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The PhD and the ideology of ‘no transformation’

The term ‘transformation’ is now standard rhetoric in higher education change discourse. However, when the Union of Democratic University Staff Associations, or UDUSA, was formed in 1987, many activists were not familiar with the term.

The first UDUSA president, Mala Singh, who had recently arrived at the University of Durban-Westville with a PhD in philosophy from Germany, made ‘transformation’ a UDUSA slogan and it was no accident that the first University Transformation Conference in South Africa organised by UDUSA was held at the institution in 1991.

A number of people central to the conference were also key figures in the Nelson Mandela-appointed 1995-96 National Commission on Higher Education or NCHE.

Thus it was perhaps somewhat inevitable that the 1996 NCHE report was titled A Framework for Transformation, and that the newly-established centre for higher education research and capacity building was called the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, or CHET. Furthermore, it was no surprise that the government’s 1997 White Paper was subtitled “A programme for the transformation of higher education”.

Jakes Gerwel, vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape for many years, later explained that at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa – negotiations that got underway in 1991 to move the country from apartheid to democracy – transformation quickly became the favoured term to articulate conceptions of change.

Gerwel argued that no self-respecting, Left-leaning individual at the time could claim that a revolution had occurred (they were, after all, still negotiating), and that former apartheid prime minister PW Botha and the National Party had given the word ‘reform’ a bad name. As a result, both the Left and Right enthusiastically embraced the term transformation.

It took an outsider to prick the transformation bubble.

In 2000, after a month-long lecture tour of South Africa, the famous theorist of the network society, Manuel Castells, remarked that ‘transformation’ is a word that South Africans use when they stop thinking and start making social conversation over a glass of wine.

The ‘no transformation’ debate

More than a decade later, the transformation debate rages on, and during 2014 and 2015 the charge of ‘no transformation’ reverberated through higher education in South Africa.

One of the loudest voices has been that of a sociology professor at the University of Cape Town, Xolela Mangcu, who during a 2014 interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, stated that while many black students have entered universities, transformation remains a pipe dream.

Mangcu attributes this to lazy, self-serving white professors who are trying to keep their jobs. Similar sentiments have been expressed by Malegapuru Makgoba and colleagues during the Equity Index debate (see Govinder et al 2013).

A key component of the ‘no transformation’ debate is about the need for more African staff, particularly at the professorial level. But underpinning that debate is the issue of Africans with doctorates.

I will draw on statistics and arguments from a forthcoming book by myself and Johann Mouton about the doctorate to demonstrate how unhelpful, if not toxic, the transformation-no transformation debate has become.

Some PhD statistics

African doctoral enrolments increased from 681 in 1996 to 6,714 in 2012 – growth of 886% – while white enrolments increased from 4,009 to 5,354 (34%). During the same period, the annual growth rates for African doctoral enrolments was 15% as compared to an overall average annual growth rate of 6%.

African doctoral graduates increased from nine in 1986 to 58 in 1996 and to 821 in 2012, an increase of 706% in the post-1996 period – 1996 was two years after the end of apartheid and attainment of democracy, and is used because data became more stable from then and it is the year of publication of the NCHE report A Framework for Transformation.

By contrast, between 1996 and 2012 white graduate numbers only grew by 71% – from 587 to 816. The proportion of African doctoral graduates increased from 8% to 44%, and in 2012 the number of African graduates exceeded those of whites for the first time.

This could be regarded as ‘dramatic transformation’. We have not found another international example with such demographic changes in a national higher education system over such a short period (16 years).

However, if one shifts from simple race counts to equality-inequality in terms of participation rates, then the discourse changes.

For example, African female PhD graduates, starting from a very low basis of 10 in 1996 increased by 960% to 106 in 2012. However, there was also a significant increase (34%) in population numbers of the 30- to 50-year-old cohort. So, while their proportional increase was eight-fold – double that of African males and white females – their participation rate per 100,000 of the relevant population is dismally low at 2.4%.

