Race ‘equity index’ for universities stirs controversy

A study by the head of a ministerial oversight committee on transformation in South African higher education, which found that it could take 43 years to achieve racial balance among staff in universities and proposes new admissions policies and funding penalties against untransformed institutions, has sparked controversy.

The report submitted to the parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education late last month also calculated that it could take more than a dozen years before student enrolments mirrored national demographics.

Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, head of the ministerial committee on transformation and vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, or UKZN, led the study with Professor Kesh Govinder, dean of the school of mathematics, statistics and computer science at UKZN.

It found that racial change in universities was not happening with the speed and dexterity anticipated.

Dr Blade Nzimande, minister of higher education and training, announced the oversight committee last January and called on it to report, among other things, on discrimination in higher education, and to advise him on policies and strategies to combat discrimination and promote positive institutional cultures for staff and students.

Equity index

The research applied an ‘equity index’ when examining the demographic profiles of students and staff across South Africa's 23 universities, and used race demographics from the 2011 national census as the baseline.

The index, a quantitative measure based on the Euclidean distance formula, adopted the principle that the racial and gender demographics of a university should be as close as possible, if not equal to, national figures.

A joint statement by UKZN and the transformation oversight committee for public universities said the study showed South Africa's previously advantaged institutions had poor equity indices, but scored well as high-level knowledge producers.

Correspondingly, universities of technology and several formerly disadvantaged institutions produced "little research, but have a good equity profile".

UKZN created the equity index to measure the distance between organisational demographics and national demographics and the timeframe it would take each institution to attain transformation.

Central University of Technology in the Free State province was ranked as having the most transformed student body with a 10.2 equity index, and the University of Johannesburg and Tshwane and Durban universities of technology also fared well in terms of equity.

Stellenbosch University came last, with an equity index of 93.1, and other research universities Cape Town, Western Cape, Rhodes and Pretoria, also scored low on equity.

The study showed that no South African university had reached the ideal overall equity index of zero or fell within a 5% tolerance of the national demographic data.

Presenting his findings to the parliamentary committee, Makgoba said the study "surprisingly showed" that gender transformation was happening faster in higher education.

Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University displayed gender equity indices of 0.6, while North West University was the worst at 20.4 – a figure that was still better than performances on the racial index.


Responding to the report, the vice-chancellors’ association Higher Education South Africa, or HESA, said its approach to transformation in higher education was “broader than racial and gender equity”, even though these remained important dimensions of the matter.

The body had not seen the report, but would now "as a matter of urgency" seek out a meeting with the transformation committee to appraise the findings. HESA reiterated its commitment to transformation in line with positions expressed in the 1997 Education White Paper 3: A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education.

HESA chair Professor Ahmed Bawa said those positions included that higher education created an enabling institutional environment and culture sensitive to and affirming of diversity, promoted reconciliation and respect for human life, protected individual dignity from racial and sexual harassment, and rejected violent behaviour.

There had to be increased access for black, female, disabled and mature students as well as a new curriculum and flexible learning and teaching models, including modes of delivery, generated to accommodate a larger, more diverse student population.

Transformation also had to deliver the requisite research, highly trained people and knowledge to equip a developing society with the capacity to address national needs and participate in a rapidly changing and competitive global context.

“It is HESA's conviction that such a comprehensive approach to transformation remains relevant and appropriate to the real and perceived challenges facing our higher education sector,” Bawa said in the statement.

North West University Rector Dr Theuns Eloff slammed the report, arguing that the index could not be used as a departure point since crucial factors like the regions that universities served were not taken into account.

Quoted in Die Beeld newspaper, he said other factors equally essential but ignored were the quality of higher education offered and sub-standard school education. Some regions also had higher concentrations of certain race groups.

Correspondingly, the current equity index approach would land institutions like the historically disadvantaged University of Venda in trouble as it had too few white students, or the University of the Western Cape for having too many mixed-race students.

During the parliamentary presentation, National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union deputy president and transformation committee member Joe Mpisi said North West University was the only institution that had questioned the study.

“There were a lot of challenges for them in terms of their equity index, [and] the committee was pleasantly surprised by the way in which Stellenbosch University received the results," Mpisi said.

Govinder had earlier reflected that Stellenbosch University, one of the institutions the findings found “still had a lot of work to do to achieve transformation”, had welcomed the study as a tool showing how bad its situation was and how it could plan to improve.

Historical link

The equity report has an interesting historic link.

In November 2004 Makgoba delivered a presentation at the "Colloquium on 10 Years of Democracy and Higher Education Change", reflecting that there were "a variety of critics of the higher education restructuring process".

These included people saying restructuring was a front for an "exclusivist Africanisation agenda and the inevitable drop in academic standards", while others charged that the university merger process underway at the time in South Africa had overlooked the need for "epistemological redress and had not considered curriculum-related issues”.

Another group argued that the architects of the restructuring plan had adopted a technicist approach that "thinly masks their servility to market forces" and which would exacerbate rather than ameliorate existing inequalities.

“In other words, there are people who question the capacity of the restructuring process alone to bring about real transformation in our higher education institutions," Makgoba said at the time.

Can these be considered as prophetic words nearly a decade later?