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A new look at demographic transformation

A recent draft paper on equity indices for South Africa’s university system equated equity with transformation, and delinked equity from development and performance. It fell into the trap of a prevailing condition: using transformation as a code word for race.

Further, the formula used produced a result in which several of the most equitable institutions were those being run by a government-appointed administrator. By this, the authors implied their promotion of high equity, yet also regarded the existence of dysfunctional institutions as a given in their proposed model for the South African university system.


Last year an Equity Index for universities was developed by a ministerial Transformation Oversight Committee established by the Department of Higher Education and Training and headed by the vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, or UKZN, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba.

A subsequent paper on equity indices by UKZN mathematicians Kesh Govinder and Nombuso Zondo, along with Makgoba – published in the South African Journal of Science – certainly responds to the criticisms above.

Firstly, equity is used mostly in reference to the formula as described in the paper, although the focus of equity is racial, being mainly African. Secondly, a serious attempt is made to reconcile the well-known tension between equity and development.

While I will argue that the attempt is not entirely successful, the approach of developing empirical indicators to reflect the equity-development duality of transformation is to be lauded as it is a step towards developing South African indicator-based performance clustering systems.

My time spent at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Center for World-Class Universities during early November 2013 has made it even clearer to me that, while for the foreseeable future the Jiao Tong type of methodology will continue to make a considerable contribution to debate and controversy, it will not assist much in strengthening universities in Africa.

Developing indicators

Govinder et al are correct when they assert that equity-weighted research output goes beyond the clusters produced by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, or CHET, which were based mainly on performance and efficiency in knowledge production.

The more recent CHET clustering in 2010 has been expanded to include factors such as staff qualifications, undergraduate-to-masters graduation rates and high-level knowledge production (doctorates and research publications).

This latest CHET clustering has shown that, in addition to those usually in the top group of higher education institutions – such as the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Witwatersrand, or Wits – some ‘on-the-move’ universities such as UKZN, North-West and the Western Cape have moved into the top group.

Govinder et al are also correct in pointing out that some of their results do not square up with the CHET differentiated clusters.

For example, their high rating for the distance University of South Africa, UNISA – in terms of both the graduation Equity Index and the weighted research output – is completely contradictory to the performance of UNISA in the South African system as shown by CHET.

Similarly, their low ranking for Rhodes University is contradictory to the CHET finding that Rhodes is one of the three most efficient knowledge producers in terms of weighted publication per staff member. It appears that by not using staff-research ratios, the Equity Index formula has skewed results in favour of larger institutions.

Stellenbosch University, among others, can be used to illustrate the difficulty of finding a measure that adequately combines equity and development. Stellenbosch comes last in the equity indices for students and staff, and ninth in the equity-weighted research output.

However, CHET has shown that Stellenbosch has the highest undergraduate and doctoral throughput in the South African system. For three-year degrees, 68% of students graduate after six years at Stellenbosch. Cape Town is second with 64%, while the national average is 40%.

At the doctoral level, Stellenbosch’s graduation rate after seven years is 71%. Here, Wits shows in second place at 69% while the national average is 46%. Proportionally, Stellenbosch also produces the most female doctorates; however, gender does not feature in the racially orientated Equity Index.

Selectively counting 'other' Africans

The African Doctoral Academy at Stellenbosch has 60 students from five Sub-Saharan African countries, but black Africans from countries other than South Africa also do not count on the Equity Index.

Indeed, the role of Africans from other countries in academia is becoming a sensitive issue.

In the Govinder et al report, it seems rather disingenuous to exclude the Africans from countries other than South Africa when calculating student demographic ratios, but to include them when counting publications, especially because at certain institutions – such as UKZN, Fort Hare and North-West – publications by black Africans are substantially by Africans from countries other than South Africa.

In recent presentations, CHET has highlighted the fact that in 2010, for the first time in history, there were more black African than white doctoral students enrolled in South African higher education.

Instead of expressions of delight at this emerging trend, one usually hears the murmured lament that ‘the majority are foreigners’. We seem to be reaching a rather indefensible position in which we count Africans who are not from South Africa only when it suits us.