By contrast, white female graduates, starting from a much higher base of 219 in 1996, grew by 105% to 449 in 2012. However, their relevant population group decreased by 29%. Thus, with 100 graduates per 100,000 of the population, in 2012 their participation rate was 40 times higher than for African females.

African males (48) started from an almost five times higher base than African females (10) and increased by 356%. However, with a 26% increase in the relevant age group, this only translates into 4.8 graduates per 100,000, which is four times more than in 1996.

By contrast, the numbers of white male graduates remained static, around 367 between 1996 and 2012, but with a 31% drop in relevant age cohort, they maintained a significant proportional representation of 80 per 100,000 of the relevant age group. This is 16 times more than the case for African males.

Counting transformation

If transformation is counted as improvement in percentage change, then Africans – especially African females – have attained spectacular gains, particularly if contrasted with white males.

But for Africans to move closer to the same proportional levels as whites, more than 5,000 PhD students needed to have graduated during 2012 alone. To contextualise this: 5,000 PhD graduates is the National Development Plan target for the whole country in 2030.

If transformation is counted as participation in relation to the relevant age group, then the group that has gained the most in post-apartheid South Africa is white females, and to a lesser extent white males, who despite actually decreasing from 470 graduates in 1986 to 367 in 2012, are still 16 times better represented than African males.

The transformation figure is further complicated if the African group is ‘segregated’ into Africans from South Africa and Africans from the rest of Africa. In 2000 – the first year for which there are accurate data for foreign students – there were 154 African PhD graduates, 105 from South Africa and 49 from the rest of Africa.

In 2012, there were 821 African graduates, 325 from South Africa and 496 from the rest of Africa. A breakdown of African graduates by nationality shows that the annual growth rate for those from the rest of Africa (21.3%) is more than double that for South African Africans (9.9%).

This transformative inclusion of Africans from the continent into South African higher education has surprisingly (although perhaps not in the context of xenophobia) led to lamentations that these are not ‘South African Africans’. And the Department of Labour, as well as many universities, do not count Africans from the rest of Africa as ‘transformation’.

Equity and-or development

In South Africa, the term transformation has become a code word for race, even though from the first UDUSA conference transformation was cast as consisting of equity and development (Badat, Wolpe and Barends 1994).

Most of the public transformation debate is about equity, but equity is increasingly defined as Africans from South Africa; the term ‘black’ is used less frequently, and the #RhodesMustFall movement focused specifically on African, not Indian and coloured staff.

As such, the struggle concept ‘black’ does not seem to count anymore. Development, as the other key component of transformation, has conveniently – or cynically – been ignored. The outcome of the logic of delinking equity from development could well result in equal misery for both black and white.

Globally, there is now broad agreement that development is associated with a massified and differentiated higher education system and that this is the ‘missing link’ between equity and development.

In South Africa, and more broadly in Africa, equity and development cannot be delinked. However, in South Africa there have been significant shifts in emphases, from the 1997 Higher Education White Paper which was equity- and democratisation-driven, to the National Development Plan 2030 which, while it does not negate equity, firmly leans towards development.

At departmental level, the Department of Science and Technology, or DST, is firmly located within a knowledge economy discourse, privileging performance, research and innovation.

By contrast, the Minister of Higher Education and Training questions the notion of the knowledge economy and his department drives an equity transformation discourse – a manifestation of which is the national Equity Index that attempts to overlay a rather simplistic racial demographic template on all of higher education.

If development is taken more seriously, then attracting doctoral students from the rest of Africa could be seen as part of developing a Silicon Valley-type higher education, research and innovation dynamic, as is described in Saxenian’s (2002) paradigm-changing Brain Circulation: How high skill-immigration makes everyone better off.

Saxenian showed that in Silicon Valley, more than 35% of start-up innovation companies are owned by foreigners, mainly East Asian and East European.

Driving towards a knowledge economy

The DST and the National Development Plan are promoting policies that will drive South Africa towards a knowledge economy, which includes enrolling more postgraduate students and producing more PhDs – as mentioned earlier, the target for 2030 is 5,000 PhDs per annum, almost triple the number that graduated in 2012.

