With national protests for free higher education having flared up across the country again, Engineers Without Borders South Africa sees the need to clarify its stance on the state of higher education in South Africa, especially where it relates to technical professions.
EWB-SA sees the severe inequality in South Africa as a stifling force, crippling the socio-economic development of South African communities and disadvantaging the professional and personal development of engineering graduates, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We see the causes of persistent inequality in South Africa as being systemic and believe that structural reforms to date have provided insufficient measures for viable transformation in industry, the engineering and construction sectors. EWB-SA is in full support of the wider movement to decolonialise educational syllabi and to drastically improve accessibility of quality, broad-based education. Broad-based education should not be focused solely on university degrees, which by their nature are tailored towards academically strong individuals.
Industry, the engineering and construction sectors have been accomplice to a drying up of vocational skills training programmes over the past two decades. South Africa’s labour market, entrepreneurial ecosystem and economy are suffering from the consequences of insufficient skilled artisans, technicians and technologists. To date inadequate quality educational opportunities exist for young South Africans to pursue career opportunities with fair graduate pay outside of the academic context. This has turned universities into the stepping stone to prosperity in South Africa. Yet we believe that academia’s primary goal is the pursuit of knowledge, not of wealth creation.
A university degree is designed to equip graduates with the tools required to craft their own career. It presents an opportunity for students to expand their talents, to learn, to fail and to grow. It should provide exposure to options of pursuing entrepreneurship, a corporate career or academic research. It is important to acknowledge that it does not guarantee success or wealth but rather the skills required to attain knowledge and pursue excellence, which may (or may not) lead to prosperity. It is the process that students undergo at university—of being challenged with difficult and advanced ideas, of debating and ultimately of challenging those ideas—that transforms students into professionals and that is important, not so much the title upon graduation.
We need jewellers as much as we need metallurgists. We need many skilled bricklayers, as well as civil engineers. We need boiler makers and mechanical engineers. In a healthy social system all of these professions must provide a sustainable livelihood and be respected as career paths. To unfold the potential of South Africa’s youth majority, a spectrum of educational opportunities must be made available, so that diverse talents can be developed. We need South Africa’s youth to be developed and nurtured into global citizens, equipped to take on the challenges of a changing world all the while providing local relevance.
EWB-SA sees the current state of affairs in South Africa as a national crisis. Whether you personally agree, disagree, or lie somewhere in the middle with the current protests, we can all agree that the past two years have highlighted challenging issues that urgently need to be addressed in our society. These issues have opened up difficult and complex debates. We don’t claim to have the answers, but EWB-SA is certainly trying to do its part in tackling these issues. How can you contribute towards solving these problems and what are you going to do?
We call on our student chapters to broaden the perspective of the protests beyond the universities to include the whole spectrum of training and educational opportunities. We call on the engineering sector and our graduate community to engage with us on inequality, transformation and graduate development, and on the Engineering Council of South Africa to provide a strategy for youth engagement and promotion within the country’s technical professions. The current protests concern all of us – whether student, graduate, management or retired. We have a responsibility to create a South Africa with opportunities for all.