Flaw in the index

In terms of the nature of higher education, there appears to be a fundamental flaw in the Equity Index assumption that the university should be a mirror of national demographics. It is a specific institution in society that is supposed to lead rather than reflect society.

In almost all countries, educational performance – capability – is skewed because of historical contestations and struggles, with socio-economic class showing as a worldwide distorter of representivity.

In the long term, it is part of the South African universities’ developmental role to work to redress these distortions, within the broader context of debate and policies on affirmative action. Nonetheless, it is generally accepted that this is a long-term and secondary task.

The first task of universities is to enrol and educate the most educationally capable – those with the highest educational attainment – in order to contribute to development. The first question that must be asked is thus whether universities are reflecting educational attainment.

In their conclusions, Govinder et al ask whether the reasons behind the slow progress in transformation of higher education are passive resistance, denial, the abuse of autonomy or an abhorrence of accountability. The assumption that lack of transformation is simply the result of a bad attitude is a common South African form of accusatory politics.

This kind of thinking assumes that there is a university-ready pool of applicants reflective of racial demographics and that they are not admitted to top-performing institutions because of prejudice and a bad attitude.

In reality, for example, in certain areas such as doctoral enrolments, overall enrolments grew by 149% between 1996 and 2011; however, the enrolment of black African students exploded over this period by 795%.

This is not slow change: no other country in the world has been identified to have had such a dramatic change in equity.

There is also ample evidence that the system is already admitting candidates who are not educationally prepared for university study.

And, while the whole university system must accept blame and take more responsibility for poor school performance, also implicated in this failure are the national education system and the government.

Another assumption underpinning the arguments of the authors is that slow progress is as a result of a lack of institutional compliance. Not once is the question raised as to the role of the Department of Higher Education and Training and its contribution to the problem.

The 1990s commission

As research director for the National Commission on Higher Education, or NCHE, over the period 1994-96, I was part of the ongoing equity-development debates. It is widely accepted that the NCHE was essentially an equity commission – but there was no unanimity about how to redress it.

One redress suggestion was to award a ‘disadvantage subsidy’ from the government block grant for each black student enrolled.

This would serve as an incentive for historically advantaged universities to enrol more black students and offset some lost tuition fees. For historically disadvantaged universities, whose enrolments were almost 100% black students, it would have been a redress bonus.

Financial projections were made based on different scenarios, and the ‘disadvantage subsidy’ seemed simple to implement and affordable. But a group led by historically black university vice-chancellors in the NCHE wanted institutional – not individual – redress and this group triumphed.

Apparently Treasury rejected the institutional redress proposals owing to, among others, a combination of the 1996 currency crisis and a lack of confidence in the institutional absorptive capacity of the historically black universities.

The second redress argument was massification of the post-secondary system. In essence, a massified and differentiated system requires a dramatic increase in higher education participation, while also accommodating top-end research universities. Differentiated massification was a possible resolution to the contradiction between equity and development.

The NCHE accepted the massification argument; however, in rereading the 1996 report, it is clear that it could have done a much better job of explaining and promoting it. Massification was rejected by both the ministries of finance and education. It is disappointing that neither the Hegelian liberals nor the Marxist revolutionaries could grasp the dialectic.

Negative consequences of planned growth

The 1997 White Paper instead proposed planned growth – a decision that had serious, unanticipated consequences.

The first consequence was that the higher education system in South Africa remained elite. Overall gross participation increased from around 14% in 1996 to only 19% in 2011.

While this figure puts South Africa third in Sub-Saharan Africa – behind Mauritius and Botswana – only South Africa and India are under 20% among the BRICS countries. Countries in the World Economic Forum knowledge economies are now almost all at over 60% post-secondary participation rates and many, like South Korea, are at over 80%.

The one consequence of a low overall participation rate is that, even if the proportion of overall enrolments grows, the participation rate does not necessarily increase significantly.

For black Africans, head count enrolments increased from 53% in 1996 to 69% in 2011, while the participation rate only increased from 9% to 16%. In contrast, for whites the enrolment percentage declined from 34% to 19% but the participation rate only dropped from 57% to 56%.

When looking at participation rates, it is important to take changes in population growth into consideration. The white population in the 20- to 24-year age cohort declined from 349,102 in 1996 to 316,262 in 2011 – a 10% decline. In contrast, the black African population in this age cohort increased by 912,444 or 29%.

