Higher education in the 20th year of democracy

Looking back over two decades of democracy and to challenges ahead, South African vice-chancellors identified six key issues they consider critical to higher education's future health - student access and success, research and postgraduate education, transformation, securing the next generation of academics, institutional diversity, and funding growth.

In a presentation by Higher Education South Africa, or HESA, to parliament's portfolio committee on higher education and training last month, university leaders said the challenges they identified were threats to the vitality of the sector and its contribution to economic and social development and democracy.

But they also represented opportunities to create a more vibrant, equitable, responsive and high quality system that could contribute more effectively to the "four-fold South African challenge of environmentally sustainable economic development with increasing social equity and social justice, and the consolidation and deepening of democracy".

1- Student access, opportunity and success

On the eve of democracy, the gross participation rate in higher education - total enrolment as a proportion of the 20 to 24 year age group - was 17%. Participation rates were highly skewed by race: around 9% for Africans, 13% for coloured (mixed race) people, 40% for Indians and 70% for whites.

In 1993, the HESA report said, while 'black' people - African, coloured and Indian - comprised 89% of the population, they constituted just 52% of a total of 473 000 students. Africans made up 77% of the population but just 40% of enrolments, while whites constituted 11% of the population but 48% of enrolments.

Since then, "significant achievements have been the almost doubling of student enrolments, more equitable access to higher education and a more representative student body". By 2011, black students comprised 81% of the total student body of 938,200, and women 58%.

A number of mechanisms have supported greater equity and redress in enrolments: outlawing racial and sex discrimination; affirmative action; alternative admissions tests; recognition of prior learning; extended curriculum programmes for poor students; and a state-funded National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS.

However, progress in equity had been "tempered by certain realities".

There had been a marginal improvement in the participation rate, from 15% in 2001 to 17.3% in 2011. Between 1993 and 2011 the rate for Africans grew from 9% to 14% and for coloureds from 13% to 14%. "In contrast, in 2011 the participation rate of white and Indian students was 57% and 47% respectively," said the HESA report.

"Drop-out, undergraduate success and graduation rates all make clear that a substantial improvement in equity of opportunity and outcomes for black students remains to be achieved. For example, given a target national norm of 80%, the white student success rate in 2010 was 82% at the undergraduate level; that of African students was 71%.

"Internationally, the graduation rate norm for a three-year degree programme is 25%. In 2010, the graduation rate of African students was 16%, and that of white students was 22%, with an average of 17%."

These realities had negated much of the growth in access by black students, reflected inefficient use of the country's resources, and had major implications for development, equity and social inclusion, said the HESA report.

Decisive action was needed in key aspects and at key points of the educational process to facilitate better outcomes. It had been argued that necessary conditions included: reform of core curriculum frameworks; enhancing the status of teaching and building educational expertise; and clarifying and strengthening accountability for educational outcomes.

Government documents had proposed increasing participation rates from 17.3% to 25% and university headcount enrolments from about 950,000 in 2012 to 1.6 million by 2030, along with outlining problems and stressing the need for improvements.

"However, like many other South African policy documents, they are expansive in vision but extremely short on details," the vice-chancellors argued. "Critical is how the priorities will be formulated and what these will be - always a difficult issue as it entails difficult choices between dearly held goals and presents social and political dilemmas."

A recent Council on Higher Education proposal for curriculum reform, including lengthening undergraduate degrees from three to four years, deserved serious consideration as a way of overcoming high attrition and low graduation rates that had largely neutralised access.

2- Research and postgraduate education

South Africa, especially relative to the rest of Africa, has considerable strengths in science and knowledge production, the vice-chancellors told parliament. "It produces the bulk of scientific research in Africa, and ranks 33rd in world publications outputs."

Since 1994 research and publications outputs, and postgraduate student enrolments and graduations, had been generally on the rise.

In 1995 there were 70,964 postgraduate students - 13.7% of total student enrolment. By 2010, there had been a "virtual doubling" of the number of postgraduate students to 138,608, making up 15.5% of the student body. Among them, 71.6% were black students and 56% were women. That year there were 40,124 graduates - including 1,423 PhD graduates - 63.3% of them black and 59.3% women.

However, HESA said in its report: "Postgraduate student enrolments and outputs remain low in relation to national economic and social development needs, and between 1995 and 2010 there was a marginal increase of 1.8% in the size of the postgraduate student body."

