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Strategic planning for Aids crisis

MANAGEMENT colleagues in UK further education colleges are, by now, probably fairly sanguine about the critical issues to be considered in putting together the ubiquitous three-year rolling strategic plan.

In South Africa, where I am currently working, the demands and complexities of adequate strategic planning for a modern, responsive FE college are rapidly dawning on the bureaucrats and colleges. They are charged with delivering the government's vision of a further education and training system ready, willing and able to propel this country into the euphemistically-monikered "first-world" economic premier league.

This sounds far easier in theory than in practice, and even in theory it's a tough proposition. Here, however, the "challenges" are even greater, and becoming more complex and intractable by the day. An aspect of the planning parameters that present as a rapidly-looming issue and an ongoing challenge for FE college managers here is the risk posed by the Aids pandemic that faces Africa in general, and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular.

Readers of the international pages of the quality press may well be aware of the controversy caused by Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, and his recent foray into the international scientific dialogue on HIV and Aids. This is an area of political debate that foot soldiers like myself would do well to steer clear of, but it is one that is worth spending considering.

The Aids pandemic has grown to the extent that 12 per cent or more of the South African population is now infected. This translates to approximately 4.2 million children and adults. Its very nature means that it is most prevalent in the 18-40 age group, which is also the most economically and sexually-active group, and the key target group for all of us (internationally) engaged in the processes of lifelong learning and widening participation.

This sounds bad enough in the narrative, but when raw statistics are introduced, the implications are nothing short of harrowing. Unsurprisingly, the apartheid legacy means that the black population is most heavily affected, axiomatically those least able to access the high-cost, high technology drugs that are most effective in ameliorating the effects of the illness. Bear in mind that these statistics are "guesstimates",and in these cases it would not be at all surprising if they were under-estimates, given the fact that Aids-related illnesses mirror the symptoms of diseases most associated with poverty. Very recently I had a close (but indirect) encounter with what can only be euphemistically described as the medical service in South Africa. This was a graphic illustration to me that this truly is a society of first and third world systems operating at close and increasing uncomfortable proximity.

South African college staff and managers have now to grapple with the implications of planning for the eventuality that a high proportion - up to 20 per cent or more - of their target market will be coping with a very serious illness. A sobering thought in abstract, but even more so when one has to sit down and plan for what this means in terms of a risk assessment that meets the needs of financial probity, as well as the conflicting socio-economic imperatives of redress and transformation.

Quite apart from the human tragedy of dealing with students and their families facing death, imagine the implications for student and staff morale and discipline, in an environment in which student protest can be extremely immediate and direct. This does not even touch on the financial planning considerations for colleges at the micro-level, or for regional and central government. The economic implications are being calculated, but again this is only guesswork.

I have referred above to the phenomenon of first and third world economies co-existing in this country of contradictions. The very economic infrastructure that was developed to service the apartheid economy has, paradoxically, speeded the spread of Aids. From the perspective I now share with others in Africa, it is hardly surprising that the full implications of the Aids pandemic are finally dawning on those at the highest levels in the White House, albeit late in the day, but plus ca change.

It is unlikely that levels of aid currently being bandied about can do anything but scratch the surface of the problems facing the country, and the colleges. Next time you're lamenting the trauma of the stringencies of the latest strategic planning round, think on. It could be much worse.

Robin Landman is secretary of the Network for Black Managers

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