A Cabinet with many mouths

Categories: | Author: Politics Research | Posted: 3/8/2012 | Views: 1312

Former British Labour politician and deputy Prime Minister, Lord Morrison of Lambeth (1888-1965) once said “I do not care what the members of the Cabinet say as long as they all say the same thing outside.” Given what is happening in President Zuma’s cabinet, South Africans may wish Lord Morrison were to rise from his peaceful grave and speak on their behalf.


On 11 November 2011, President Zuma received a 430 page-long National Development Plan from the National Planning Commission, chaired by Trevor Manuel – who is a Minister in the Presidency. This plan, developed by a team of respected specialists, was preceded by a diagnostic review of the challenges that beset our country, including education. It made a number of proposals on what should be done with our education system – from early childhood right through to higher education.   


Again on 12 January 2012, two Months after the release of the National Development Plan, the Minister of Higher Education released a 100 page-long Green Paper for post school-education and training. While the Green Paper was generally well received by the public, it reveals two fundamental weaknesses about the government of Jacob Zuma and Minister Nzimande: a divided cabinet and lack of clear thinking to rescue the education system.


That Dr Nzimande’s Green Paper could not find a sentence – let alone a footnote – to refer to the National Plan leaves rational observers with many questions. Those who might suggest that the Minister was not aware of the National Plan would say so only out of disrespect.


Yet the establishment of the planning commission, as outlined in its Green Paper of 2009, was premised on the honest acknowledgement that “Lack of a coherent long term plan has weakened our ability to provide clear and consistent policies… and weaknesses in coordination of government have led to policy inconsistencies and, in several cases, poor service delivery outcomes”.


We will recall that on receipt of the Plan, President Zuma said, among other things, that “all departments, provinces, municipalities and indeed all sectors of society must take the overall ownership and drive its implementation”. Why, then, does Dr Nzimande ignore his President’s instruction?


That the Plan is not yet adopted as a government policy is neither here nor there, for Nzimande’s Green Paper is itself not yet government policy. How are we to “take overall ownership and drive the implementation” of the Plan if Ministers like Nzimande treat it as if it does not exist?


Minister Nzimande’s contempt for the national plan is evident in the Green Paper and neither could he hide it in his public statements on the release of his Green Paper. Take for example his statement where he says, “The Green paper aims to align post-school education and training system with South Africa’s overall development agenda, with links to various development strategies such as the New Growth Path, the Industrial Policy Action Plan 2, the Human Resource Development Strategy for South Africa 2010-2030, and South Africa’s Ten- Year Innovation Plan”. Yet, he failed to acknowledge an invaluable report released by his own comrade in Cabinet, Trevor Manuel.


Even as the drafters of the National Plan do acknowledge the work that had already been underway toward Nzimande’s Green Paper, the incongruence of the targets spelt out in the two documents still tells a story of a government with many mouths.


The National Plan suggests that by 2030, enrolments in higher education should be increased to 1 620 000 and 1 250 000 for further education and training, 30 000 artisans per year, 5 000 doctoral graduates per year. Puling in its own direction the Green Paper calls for the capping of higher education enrolment at 1 500 000 by 2030. Its target for further education and training is 4000 000, and is non-committal on the number of artisans. Maybe there is a Marxist reason for this contradiction.


Given these incongruent messages, the public is left wondering whether to believe Minister Nzimande’s Green Paper or Minister Manuel’s Plan. Thus, the failure of the Green Paper to acknowledge the plan leaves us with no choice but to compare the two.


Those who have read both documents will not hide the truth that the National Plan has depth; that it is detailed; and that it is a shoulder above Dr Nzimande’s wordy Green Paper. For instance, the National Plan takes a holistic view of education, asserting the importance of quality primary education as a pre-condition for the development of globally competitive universities. Again in a different direction, the Green Paper throws rhetorical statements like “Equally important is for our universities to be creative and prolific creators of knowledge.” How?


Although no one can disagree with the Minister when he says “Improvement of throughput rates must be the top priority of university education”, the call that universities must create foundation programmes places a heavy burden on them to complement for the failures of basic education. This raises the question: Is the Minister trying to smuggle in his earlier proposal that universities should lower admission requirements in order to increase access? 


Maybe there will be another opportunity in another Green Paper for the Minister to clarify what he means by “foundation programmes”. If this question is not clarified, the line between university and high school will become even more blurry.


Already some universities are exploiting the notion of foundation programmes and have real high schools operating on their campuses, essentially offering senior certificate subjects. An impression is created to these hapless learners that they are in a university, when in fact they are in a high school – operating on a university campus.


The focus of the Green Paper on physical access to education presents Minister Nzimande as a person still stuck in the old debate of massification of higher education, with little or no grasp of real barriers to higher education. Whereas the development of infrastructure and building of more centres of learning would open the doors of learning – without dealing with challenges of epistemological access – merely setting foot in the lecture halls would be useless if the students cannot grasp the concepts. Thus the debate on access should be elevated to addressing real barriers to learning – the cognitive development of learners.    


The overemphasis and focus of the green paper on the challenges of our education system is unhelpful. Most of the issues it has raised are neither novel nor deeply reflected upon. The green paper could have made a significant contribution to discourse on education if it had focused on targeted plans to solve the problems already well known by the South African public.   


It could be that South Africans must engage in a serious debate about the role of a university. This might require revisiting the excellent work of Prof. Clark Kerr. In his influential book, The uses of a University he argues that one of the challenges of higher education is the improvement of undergraduate instruction in the university. Unfortunately, Nzimande’s Green Paper does not explain how this will be done.


Learning from experts in education must also be coupled with harmony in the messages that are sent out by government, especially by those who sit in higher echelons of the state.


As the drama of a South African Cabinet that speaks with many mouths continues to unfold, one can only hope that there shall come a time for President Zuma to put his foot down and say: I do not care what members of cabinet say, as long as they say the same thing in public.


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