There were relatively poor graduation rates for masters - 19% against a target of 33% - and for doctorates, at 13% against a target of 20%.

"Korea and Brazil produce 187 and 48 doctoral graduates per million of population respectively, compared to South Africa's 28 doctoral graduates per million of the population."

Only 34% of academics have a PhD, which is considered a prerequisite for undertaking high quality research and supervising doctoral students. Further, the research performance of universities was highly uneven, HESA said, with 10 of 23 public universities producing 86% of all research and 89% of all doctoral graduates.

"South Africa also lacks the dense networks between universities, state and business that are found in other countries, which facilitates the movement of people, knowledge, expertise and experience between universities and the public and private sectors and innovation."

Policy documents recognised that the number and quality of masters and PhD degrees should be drastically increased. The National Planning Commission proposed that by 2030, over 25% of enrolments should be at postgraduate level and there should be more than 5,000 doctoral graduates per year - against 1,423 in 2010 - most of them in STEM fields.

This was ambitious, the vice-chancellors said, especially given lack of funding for postgraduate study. "Significantly more investment will be needed in postgraduate and especially doctoral level study." Also, at many universities the availability of research infrastructure, facilities and equipment was a constraint.

The National Planning Commission's target of 75% of academics with PhDs was also over-ambitious and required a dedicated national programme supported by adequate funding. Staff development programmes were needed to equip academics to be effective supervisors, which could help to improve below benchmark postgraduate throughput and graduation rates.

3- Epistemological transformation

A key challenge at the heart of higher education transformation in South Africa, said the HESA report, "is engaging effectively with the historical 'legacies of intellectual colonisation and racialisation' and patriarchy", as described in a paper by Andre du Toit.

"Du Toit argues that 'the enemy' in the forms of colonial and racial discourses 'has been within the gates all the time', and that they are significant threats to the flowering of ideas and scholarship. He links these discourses to institutional culture and academic freedom."

The challenge, HESA believes, is to create institutional cultures that genuinely respect and appreciate difference and diversity, and "creating spaces for the flowering of epistemologies, ontologies, theories, methodologies, objects and questions other than those that have long been hegemonic in intellectual and scholarly thought and writing".

Questions of social exclusion and inclusion in higher education extend well beyond issues of access, opportunity and success, the report argued. "They also include issues of institutional and academic cultures, and largely ignored epistemological and ontological issues associated with learning and teaching, curriculum development and pedagogical practice."

4 - The next generations of academics

Racism and patriarchy as key features of colonialism and apartheid profoundly shaped the social composition of academic staff in South Africa, according to the HESA report.

In 1994, academics were overwhelmingly white (83%) and male (68%). "The sheer inequality of representation is highlighted by the fact that although black South Africans constituted 89% of the population they comprised 17% of academics. The under-representation of Africans was especially severe: making up almost 80% of the population, they constituted 10% of the academic workforce."

The workforce had become more equitable, although in 2012 the full-time permanent academic staff of 17,451 academics remained largely white (53%) and male (55%).

South African universities, the HESA report said, have needed to confront two challenges.

The first was producing and retaining the next generations of academics. The large increase in student enrolments over 20 years had not been accompanied by an equivalent expansion in the number of academics. In the coming decade more than 4,000 or 27% of academics will retire, including 50% of the most highly qualified professors and associate professors.

The second challenge was transforming the social composition of the academic work force through measures that advance social equity and redress for black people and women.

"It is necessary to emphasise the simultaneity of the two challenges. Reproducing the next generation of academics without attention to social equity and redress for black and women South Africans will simply reproduce previous inequalities." Further, new academics would need to be of high quality and competence.

"A failure to invest in and cultivate the next generations of high quality academics will have far-reaching consequences," said the HESA report.

These included compromising the deracialisation and degendering of the academic workforce, debilitating the quality of academic provision and therefore the quality of graduates, constraining the goal of transforming and improving universities, and hampering the contribution of universities to development and democracy.

HESA produced a 2011 "Proposal for a National Programme to Develop the Next Generation of Academics for South African Higher Education", with strategies and mechanisms and a sustainable funding model and budget. "This is a good example of an imaginative and well-developed programme currently constrained by lack of state funding."

