Chairperson and hon members of the House, firstly, let me say thank you very much to the House and congratulations for deciding to debate this matter.
On 26 June 1955, a group of extraordinary men and women convened in Kliptown, Johannesburg, and adopted the Freedom Charter, which became the basis of the basic human rights enshrined in our Constitution. The Freedom Charter declared that "the doors of learning and culture shall be opened." It also stated:
... education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children. Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit. Since 1994, we have made significant progress in terms of opening the doors of learning through increased access for students from the working class and the poor. However, we still face immense challenges as many students, despite our best efforts, cannot proceed with their studies due to a lack of financial resources, inadequate or poor academic support and their inability to find jobs that would change their economic circumstances.
Critical to the commitment of government, though, to ensure access for all, President Zuma decided, in 2009, to create a dedicated Department of Higher Education and Training, and this is beginning to yield positive results.
Our department has built on the advances made since 1994, and on its own has also added further impetus with its own new interventions to ensure both improved access to and success in higher education and training, with a specific focus on students from the working class and the poor.
Allow me, Chairperson, to share with the House some of the interventions we have made since 2009, and some of the plans we have to improve access and success in higher education and training.
We have sought to define our mandate as that of expanding post-school education and training, in order to emphasise the fact that we have to respond to the education and training needs of all those who have left school and are unlikely to return, whether they have matric or not. This mandate allows us to better respond to the various needs of youths and adults who are out of school.
The Department of Higher Education and Training has received R37,4 billion in this financial year, of which R9,1 billion is levies for the sector education and training authorities, the Setas, and the National Skills Fund. Four billion rand was allocated to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, NSFAS, this financial year.
With regard to further improving access for poor students at universities, as from the beginning of this year, all final year students who qualify for the NSFAS have received loans equivalent to the full cost of study. This includes tuition, accommodation, food and books. If they successfully complete their studies, these loans will be converted into a full bursary, which means they will not have to pay it back.
Again, as from this year, all further education and training, FET, college students, who are pursuing the National Certificate Vocational or National Technical Education, Nated, programmes and qualify for NSFAS, have also been completely exempted from paying fees. This is indeed the first of its kind in our country. [Applause.]
In addition to this, our department has also set aside a special bursary fund of about R77 million, dedicated to supporting students with disabilities at universities and to cover the full cost of their studies.
The department has also set aside an amount of R200 million this year to assist all those students who have successfully completed their university diplomas and degrees, but have not received their certificates or have not graduated since they owe money to universities.
This money will be in the form of a loan to cover all students between 2000 and 2010 and is to be paid back once the student starts working. This fund is estimated to benefit about 25 000 students, according to the records we have been given by the universities. We are, however, concerned that there is slow uptake of this offer. We call upon hon members of the NCOP to please also help to spread the word in this regard because we know that there are many of these students out there. The NSFAS funding has increased the most in any one year for universities since its inception in 1999, with a 27,8% increase between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 financial years. During this period, we have also tripled in one year the allocation of full bursary support for FET colleges, from R318 million to R1,235 billion.
I am pleased to also inform you that the NSFAS has received an unqualified audit for this financial year after the many years that it had been getting qualified audits. [Applause.] This is after our own interventions in setting up a new board and giving it very clear marching orders on the need to sort out this scheme, as it is our main weapon to support students from poor backgrounds. The fund is now in a healthy state to continue to assist poor students.
I have further instructed the board of NSFAS to explore options and possibilities of giving financial assistance to those students whose family income is above the NSFAS threshold, yet whose families are still poor. For instance, the threshold is R122 000 per annum family income, but if you are earning R125 000, it doesn't mean you are rich, yet you don't qualify and the banks will also not give you a loan to educate your children.
So, I have asked the NSFAS to actually explore a mechanism and a method through which we can address this, because in essence, by the way, this affects our nurses, policemen and policewomen, teachers, and all those professions.
The NSFAS annual report for 2010-11, of course, showcased various students from these poor communities. One student, Lesego Shoromoma, who is a graduate from the North-West University and comes from a poor family in Orkney, North West province, reflected, and I quote:
NSFAS provided me with funding for tuition fees, accommodation and textbooks that I would not have acquired on my own due to my family's situation.
You will agree with me, however, that money alone will not solve all of our problems.
With regard to universities, my department continues to provide earmarked funds for academic support, particularly targeted at students who require such assistance. In addition, we are restructuring our own budget in order to give additional funds to historically disadvantaged institutions in order to address the many infrastructure backlogs in these institutions.
We are also exploring setting up a dedicated financial assistance programme in the form of a bursary for lecturers in the historically disadvantaged universities, to improve their qualifications, so that we significantly increase the number of lecturers with PhDs in these institutions.
The department has also earmarked what we call teaching development grants for the 2012-13 financial year, to the tune of R499 million, to improve the quality of learning and teaching, especially in our historically disadvantaged institutions.
Over the next two years we will be allocating to these universities R600 million for student housing and R900 million for infrastructure backlogs. We are also having discussions with the National Treasury to explore additional avenues to address infrastructure for the entire postschool education and training landscape.
We have also embarked on an extensive change strategy to improve quality in our FET colleges. Particular attention is being paid to the improvement of governance, financial management, curriculum and programme mix. This is to ensure that these institutions offer relevant programmes that will improve both the pass rates as well as the employability of FET college graduates. We have developed a student support scheme for these colleges that we will be rolling out soon.
Earlier this year, in fact in July 2011, government, labour, business and community representatives at Nedlac signed a National Skills Accord as part of significantly increasing training and skills development, especially for the youth. In this Accord, employers, including state-owned enterprises, have agreed to open their workplaces to FET college lecturers to be exposed to current technologies in industry today, so that the knowledge they impart to students is relevant to current employer needs.
Indeed, our biggest challenge still remains the low throughput rate in both our universities and colleges. Whilst these interventions will go a long way in improving quality and also the pass rate, it is also important that you join us, as members of the House, to take out the message, to say to our students that they should make use of the opportunities provided by this ANC-led government and work hard in order to pass. It is also because of slow throughput that our department has set aside R194 million for foundation programmes designed to support and develop underprepared students.
Another related but distinct matter that we are addressing is that of closer relationships and articulation between FET college qualifications and universities. I have asked all the quality councils to look into this matter, as a matter of extreme urgency, so that the progression between FET colleges and universities for those students who want to do that, becomes a reality.
Allow me also to say that one of the critical dimensions of post-school education and training is to strengthen work-integrated learning. The National Skills Accord further commits employers to identify training capacity beyond their needs in order to place young people doing apprenticeships and other learnerships in their workplaces. The partners have agreed that such trainees will not be guaranteed employment when they finish, just as they will not be used as substitutes for permanent workers.
I am pleased to announce that as of 30 September 2011, working together with the sector education and training authorities, Setas, various employers have already registered 11 335 learnerships and apprenticeships against the target we have set for this financial year of 30 000 placements. Many of these are FET college students who otherwise would not have received an opportunity to get workplace exposure.
We have also set the Setas the task of working closely with FET colleges and universities of technology in order to facilitate student placement. I'm pleased also to announce, by the way, that one of our state-owned enterprises, Telkom, has actually committed to an intake of people doing learnerships and apprenticeships of 10 000 during this financial year. [Applause.]
Moving towards closure, let me say that underpinning all our work is also a strategy that we are developing to combat corruption in the entire public education and training system, in order to ensure that every cent meant for the education of our people is used only - and only - for that.
All these things are meant to ensure that we build an accessible, quality, affordable postschool education and training system with a particular focus on our youth. I thank you. [Applause.]