen partnerships between TVET colleges and the private sector. Eventually we expect more companies to offer internships to students from TVET colleges.

We are confident that providing more students with a chance to access higher education is essential for our nation.

For our economy to grow and deliver jobs and vital infrastructure we need to address the shortage of scarce and critical skills such as engineering, science and artisanship.

By opening the higher education landscape to more students we will maximise the potential of our youth to change their lives and that of their communities. Promising students, who are often excluded simply because they cannot afford, will be able to achieve their goals.

All of us, however, have a duty to do all we can to educate and skill the next generation. Therefore, the government calls on business to absorb and open opportunities for talented young people to work.

Our first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, was a strident advocate of the power of education. Throughout his presidency he worked to open the doors of knowledge to young people.

He once famously said: "Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworker can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another."

As we celebrate his legacy in this year of the Nelson Mandela centenary, we are forever reminded of our duty to the next generation. It remains true that quality higher education is but the first step to a successful and meaningful career.

Those who decry the move to provide quality and affordable higher education to needy students are out of step with the realities of our nation.

The closed-shop arrangement of the past, where only those with the means could study, cannot be tolerated. Instead, our ultimate goal should be to open all the doors of learning.

Critics of free higher education have pointed out the high dropout rate of first-year students. The government acknowledges that this is a problem, however, it is being addressed in the overall funding model. Often students give up on studies not only because of academic challenges but due to a variety of external pressures such as issues about fees, study materials, accommodation, travel concerns and food.

Faced with such hurdles it is hardly surprising that students have an uphill task in succeeding.

Our funding model thus seeks to address all these challenges, thereby giving students the best possible chance at success.

Other barriers such as the culture of higher education institutions, which are often unwelcoming to students are being addressed. We are determined that our campuses must reflect the values, ethos and vibrancy of our nation.

They must be places where all students feel at home, only then will universities be best placed to unleash the limitless potential that resides in our youth.

By harnessing the potential in our youths we can be assured that the millions of educated, ambitious and hardworking citizens are ready to move South Africa forward.

Therefore, the rallying call during the Nelson Mandela centenary is for everyone to: "Be the Legacy".

Let us therefore build a new legacy by ensuring there are opportunities available for all to live their dreams.

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