Universities struggle to shed apartheid topography

Under apartheid Loyiso Nongxa would have needed special permission from the South African government to study at the then mainly whites-only University of the Witwatersrand (colloquially known as 'Wits'). Now, illustrating the extent of the changes since democracy, he is the vice-chancellor.

Nongxa studied for his BSc and MSc in maths at Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape. Later, as South Africa’s first African Rhodes Scholar, he obtained a DPhil from Oxford in 1982.

But while the majority population is today able to study freely at the country’s former liberal and Afrikaans universities, some aspects of the topography of South Africa’s higher education system would still be familiar to apartheid’s former leaders in Pretoria.

While the ‘big five’ historically white universities have opened their doors to non-white students, historically black universities – including Fort Hare – still languish at the bottom of the pile in terms of the volume and quality of their academic work.

As Nongxa told the inaugural Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) ‘Perspectives’ lecture in London on 18 October, the differentiation that existed under the 1959 Extension of University Education Act remains in modern South Africa.

It was the 1959 act that required anyone from the majority population wishing to register at one of the so-called ‘open’ universities – effectively the English-medium universities – to obtain the written consent of the minister of internal affairs.

The higher education landscape in 1959 had three tiers. Today the top tier – the ‘big five’ of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, KwaZulu-Natal, Pretoria and Wits – remains a class apart in terms of research output and they are the only South African universities to trouble the scorers of the global university ranking organisations.

Meanwhile the ethnically differentiated universities created by the act are in the bottom tier, as undergraduate teaching institutions with restricted research activity and little or no chance of entering even the lower levels of global rankings that rate some 700-800 universities out of the many thousands across the world.

Post-apartheid restructuring

After the end of apartheid, differentiation that had been sought first through the funding formula was deepened from 2000 by restructuring and mergers that reduced the number of institutions from 36 universities and polytechnics to 23 higher education institutions, including 11 research universities, six universities of technology and six 'comprehensive' universities (which combine formative and vocational higher education).

Nongxa used his lecture to explore how the unitary but differentiated system envisaged by the post-apartheid 1997 higher education white paper mirrored the apartheid-inspired model, even if the boundaries between the top and middle tiers have become blurred, with Rhodes University and the distance learning University of South Africa (UNISA) aspiring to ‘big five’ status.

The objective was to “move beyond the legacy of the 1959 Act, but not to forget about it”, he said.

In 2000 the Council on Higher Education’s Size and Shape of Higher Education Task Team produced a report that proposed a four-category system. UNISA was in a category of its own but the other categories bore a striking resemblance to the apartheid-era structure.

The historically black universities rejected the proposals and then education minister, the late Kader Asmal, decided not to accept the recommendations because they perpetuated the inherited topography. Instead he opted for the radical restructuring described above.

Attention then turned to the way research was funded. In 2007-08 the system under which research was funded was changed fundamentally, with money following individually rated researchers rather than departments.

In place of a rigid legal differentiation under the 1959 Act, there is now a quasi-Darwinian differentiation – the larger universities with diverse research activity got stronger and the universities with an emphasis on undergraduate teaching remained the poor relations.

As South Africa has its big five – a term that resonates because of its association with the country’s top wild mammals (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo) – so the US has its Ivy League, Australia the Group of Eight and the UK the Russell Group.

The Ivy League – something of an historical accident – is a case apart. But the others can be viewed as associations of similar institutions with common interests and a defined profile – or as exclusive lobbying groups seeking to secure advantages for their member universities in competition with other institutions when economic times are tough.

The UK’s Russell Group could be viewed as a formalised version of the ‘big five’. Nongxa confided that within the past three years or so he had suggested doing just that – organising the universities into a formalised elite grouping.

“People said it would be seen as those universities wanting to club together and grab most of the research funding, so I failed,” he admitted.

But the reality is that there already is an elite.

Nongxa produced figures to show that in terms of PhD completions, publication rates and citations, two of the big five – Cape Town and Wits – had a higher output than the middle ranking and third-tier universities combined.

The blurring was illustrated by a study in 2010 by the Centre for Higher Education that measured inputs and outputs to produce a marginally different clustering of institutions, with Rhodes among the ‘big five’ and KwaZulu-Natal relegated to the middle grouping following the merger between the research University of Natal and the historically black University of Durban-Westville.

South Africa in the rankings

But as far as the elite is concerned, this is not reflected in the position of South African universities in the international rankings.

Four of the ‘big five’ are in the QS World University Rankings. Cape Town is ranked at 156, Wits at 363, Stellenbosch in the 401-450 band, Pretoria between 501-550, and KwaZulu-Natal in the 551-600 group. Rhodes, promoted in the 2010 study to the top group, does not feature because while it has high per capital research production, it is small.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings ranks Cape Town at 113, Wits in the 226-250 band, Stellenbosch 251-275 and Kwazulu-Natal 351-400.

No South African universities feature in the THE Top 100 under 50, but it would be interesting to construct a ranking, for example, for the BRICS nations, to make a like-for-like comparison that eliminates the advantages of centuries of history and imperial domination.

Internally there is concern that, compared with Cape Town, Wits is on a downward trend against a target of being in the top 100 by 2022 as declared by the Wits Vision 2022 Strategic Framework.

Nongxa disclosed that current Minister of Higher Education Dr Blade Nzimande has told vice-chancellors he would like to discuss moves towards further differentiation within the existing system.

* As part of its centennial celebrations the ACU is organising a conference on rankings and associated issues in Jamaica next month.