To increase the participation rate of black Africans to be at the same level as that of the white population (56%) in 2011, an additional 1.63 million black African students would have needed to be enrolled in 2011. The system would have needed 2.8 times its current capacity. At current size, even if all students were black, their participation rate would be only 23%.

The real indicator of equality is participation rate and not percentage of enrolments. As a result, having a significant improvement in percentage of enrolment does not reflect a major improvement in equality.

A damning report by the statutory advisory Council on Higher Education shows that more than half of all first-year entrants never graduate, which means that for greater equality it is not only the actual numbers who enrol, but also the success rate that needs to be considered.

The Govinder et al formula uses a version of participation rate. However, in my view, it is used incorrectly as it is only applied at an institutional level. An improvement in participation rate (equality) is both a system and an institutional issue, and will not be corrected by identifying a few individual, institutional scapegoats.

The most disastrous unintended consequence of planned growth was revealed in a 2009 report by CHET, which showed that in 2007 there were 2.7 million people in the 18- to 24-year-old cohort who were not in employment, education or training, dubbed ‘NEETs’.

By 2011, this figure had grown to around three million or about 40% of the cohort, and there are more than three times more young people not in employment, education or training than the 950,000 students in public and private universities.

A leader article in the May-June issue of the South African Journal of Science, addressing the problem of Generation Jobless, concluded:

Four years after the problem was identified and made public, nothing practical has been done by the Department of Higher Education and Training to implement current solutions. The numbers of NEETs continue to grow and there is nothing available to address the present problem.

“The solution proposed for the future will take, at best, many more months to finalise and a good number of years, and large sums of state funds, to implement. So many years wasted; so many opportunities wasted. Time for the ministry to focus more earnestly on the well-being of young people and the economy."

The quotation demonstrates fairly dramatically that the more serious problem is systemic rather than individual institutional change.

Furthermore, the Department of Education – despite all its rhetorical or ‘symbolic’ policy – has yet to implement a policy plan to incentivise or sanction the enrolment of black students in South African universities.

In overall figures, the rather remarkable increase in the enrolments of black African students was achieved through individual institutional strategies, aided by the first recommendation of the NCHE to establish a national student financial aid scheme, along with substantial expansion of the scheme by the Department of Higher Education and Training and the inclusion of further education and training colleges.

National Development Plan

In a significant departure from previous policies, the National Planning Commission background paper and subsequent National Development Plan 2030 came out categorically in favour of South Africa joining the knowledge economy through massification and differentiation.

It proposed a dramatic increase in post-secondary enrolments, mainly in the further education and training, or FET, sector. The plan envisages a 30% participation rate for universities by 2030, with enrolments at around 1.62 million by that time. It recommends a participation rate of 25% in FET colleges, which would accommodate about 1.25 million enrolments compared to the current 300,000.

The task is thus to build a new post-secondary differentiated higher education system with built-in quality checks. This system should include a mix of research-led universities, mainly undergraduate teaching universities, an FET college sector that is vocationally orientated, and a private sector that is market-driven.

It is the development of a differentiated and massified post-secondary system that will dramatically expand participation for the majority and provide skills for an economy that needs increasingly larger numbers of people with post-school education.

The unintended consequence of the Equity Index could be an over-focus on equity for a privileged elite at precisely the moment that the central challenge for higher education is to support development, with increased equity, as outlined in the new vision of the National Development Plan.

Acknowledgement: Dr Charles Sheppard of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University compiled the statistics used in this review.

* Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town. He is also extraordinary professor of higher education at the University of the Western Cape, visiting professor for the masters programme in higher education at the University of Oslo, and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town. His latest books are Higher Education and Economic Development in Africa (2011) and Shaping the Future of South Africa’s Youth: Rethinking Post-School Education and Skills Training (2012). Email: ncloete@chet.org.za.

* This article is a shortened version of the paper titled “A New Look at Demographic Transformation: Comments on Govinder et al. (2013)", published in the South African Journal of Science, volume 110, number 1/2. It is republished under creative commons licence. It is one of a trilogy of articles on the proposed Equity Index that may be accessed here.
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