AFRICA-NORWAY: Inclusion and exclusion in universities

Since the middle of the 20th century universities across the world have 'massified', dramatically opening access to those previously denied it - but, strangely, this access has done very little to change inequality, both within universities and the societies they relate to. The inequality conundrum was placed at the heart of the second Southern Africa-Nordic Centre (Sanord) conference held at Rhodes University in South Africa from 7 to 9 December.

More on the conference in the Features section

Titled "Inclusion and Exclusion in Higher Education", the conference focused on how academic systems in both Nordic and Southern African countries have made some interesting gains, but how the problem at the heart has not gone away.

Inequality was most often characterised - particularly by South African researchers from the universities of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Rhodes, South Africa (Unisa), Fort Hare and the Western Cape - as an issue of "race and gender".

But as Tor Halvorsen of Bergen University pointed out, the upper middle-class character of Norwegian universities has not altered substantially since the 1950s.

While a great deal of energy in South Africa is being focused on why greater access to education post-1994 - the year of first democratic elections - is not having the impacts it should on broader society or the shift to non-racialism, it was interesting that many of the conference speakers took a broader view of the topic.

Bernhard Bleibinger and Claudio Chipendo presented on Fort Hare's clever strategies to teach and research the indigenous music of the Eastern Cape and involve their students in international collaborations; Lucas Mangongwa from Wits spoke about the exclusion of the deaf; and Elizabeth Mary Lanzi Mazzocchini of Unity for Tertiary Refugee Students showed how refugees and asylum seekers in the various Western Cape universities have almost insurmountable problems in furthering their studies.

Roddy Fox of Rhodes talked about how internet open access to research papers and theses does make a difference to what is often an exclusionary publishing environment (especially for those in the global south); and a team of archaeologists from Bergen, Wits, Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique and the University of Zimbabwe explored how to involve local people in the conservation of the very rich rock art sites they are researching.

Information technology and its uses was addressed in a separate parallel session and Tom Skauge from Bergen University College asked why "US theories only" should rule the thinking. And a project from Unisa by Marlize Rabe and Pragna Rugunanan started out questioning why women don't get promoted easily in academia then moved into a second stage in which they are now investigating the "war between black men and white men" for power in South African educational institutions.

But most interesting of all was the self-reflection permeating the discussions. While there was no shortage of statistics about countries, populations, growth and change, all the speakers located the problem firmly within academic institutions, even now that universities are under unprecedented pressure from their governments and from globalised competition.

Some speakers - Saleem Badat, Vice-chancellor of Rhodes and Chrissie Boughey, dean of teaching and learning at Rhodes - went as far as to say that universities themselves generate inequality by their cultures and practices and a major transformation of academia itself is still on the cards if this is to be seriously addressed.

* Anthea Garman is a senior lecturer in journalism at Rhodes University.