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Mandela’s belief that education can change the world is still a dream

Nelson Mandela believed education is the most powerful weapon which can change the world. Reuters/Antony Kaminju

Universities can play an important part in fulfilling Nelson Mandela’s much-quoted belief that:

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

Mandela Day, the late South African president’s birthday, is an opportunity to reflect on how his statement of intent actually works in practice. How does education enable us to change the world?

Universities can make a contribution in two ways: through the empowerment of individuals and through the generation of knowledge.

What universities can do for students

Universities train people to be professionals who will be able to make a positive contribution to society in various fields. They produce medical doctors, teachers and engineers; entrepreneurs, artists and scientists. In this way, higher education is both a private good and a public good.

Individuals – especially in poorer countries – stand a better chance of getting a good job with a university degree. According to the World Bank the average increase in earnings for every additional year of tertiary education is 21% in sub-Saharan Africa, measured over the period 1970 to 2013.

South Africa’s department of higher education has picked up on this, noting:

Education has long been recognised as a route out of poverty for individuals, and as a way of promoting equality of opportunity.

In South Africa, enrolment in higher education institutions rose from 490,494 students in 1994 to 837,644 in 2009 – a 71% increase. In this post-apartheid era, improvements in the university participation rate coincided with significant demographic changes in the student population. Two-thirds of university students were black in 2009, compared with just 32% in 1990.

The goal is to maintain this momentum. The government foresees an increase in participation rates from the 2011 figure of 17.3% to 25% by 2030 – from 937,000 students to 1.6 million enrolments.

And at the same time, it plans to broaden access for individuals from previously excluded and disadvantaged groups even more because the:

… achievement of greater social justice is closely dependent on equitable access by all sections of the population to quality education.

What research can do for society

The second way in which Madiba’s statement about education works in practice is through research that generates reliable and relevant knowledge.

The world is faced with what are called “wicked problems” – highly complex challenges whose potential solutions require creative, interdisciplinary thinking.

Universities are well placed to contribute to the search for solutions to these complex problems by drawing from a range of disciplines: the environment, conflict management, health, water, food security and social cohesion. Academics – and students, particularly at postgraduate level – engage in scientific research that generates new knowledge in the search for solutions to a variety of problems, including health challenges.

Consider, for example, the work of Ronald van Toorn, a senior specialist in paediatric neurology at Stellenbosch University. As part of his PhD studies, he found that certain innovative treatments offer children with tuberculosis meningitis a much better chance of survival.

These treatments may also enable children who have been left paralysed or blind by this serious condition – the most common form of bacterial meningitis in the Western Cape – to walk or see again.

A PhD represents a university’s top training product. Working towards a doctorate, you not only absorb large volumes of knowledge in a particular field of study, but you also learn to generate new knowledge yourself. This is what Van Toorn has done. And this is also what our country and continent needs much more of.

The National Development Plan sets South Africa a target of more than 100 PhDs per million by 2030, compared to the 28 per million currently, considered low by international standards.

To achieve this target, South Africa needs more than 5000 doctoral graduates per year – considerably more than the 1420 produced in 2010, but attainable if the growth in graduates at this level between 2008 and 2013 (12.3% per annum) is maintained.

Earlier this year, the Centre for Higher Education Transformation reported that among South African students, African doctoral enrolments (5065) first exceeded white enrolments (4853) in 2010, and African graduates (821) at this level first exceeded white graduates (816) in 2012.

Yet, with the white population making up only 8.4% of the country’s population, compared to 80.2% African, South Africa still has a long way to go to achieve better participation and throughput rates.

What society can do for students and universities

But the planned expansion of access does not only require making places available in higher education institutions. As the government says:

Education and training must also be affordable for potential students. To this end the government has significantly increased the funds available for student loans and bursaries, particularly through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

But the scheme has been mired in controversy. Students have protested for not receiving funding timeously or not at all. It seems the problems go deep. In May, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande confirmed there would be a probe into corrupt practices. This is a welcome move.

Universities also receive and disburse financial aid from sources other than the state. More than one-third of Stellenbosch students receive some form of financial aid. Last year the university paid out bursaries and loans to nearly 55% of its revenue from student fees.

Bursaries are an excellent way to ensure that young people from across the class, and in South Africa’s case colour, divides are offered the opportunity to develop as individuals and to contribute to the country’s knowledge bank.

When Madiba was awarded an honorary doctorate from Stellenbosch University in 1996, he said in his acceptance speech:

This occasion is testimony to the fact that we South Africans have struck out on the road of building a joint future, that we are in the process of breaking down the divisive bulwarks of the past and building up a new nation – united in all its rich diversity.

Almost two years after Madiba’s death the challenge remains to use education to change South Africa, and the rest of the world. This makes bursary donations – the gift of education – an appropriate tribute to the man who continues to teach us about the virtue of selfless service to others.

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