Blade Nzimande’s merely intermittent attention to his portfolio is clearest in his disdain for Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education and training.
Before the election, members of the committee used to complain that Nzimande barely attended their meetings, even those specifically requiring him to present his department’s annual reports.
This year was more of the same: the new committee is already caught in a cat-and-mouse match with Nzimande.
He didn’t turn up for the tabling of the department’s annual report in October and has not graced the committee since May’s elections.
Similarly, during massive fee-related upheavals at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), Nzimande stayed put at the World Economic Forum in China. The forum ended on September 12, but when TUT closed its campus days later, Nzimande was still in China.
In some classic buck-passing, Nzimande rebuked the university’s management for failing to communicate to students that the government had allocated extra money to settle their fees.
But Nzimande’s strength – again – has undoubtedly been in the development of much-needed policies.
January’s white paper on post-school education and training is a blueprint for liberating from perennial poverty about 3.4-million 15- to 24-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training (the so-called “neets”). The paper’s impact hinges on opening real opportunities for these “neets” to gain skills in new institutions, to be called community colleges.
Yet this strength continues to be weakened by a worrying tardiness in implementation.
When Gloria Sekwena, a mother accompanying her son seeking admission to the University of Johannesburg, died in a stampede at the institution’s gates in January 2012, Nzimande promptly committed to introducing a centralised application system. But, three years later, where is this much-needed system?Gross university underfunding was the central theme of the 400-page, Cyril Ramaphosa-chaired ministerial task team report gazetted in February. More recent, but unconfirmed, research suggested universities need an extra R50-billion to keep functioning. This is the sum total of Nzimande’s 2014-2015 budget allocation – skills included.
In December, he said R2-billion in extra funding over five years would go to the poorest of the country’s 26 universities, starting in January 2015. But it will need a thoroughly more full-time minister to squeeze from the treasury anything close to what all 26 need.