Long road ahead for higher education transformation

Transformation in institutions of higher education has been a subject of discussion for years. Picture Leon Lestrade/Independent Newspapers

Transformation in institutions of higher education has been a subject of discussion for years. Picture Leon Lestrade/Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 23, 2024


Edwin Naidu

THE constant buzz around celebrating 30 years of democracy in South Africa should not mask the transformation failure characterised by tertiary institutions in South Africa.

Human Rights Day, celebrated annually to remember the Sharpeville massacre, ought to be a celebration of tangible gains so that the lives of those lost under apartheid were not lost in vain.

Transformation in higher education is not merely replacing white vice-chancellors with black successors. Although this has been the norm, it goes deeper. According to the South African Human Rights Commission, transformation at tertiary institutions must be reflected in all aspects. This relates to governance, management and leadership, student environments such as reasonable access and academic success, equity in staffing, institutional cultures, progressive and inclusive teaching and learning, research and knowledge systems, institutional equity, and the political economy of higher education funding.

One must ask if there is a national data point to gauge success. It seems as if there is neither a desire to openly explore whether varsities are open to baring their soul. They openly advertise their accomplishments. One does not hear talk about failure to help direct the future.

While the blame on apartheid for systemic challenges in education remains, who should shoulder responsibility for the slow pace of transformation three decades after apartheid ended? Have the new brooms post-1994 covered themselves in glory?

Politicians will celebrate democracy, and rightly so. Still, the cloud of government corruption has permeated the tertiary sector, as evidenced by Professor Jonathan Jansen’s incisive and alarming expose on corruption. Not only have politicians been enriching themselves, but corrupt officials in the varsity sector have also been active in nefarious activities.

As the 2024 academic year unfolds, it has done so under the spectre of state subsidy cuts and uncertainty around the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which threatens the viable future of universities.

While the university ecosystem is determined and influenced by a whole range of actors on campus, underpinned by national government policies, it is largely driven by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in terms of data collection monitoring and performance.

The DHET has played an important role in transforming the country’s public universities through several interventions, such as its University Capacity Development Programme and Staffing South Africa’s Universities Framework. Similarly, Universities South Africa’s Transformation Strategy Group has played a leading role, through its development of the Transformation Barometer, sadly though it has not been used widely by universities. Only one out of 26 institutions took this serious enough to use the tool.

On the surface, much progress has been made; however, with the constant flare of headlines around governance, violence against women at tertiary institutions, and the throughput rate, one must ask whether tertiary institutions are transforming in a manner that reflects diversity underpinned by the human rights principles enshrined in the constitution. Who should hold them accountable?

Some say the Minister of Higher Education, Science Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, has been soft on handling major issues at universities. Of course, the academic freedom argument may tie his hands. But he certainly can do more to enforce change than allowing institutions to go their ways as if it is business as usual.

There is no doubt there has been change. But it is not enough. Surely, 30 years ought to have been more than enough to do a better job on the apartheid tertiary system. The fault must lie with the minister not cracking the whip hard enough to push the transformation agenda. Unless we want to celebrate superficial change, of which there is much.

Before democracy arrived on April 27, 1994, the tertiary system in South Africa was characterised by its colonial origins and four decades of apartheid social engineering, according to a Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) report on transformation. It reminds us that the system was racially divided into institutions reserved for Africans (of different language groups), Coloureds, Indians, and whites (who could attend either Afrikaans- or English medium institutions).

According to the HSRC, the system was bifurcated into universities and technikons and governed by different political authorities, including separate education departments for whites, coloureds, Indians, and Africans within the Republic of South Africa, as well as four separate education departments established in the so-called “independent” homelands. Of the 36 universities and technikons, 19 were reserved for whites, two for coloureds, two for Indians and 13 for Africans. They were differently governed, resourced, and taught different subjects. For example, courses for certain professions were unavailable at universities reserved for black students.

The new democratic government set out to dismantle the racist, inequitable, and inefficient system through several interventions proposed by the National Commission on Higher Education.

In the wake of the 1997 White Paper and Higher Education Act, the CHE’s “size and shape” report of 2000 and the 2001 National Plan for Higher Education the institutional landscape of higher education was reconfigured through a series of mergers and incorporations. Several institutions were merged, one was split completely, and some campuses were incorporated into other institutions. Before the mergers, the designation of institutions as historically black/historically disadvantaged and historically white/historically advantaged could easily be read off their history.

The mergers blurred the racialised divides and the split between erstwhile universities and technikons. It also introduced the notion of institutional mandates as a new way of classifying the diversity of institutions in the system and their role in the development of high-level skills.

Currently, the following eight universities are classified as historically disadvantaged universities: Mangosuthu University of Technology, University of Fort Hare; University of Limpopo, University of the Western Cape, University of Venda, University of Zululand, and Walter Sisulu University; as well as Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (which was added to the list in 2015 after the former Medunsa was unmerged from the University of Limpopo).

Thirty years into our democracy, one of the key architects behind the post-apartheid tertiary system, Professor Jairam Reddy, said he believes it is time to institute a new commission to review the state of higher education and make recommendations for any contemplated changes.

Unlike the NCHE, which he chaired, this should be a shorter exercise – perhaps six months in duration and involving about five experts on higher education, including one international expert. The remit could be as follows: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current state of higher education? Secondly, he asked whether the mergers had worked.

A third aspect would focus on the quality of our higher education system – has the CHE and HEQC been successful in improving the quality of higher education or have they been expensive and cumbersome bureaucracies?

How has race and its implications been dealt with in our higher education system?

Funding of the higher education system – is it adequate and equitable; examine the efficacy of NSFAS.

Finally, the professor proposes an assessment of corruption and mismanagement in higher education. With such compelling interests, has transformation fallen off the wagon?

*Naidu is a communications professional and an education editor. This is the first in a two-part series on transforming the tertiary sector.

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL