Transforming SA one healthy & productive student at a time

Safety and wellness of students and youth – with a focus on GBV prevention, took centre stage at a sector meeting organised by the Higher Education and Training Health Wellness and Development Centre (HEAIDS). Speaking to guests and stakeholders – among them vice chancellors and principals of 26 universities and 50 TVET colleges, youth, health and development agencies, business leaders and the UN fraternity – Dr Naledi Pandor, the Minister of High Education and Training spoke of the forward-looking, prosperous and healthy “next 30 years”.

 Minister Pandor said: “Comprehensive and innovative health and wellness programmes, along with holistic development of students, are absolutely essential to the effective operation of the higher education and to the welfare of our student population.“We must ensure that we are not only throwing open the doors of learning to admit more students. Our task is to see that the vast majority walk out of the same doors with a qualification in hand.”

The Minister’s sense of urgency to invest in young people’s tertiary education and see more of them complete the studies they begin is underscored by several trends:

·         About a half of students who enter a tertiary institution drop out early and fail to obtain a qualification – entailing a major waste of finance and talent.

·         The latest national unemployment statistics indicate that not even one in two people aged 15-34 are employed – while often being the ones responsible for sustaining several dependants.

·         HIV, TB, STIs, gender-based violence, alcohol and drugs, unplanned pregnancy and mental health issues affect the student’s ability to sustain their studies and complete tertiary education.

·         The onset of the 4th industrial revolution where technology and artificial intelligence both help and hinder the human role in the workplace requires the future-proofing of education so it can equip students with skills that will be useful in the next 3-4 decades.

Reflecting on August being Women’s Month in South Africa, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women said: “It is imperative that we organise a cohesive, inter-departmental solution to the scourge of GBV in our society and institutions of higher learning. We cannot continue in a world where the power dynamics are structured to leave the girl child and non-gender conforming individuals at the bottom of the socio-economic pile. Now is the time for a pragmatic solution to be implemented with immediate effect.”

Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, the CEO of HEAIDS said the centre was established in the late 1990s, when HIV looked invincible. “With concerted focus, endurance, resources and collaborations, the infections stabilised and we’re beginning to see reduced infection rates in HIV as well as TB and improved health outcomes. Now we must have an equal commitment and plan to meet other social and developmental challenges faced by students and our sector.” A clear priority is to prevent rape and address other forms of gender-based violence towards students and staff.

Dr Ahluwalia provided an update on the comprehensive GBV policy framework for the higher education and training sector, saying that it would be issued imminently for public comment. The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has mandated HEAIDS as the implementing agency of the framework, once finalised. In preparation, they had already initiated planning, resourcing and aligning with other parties involved in responses to GBV. “That is partly what our meeting is about – streamlining the work of several government departments, experts, funding streams, implementing organisations and the tertiary community itself in order to ensure we have integrated programmes for healthy, educated and successful youth – because tomorrow matters today,” concluded Dr Ahluwalia.