For Africa, the African Union Commission chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has called for thousands more PhDs to be produced on the continent (MacGregor 2013).

While some sectors in South Africa are aiming to pursue a knowledge economy model, the country is in fact practising a more industrial age extractive economy with a very thin layer of research and development and large numbers of low-skilled workers.

But even the modern extractive economy model is not without high-level knowledge skills. Chile has become globally competitive in hi-tech farming (wine and salmon) and mining by massifying higher education and investing more in research and innovation for the high information (knowledge) farming and mining technologies (Calderon and Castells 2013).

Important questions for countries are: What kind of knowledge economy? And, what high-value skills would be required? Such questions in turn pose a more strategic set of questions about how many PhD graduates South Africa needs and in which fields.

This would also confront South Africa with the dilemma that it cannot reach its doctoral targets without the substantial recruitment of students and academics from the rest of Africa.

For South Africa, the rest of Africa is crucial.

In 2000, South Africa enrolled 975 foreign PhD students (17% of total enrolments), of which 59% came from the rest of Africa. By 2012, the percentage of foreign doctoral students had increased to 33%, with 83% of all foreign PhD doctoral enrolments coming from the rest of Africa.

Increasingly, South Africa is not attracting foreign students from the rest of the world, with miniscule numbers coming from the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China. As in the United States, and particularly California, South Africa does not have within its borders the human capital for a dynamic knowledge economy.

Today, ‘transformation’ obscures

In 2014, CHET dropped ‘transformation’ from its name and is now called the Centre for Higher Education Trust. A main argument for this change was that the term had become, in the Marxian sense, so overladen with ‘surplus’ politics that it obscures, rather than clarifies, research and debate.

The term transformation is not unlike the term Aids, which during the late 1980s and early 1990s caused fear and panic, and became associated with questionable discourses at high political levels where some were claiming that Aids was caused by poverty and that it could be cured by eating garlic and olive oil, two of the most expensive vegetable products on the market.

But the medical profession, globally and locally, stepped in and changed the discourse through much more specific analysis, diagnosis and treatment.

Alas, in South Africa the perpetually complaining and ailing social sciences have not stepped up with research and analysis with regard to the ‘equity and development’ debate. Instead, they are initiators and contributors to an increasingly anti-intellectual, overly ideological, old-style black (now ‘South African African’) versus white accusatory politics.

One could say that South Africa was saved from civil war by exceptional political leadership and from a health catastrophe by the medical profession. Perhaps it is time again for firmer political leadership (nationally and institutionally) and for the social sciences to step up with research and analysis to counter this debilitating politics.

A good start would be to become much more specific about the different components of equity and development, and to drop the term transformation and its overly-ideologised counterpoint (mutation), ‘no transformation’.

Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust and coordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, HERANA; extraordinary professor at the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa; extraordinary professor in the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University, South Africa; and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


  • Badat S, Wolpe H and Barends Z (1994) “The post-secondary education system: Towards policy formulation for equality and development”. In: B Kaplan (ed), Changing by Degrees? Equity issues in South African tertiary education. Cape Town: UCT Press.
  • Calderon F and Castells M (2014) “Development, democracy and social change in Chile”. In: M Castells and P Himanen (eds), Reconceptualising Development in the Global Information Society. Oxford University Press.
  • Cloete N and Mouton JM (forthcoming) The Doctorate in South Africa: Discourse, data and policies. Cape Town: African Minds.
  • Govinder KS, Zondo NP and Makgoba MW (2013) “A new look at demographic transformation for universities in South Africa”. South African Journal of Science, Volume 109 (11/12).
  • MacGregor K (2013). “Where to from here for the African PhD?” University World News, Issue No 294, 2 November 2013.
  • Saxenian A (2002) “Brain Circulation: How high-skill immigration makes everyone better off”. Brookings: http://www.brookings.edu/research/art...n-saxenian

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