News Column

Let's put the 'higher' back into higher education, for a start

June 1, 2014

Wilmot James

Naspers'sKoos Bekker is a technology entrepreneur of global standing. I once asked him what his businesses needed from the government.

"All we need is good schooling, good universities and a stable regulatory regime," he said.

Software engineers who write complex algorithms, create internet-based applications and good universities must educate them.

But Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande's aversion to high-end institutions excludes our better universities from doing so. Furthermore, we need enough young people to enrol as engineering students.

Typically those come from high schools where pupils do very well at mathematics.

For that we need an excellent schooling system, which we simply do not have.

(The World Economic Forum ranks our maths and science education at 143rd out of 148 countries.)

We need a stable and sympathetic regulatory system, free of corruption. We need to stop protecting an inefficient Telkom monopoly simply because the state has a stake in it: our economy could do so much better if private companies were allowed to roll out the broadband internet services everyone needs.

To show the sheer quantum of high-paying work that a vibrant internet-based economy creates, Tencent (Naspers has a stake in the Chinese internet company) now employs more than 10 000 engineers with university degrees. On a single day last year (September 1, the traditional starting date) one thousand new engineers joined the company.

Learning from this example, for government to play its part more generally in creating jobs and stimulating growth, Nzimande should put his money into the best universities to deal with our skills shortage (we are short 13 449 managers and 14 726 professionals, according to Department of Labour 2012/2013 data) and into strategic skill areas that show the greatest promise.

But Nzimande sidelines the universities - the enrolment growth rate is limited to 2.8 percent between last year and 2030 - while boldly driving enrolments in technical, vocational and community colleges - 10.9 percent.

The problem is that the colleges do not work but the universities (at least most) actually do.

As for having a stable intellectual property rights regime, the re-appointed Trade and Industry Minister Robert Davies has been adept at disrupting our current arrangements without presenting a proper system to manage the transition from old to new.

Davies's Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Act now incorporates indigenous knowledge, which has of course to be protected, by diluting existing laws that protect copyright, new design and innovations in performance art.

Under the guise of reducing medicinal prices, a good thing certainly, the cabinet approved the 2013 Draft National Policy on Intellectual Property which, if confirmed as policy, would permit Davies to seize patents under poorly-defined "emergency conditions", stopping many global pharmaceutical companies from putting millions into research and development into medicines.

Regarding the internet, the backbone of the knowledge economy, the 2014 World Economic Forum'sGlobal Information Technology (IT) report has confirmed a decline in South Africa's IT infrastructure and the skyrocketing costs of internet connectivity.

Our speed ranking dropped drastically (73/144, a 7-spot drop since 2013) and for accessibility, modestly (87/144, a 2-spot drop since 2013). Our prepaid mobile cellular tariff is exceptionally high (128/144) and fixed broadband internet tariff (91/ 144) rankings have also become worse compared to previous years.

The World Bank identifies broadband connectivity as a catalyst for economic growth with every 10 percent increase in connectivity enabling a 1.38 percent growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

But instead of appointing someone with the qualities to turn our deteriorating situation around, President Jacob Zuma puts his spy-in-chief, Minister Siyabonga Cwele, in charge of Telecommunications.

This is the very same Cwele who spearheaded the introduction of the controversial "Secrecy Bill" and went to great lengths to cover up the Nkandla scandal. Appointing Cwele is a chilling move.

The government's Information and Communications Technology (ICT) policy and entities should have nothing to do with content, apart from regulating in favour of competition, consumer interests and economic growth.

But Cwele's lack of prior experience in the telecoms sector, aggravated by his security focus, could be an inhibiting factor in a sector that needs to support free thinkers, mavericks and dynamic entrepreneurs. The frontline ministries for growth and jobs have become larger and more incoherent.

When the government ought to focus on reducing the public sector wage bill, creating a Ministry of Small Business Development increases costs.

Minister Lindiwe Zulu will also spend her time finding breathing space for small business only by fighting Davies, who seeks to regulate everything that moves.

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant should get out there and solve the intractable strikes in the mining sector so damaging to livelihoods.

Giving energy, about to undertake a R1 trillion build programme, to Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson is an act of lunacy.

As reported by the Public Protector, Pettersson is incapable of following due process and will probably disrupt the required sequence of high-level decisions needed to supply energy sustainably.

On the positive side, the Treasury is in safe hands with Minister Nhlanhla Nene. Soft-spoken, he is no pushover. Science and technology, central to the knowledge economy, well-led by minister Derek Hanekom, is now with the equally capable Minister Naledi Pandor.

Can Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa bring real focus to job creation and economic progress as outlined in the NDP?

I have my doubts, but let's see how things develop.

l Dr James, MP, is DA Federal Chairperson.

Weekend Argus

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Source: Weekend Argus (South Africa)

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