Much progress in the 'transformation' of higher education - 20th September 2010.

New data to be published by the South African Institute of Race Relations shows that the transformation of higher education in South Africa over the past 20 years has been far more successful than commonly acknowledged. The data challenges the conception that higher education institutions in the country have resisted ‘transformation’ and that action needs to be taken against university leaders to make them ‘transform’. Rather, the data suggests that it is the Government which now retards the creation of new opportunities for previously disadvantaged groups to get a university education.

In 1995 there were 575 412 students of all races enrolled in universities and technikons in South Africa. By 2008 that number had increased to 799 387. This was an increase of 39%.

In 1995, 286 000 black African students were enrolled in higher education. By 2008 that number had increased to 514 955.  This was an increase of 80.1%.

In 1995, 50% of students enrolled in higher education were black African. That proportion stood at 64% in 2008. The corresponding proportion for white students declined from 37.5% to 22.3%.

Changes in the number of degrees and diplomas awarded tracked these enrolment figures. In 1996 some 85 898 university or technikon degrees or diplomas were awarded. By 2008 that number had increased to 133 063 or by 54%.

Taking an even longer term view further establishes that higher education in South Africa has ‘transformed’.      

In 1991 black African students earned 8 514 degrees and diplomas. In 2008 that number had increased to 36 970 or by 334%. The corresponding figures for white students saw degrees and diplomas awarded increasing from 27 619 in 1991 to 31 527 in 2008 or by only 14%.

Looking at these numbers as a ratio makes the case even more strongly.

In 1991 whites received 3.7 degrees or diplomas for every one awarded to a black African student. By 2008 that ratio had fallen to 0.9 to 1 – now favouring the black students. In engineering the ratio fell from 43.9 to 1 to 1.1 to 1. In business and management it fell from 19.6 to 1 to 1 to 1. In law it fell from 4.7 to 1 to 1.1 to 1. In mathematical sciences it fell from 6.3 to 1 to 1 to 1.

The data is unambiguous that higher education institutions in the country have made significant strides in creating new opportunities for previously disadvantaged groups.

However, of late some student organisations and some political leaders have argued that punitive action needs to be taken against the management of certain universities to force them to ‘transform’. One student body recently alleged that raising the entry requirements at certain universities was racist and a deliberate attempt to deny access to black students. Doubtless more needs to be done to create even more opportunities for previously disadvantaged groups. However, it is unlikely that it is resistance to transformation that is standing in the way of these new opportunities. Rather the pace of future ‘transformation’ now depends largely on factors outside of the immediate control of universities themselves.

Primary among these factors is the quality of school output. It is currently the case that white children earn as many top passes in maths for matric as black African children. This ties in very closely with the 1 to 1 ratio between white and black African university graduates in technical sciences. Maths passes are, of course, not the be all and end all of a successful university career but the figures offer a very useful insight into the obstacles imposed on universities. This point applies equally strongly to the question of basic literacy and writing ability, which is quite inadequate among many school leavers in South Africa.

The second important factor is funding. Rectors and vice chancellors cannot significantly expand places at their universities without the funding and infrastructure to do so. It is noteworthy that not one new, decent, public university has been constructed in South Africa since its transition to democracy. Hence it is expected that the infrastructure left by the previous administration which catered for 10% of the population (plus some homeland colleges) should now house the educational aspirations of a majority of the population. Likewise, demand for student funding significantly exceeds supply. In 2009 this Institute received over 10 000 applications for the 30 new full bursaries it had available. This as the minister of higher education, a leader of the South African Communist Party, was justifying his taxpayer funded purchase of a new luxury German car.

Both the above factors trigger much of the anger among student activists in the country. However, when these activists hold vice-chancellors and rectors responsible for ‘failed transformation’, then they apportion the blame incorrectly. Rather, students should direct their anger at the offices of the ministers of basic or higher education and finance, for they carry the responsibility for poor schooling standards and insufficient funding for higher education institutions. 

-          Frans Cronje

 The Institute will publish a complete review of the performance of the tertiary education system in South Africa in its South Africa Survey to be published later in the year.