Higher education challenges of racism and access

At the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, South Africa’s higher education sector made national and international news headlines.

At the end of 2011, the University of Pretoria was hit by allegations of apparent racism among its staff. A black engineering professor alleged systematic harassment and victimisation, on racial grounds.

At the beginning of the 2012 academic year, a black parent was killed in a stampede at the gates of the University of Johannesburg, where crowds of prospective students had gathered in the quest to gain admission into this university.

These two incidents – allegations of racism and the quest for access to higher education, especially by black people – are just two examples of the challenges that South Africa experiences in meeting some of the priority areas identified in 1994 by the post-apartheid government.

In outlining the vision of the post-apartheid government, the 2001 National Plan for Higher Education noted the need to increase the number of black staff members in higher education institutions. This was in line with changes in the composition of the student body in those institutions.

Given the paucity of postgraduate students and, consequently, the small pool of potential recruits, the government encouraged institutions also to recruit black and female staff members from the rest of the continent. The alleged victim of racism at the University of Pretoria is a Kenyan national.

Progress in increasing black students and staff

There has been some progress in increasing the number of black students and staff in higher education institutions.

The preliminary student head count in 2011, for the 23 public universities, was 899,120. This number includes full-time and part-time enrolments, both for contact and distance education students. The figure for 1994 was 495,356. This represents an increase of almost 82% since the advent of democracy.

Government redress policies on access for black and female students have yielded positive results. The number of black (African, mixed-race and Indian) students increased from 55% to 80%.

The number of black staff also increased, from 17% in 1994 to 44% in 2010. Contrary to expectations, however, physical access seems not to be sufficient, although there seem to have been improvements.

Change is not just about numbers

The necessity is to find out what the experiences are of black people who were excluded and discriminated against under the apartheid system.

The racial incident in 2008 at the University of the Free State, where white students ill-treated black women members of the cleaning staff, and the alleged experience of the black professor at the University of Pretoria, are examples that show that written policies are not sufficient to effect the desired changes.

The ministerial committee into racism in South African higher education, headed by University of Cape Town Deputy Vice-chancellor Professor Crain Soudien, investigated the incident at the University of the Free State. The committee’s brief covered all 23 of the country's universities.

It found that racial discrimination and sexism were pervasive in many South African institutions. In this regard, a change is needed in institutional cultures.

Members of the university community will have to embrace a new way of operation and espouse new values, in line with the democratic dispensation ushered in by the Nelson Mandela administration.

Studies have shown that higher education institutions have largely ignored the need to change institutional culture. Historically white institutions, in particular, are unable to recruit or retain black staff members, because their institutional culture is alienating rather than accommodating for new people.

This tradition had an impact on black students’ success and performance and was also an obstacle in attracting black students into postgraduate research programmes.

A strategy to overcome this barrier was to encourage institutions to recruit academics from the rest of the African continent. This could play a significant part in providing role models for black students and helping to change institutional cultures.

Policy issues

The unfortunate incident of the death of a parent at the gates of the University of Johannesburg also points to two important policy issues facing South Africa.

The first issue relates to the management of primary applicants who want to enter universities, which at the moment is uncoordinated nationally. The current practice is that students can apply to as many higher education institutions as they like, during their final year of high school.

After the release of their Grade 12 (‘matric’) results, they are (or are not) offered places at individual universities where they applied. Thus, a student who passes well can be offered a place to study by all the institutions (from two to four) s/he has applied to. However, the student can only take up a place at one institution.

The second issue relates to the fact that some of the students who do not apply until they earn their Grade 12 results, only start looking for an available place to study at a higher education institution at the start of the academic year.

They literally travel from one institution to another in search of a place to study. Those who did not meet the entrance requirements at their preferred institutions also start looking for alternative places of study at the beginning of the academic year.

The combination of these factors results in long queues of students lining up at gates of universities, in search of a place to study. This desperation for access was what unfortunately claimed a life at the beginning of 2012 at the University of Johannesburg.

Possible solutions

Can there be no better way of managing the process of admitting students to universities?

A central applications system has been proposed by the government as a solution and a way of combating a recurrence of the incident of the University of Johannesburg. What is interesting to note is that this solution was proposed by the national plan 11 years ago.

The question of why this has not been implemented remains a challenge for the government to address.

The stampedes and the long queues at universities at the beginning of every academic year also point to another bigger system issue, which is the fact that the South African higher education system is operating at full capacity, and there is a need to build new institutions.

Currently, the establishment of two new universities has been approved by the government, and plans are well under way to create them. But until these universities become fully functional, the pressure on existing institutions will remain.

There is recognition within the government that building additional universities will not meet the demand for access to higher education. In this regard, the government has unveiled a vision of a post-school education and training system, which consists of public and private universities, public and private further education and training colleges, and adult education centres, among others.

It is envisaged that young people will be encouraged to consider alternative forms of post-school opportunities, other than university education. With regard to meeting the needs of individuals who desire to pursue university education, within the limited resources, distance education could be considered as an alternative.

* Chika Sehoole is professor of education at the University of Pretoria. Email: This is an edited version of his article, “South Africa: Challenges of racism and access”, published in International Higher Education, Number 68, Summer 2012.