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Series: What is transformation? Perpetuating disadvantage: racial and class hierarchy 2006-10-18
Sipho Seepe and Annette Lansink

By Sipho Seepe (Henley Management College) and Annette Lansink (University of Venda)



The intimation by the Ministry and Department of Education to review the current higher education thinking of promoting equitable treatment of universities in favour of a two-tiered system comprising of 5 or 6 A-group universities and assigning B status to the remaining institutions harks back to ideas that were mooted earlier. It gives new meaning to the saying ‘old wine in new bottles’.

It looks much like an attempt to bring, through the back door, a proposal that was rejected through a democratic policy engagement. The Council on Higher Education report, Towards a New Higher Education Landscape: Meeting the Equity, Quality and Social Development Imperatives of South Africa in the 21st century (2000) made almost a similar recommendation. It called for a highly differentiated system comprising bedrock institutions to offer undergraduate programmes, the 2 nd group offering extensive masters and selected doctoral degrees and research intensive institutions (3 rd group) taking a lion’s share of postgraduate education. The three-tier system was rejected on the grounds that it reinforced the race and class based hierarchy of institutions.  The proposal contradicted the White Paper's recommendation for a programme-based system and its call for transformation and equity.

The Association of Historically Disadvantaged Tertiary Institutions had earlier described initiatives that failed to factor the history of disadvantage as “a betrayal of the struggle for a truly and genuinely transformed higher education system in terms of the goals, objectives, principles and challenges identified by the White Paper on Higher Education.”

The recent proposal of the DoE could also be seen as an acknowledgement of failure of the present system to achieve its objectives, in particular the challenge of redressing past inequalities. It is a tacit admission that the transformation of higher education as set out in the White Paper on Higher Education: No. 3 (1997) did not succeed beyond the grandstanding of restructuring the landscape through mergers.

It seems to suggest that the legacy of apartheid is not transformable, and that a more pragmatic view should prevail.  Indeed, scholars such as Professor Malegapuru Makgoba have endorsed the proposed differentiation of the system. Considering the difference in research output and investment in research by institutions, Makgoba argues “no matter how one looks at the statistics, it is an inescapable fact that differentiation is occurring and affecting our national development.” In doing so, he rejects the general approach of treating all universities the same. This equal treatment is at the heart of failure of South African higher education making it to the top 200 universities worldwide. In his words;

“While it is important to harmonise and promote quality assessment in higher education, it is equally important to differentiate. Uniform treatment not only destroys academic innovation, creativity and merit, it also produces an equality of misery.”

Professor Jonathan Jansen has expressed the same view. This development invites a number of questions. What happened to the commitment to develop a ‘well-planned, integrated and high quality system of higher education’?  Are we no longer committed to the goals of access to higher education and the constitutional imperative of non-discrimination and equality?

Earlier, the Ministry and Department of Education had argued that higher education needed to be structured in a way that addresses the inequalities and inefficiencies from the apartheid era and to respond to the new social, cultural and economic demands.  The transformation and restructuring was expected to pay attention to the demographic and socio political demands for higher education, the changing of skills and knowledge requirement for improved productivity and innovation, and to contribute to a new citizenry.

It is hard to imagine how the new thinking in the Ministry and the Department of Education would address these imperatives. Yet the answer is not hard to find. It lies in inappropriate solutions that were advanced in the Department of Education’s proposals for restructuring the system.

The 2001 National Plan on Higher Education for instance was driven more by the imperatives of the macro-economic policy that demands limiting public expenditure in social services, including education. Accordingly, it could only address those issues relating to institutional sustainability and financial viability. Mergers were never suited to address issues of quality, research output and resource discrepancy between black and white institutions. Meeting learning needs and aspirations of the new South Africa, and contributing to socialization of society will require more than a new reorganization of institutions.

While many more African students are now enrolled at historically advantaged institutions, very large numbers of African students in rural areas only do have access to – what still are - disadvantaged institutions. In that sense, restructuring has not addressed inequitable distribution of access and opportunity for students and staff along lines of race, class and geography.

The proposed two-tier system will perpetuate two-nations conceptualization of the country. The provincial disparity in the provision of higher education will higher education will remain.  Where will the research universities be located? Will Limpopo, a province with a population of 5.3 million, be assigned research universities? We know that Western Cape with a smaller population will probably have two. Unless these matters are addressed, African students will continue to be disproportionately affected and marginalized. The creation of a critical mass of black intellectuals and researchers demands that adequate opportunities and resources be appropriately deployed.

Increasingly educational decision-making are perceived as technical problems requiring the instrumentalist strategies of `neutral' experts. This effectively removes decisions from the field of political debate. The racial divide spawned by apartheid was largely political. The solution will also require a political commitment.

Twelve years of democratic rule has failed to make a dent to the challenges facing higher education system. The systemic challenges of development, skills, quality, equity, redress and increased access, redistribution of resources and diversification of knowledge production remain.

Historically black institutions remain under-developed while the historically white institutions continue to benefit from the history of over-allocation of resources (human and capital) and government support and donor funding in diverse areas. Knowledge production still bears the hallmarks of apartheid engineering. Whites contribute 92%, while the contribution of blacks to research is a mere 3%.

Yet, this reality was to be expected. As early as 1998 there were fears that the guiding principles for transformation redress, democratization, development and quality, would be replaced or eclipsed by the narrative of effectiveness and efficiency and a restricted (if not restrictive) notion of equity. If anything, the large-scale mandatory merger process has diverted energy and resources away from the challenges of improving quality, access and equity. Merged institutions have become unsustainable entities plagued by confusion, uncertainties and greater cost of maintenance. Restructuring falls short of being a viable platform for sustained, visible transformation in higher education.

The proposal by the Department of Education risks perpetuating the racially inspired inequalities. 


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