5 - The higher education institutional landscape

In 1994, South Africa's higher education system comprised 21 public universities, 15 polytechnics, 120 colleges of education, and 24 nursing and 11 agricultural colleges. They differed widely in nature, breadth and quality of academic provision, in infrastructure and facilities, and in levels of state funding.

"With the creation of a constitutional democracy in 1994, all South African higher education institutions needed to be liberated from the apartheid past to enable them to serve new societal goals. Planning had to take cognisance of and address the institutional and social inequalities and the distortions of the past, but also look to the future," said HESA.

There were two dimensions to creating a new differentiated institutional landscape. One was extensive institutional restructuring; the other was restricting institutions to specific qualifications and courses through mechanisms of state approval and accreditation.

Creating a new landscape therefore had to proceed at two levels simultaneously: creating new institutional identities through new missions, roles, qualification and course mixes, and organisational forms, structures and practices; and "confronting apartheid inequalities which translated into a 'system' of institutions characterised by advantage and disadvantage".

By 2001, the colleges of education had been closed or incorporated into universities. Then several of the 36 universities and technikons were merged, unbundled or incorporated to create a landscape of 11 'traditional' universities offering degrees; six comprehensive universities offering degrees, diplomas and certificates; and six universities of technology. Two institutes of higher education were created in provinces without any universities.

The vice-chancellors said the present institutional landscape was a major advance on 1994 and the system was de facto highly differentiated with some diversity in missions.

"The issue of differentiation, however, has remained a difficult and contentious policy issue for a number of reasons."

One has been concern among historically black institutions that differentiation could continue patterns of disadvantage. Another has been "sharply contested and differing views on the kind of differentiation that is appropriate" and mechanisms to achieve this. Also, the trend has been towards "institutional isomorphism", with many institutions aspiring to a common 'gold' standard.

"The continued under-developed institutional capacities of historically black institutions must be emphasised; providing access to rural poor and working class black students, inadequate state support for the historically black institutions to equalise the quality of undergraduate provision compromises their ability to facilitate equity of opportunity and outcomes.

"While our leading universities are internationally respected, historically black universities continue to face severe financial, human, infrastructure and other resource constraints," the HESA report said. Further, some comprehensive universities and universities of technology were experiencing mission drift.

If there was determination on the part of the state to steer effectively using instruments of planning, funding and quality assurance, "there is a new opportunity to make progress on the differentiation issue".

6- The challenge of funding

Since 1994, there has been significant government support for higher education, the vice-chancellors wrote. Funding had increased from R11 billion (US$1 billion) in 2006 to R26 billion in 2013.

"While the increases are welcomed, it should be noted that higher education expenditure has been declining alarmingly in both real and student per capita terms. It is also declining as a percentage of the government's budget and of gross domestic product."

This had put pressure on the two other sources of university funding: tuition fees and third stream income. "While universities have increased levels of third stream income to some degree, these increases by no means compensated for declines in government subsidies, leaving universities in increasingly worsening financial positions," said the HESA report.

Although the allocation to student loans through the NSFAS is to rise from R5.1 billion in 2013 to R6.6 billion in 2016-17, ongoing student protests highlighted that it was not meeting the funding needs of eligible students.

Three other factors were likely to compound the funding challenge: the target of raising participation to 25% and student numbers from a current 950,000 to 1.6 million; the decline in funding for higher education as a proportion of GDP from 0.76% in 2000 to 0.69% in 2009 with no target for increased funding; and a rising school-leaving exam pass rate, resulting in an increasing numbers of students qualifying for university.


Realising ambitious policy visions and goals would require new institutions, reconfiguring old ones, changing institutional cultures and practices and mediating numerous and difficult paradoxes that arise in the pursuit of various desirable goals, HESA told parliament.

It would also involve ensuring the availability of well-qualified academics and support staff, infrastructure, facilities and equipment and adequate funding to achieve the key social purposes and roles of universities.

"Visions, goals, strategies, plans and people with the necessary knowledge, expertise, skills and appropriate values and attitudes have to be stitched and held together effectively to ensure progress and success," the vice-chancellors said. A considerable amount of work was still needed to transform higher education in South Africa.

* The HESA presentation to the portfolio committee on higher education and training is titled "South African Higher Education in the 20th Year of Democracy: Context, achievements and key challenges", and can be accessed here.