The massification of higher education in South Africa

Two decades into democracy, South Africa has done well in nearly doubling higher education enrolments. But racial inequities remain, growth has been stifled by government reluctance to open up to the private sector, and its “flirting with a welfarist neo-socialist model” of free university for the poor has spawned student demands and protests, says Thandwa Mthembu, vice-chancellor of the Central University of Technology, Free State.

Mthembu was speaking at the triennial conference of the International Association of University Presidents, or IAUP, held in Yokohama, Japan, from 11-14 June. His topic was the ‘massification’ of higher education in South Africa.

The country’s Constitution and policies have articulated, among other things, the needs to redress historical inequalities, improve the quality of life of all citizens and free their potential, and increase participation rates through the ‘massification’ of higher education.

The goal for higher education participation was set at 20%, with growth to be achieved by recruiting more non-traditional and women students, and students from the Southern African Development Community, SADC.

Policies understood that growth in participation would be held back by an inadequate school system, said Mthembu, a mathematician and former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Enrolment growth

Drawing mostly on audited data for the period 1996 to 2011 for the public higher education system, and stratified by race given South Africa’s history, Mthembu found there had been a 60% increase in student enrolments between 1996 and 2011, from 590,000 to 938,000.

Taking into account enrolment of 495,000 in the year of democracy, 1994, and today’s enrolment of around a million students, there has been a doubling of student numbers.

But while African enrolment grew to 68% of total enrolments in 2011, “this is still far from reflecting the population shape of 79% of Africans”, said Mthembu. White student numbers declined in the five years to 2011, from 185,000 or 25% of enrolments to 178,000 or 19%.

Mthembu pointed out that from 1996 to 2011 growth in 20- to 24-year-olds in the population was around 40%, from 3.98 million to 5.4 million. “Higher education enrolment clearly outpaced this.”

The overall participation rate grew from 14.8% in 1996 to 17.4% in 2011, still well short of the 20% target for 2016.

Also, “the deceptively immense increase of 60% over the years masks the woeful gross enrolment ratio for Africans sitting at only 14% as of 2011”. By contrast, participation among whites is 57% and among Indians it is 47% – “first world levels”.

Foreign students

Under the SADC Protocol on Education and Training, member countries agreed to work towards reserving at least 5% of admissions for students from other SADC nations.

The number of international students in South Africa increased from 39,280 in 2001 to 70,060 in 2011 – 7.5% of all students. In that year, 6% of all undergraduate students were foreign and 14% of all postgraduate students, said Mthembu.

Most international students are from other SADC nations, and their numbers grew to 50,172 in 2011. That meant 5.3% of total headcount enrolments were students from other SADC countries, and that South Africa had met the protocol goal.

“More important is that SADC students are treated like South African national students in terms of tuition fees and even the government grant per student.”

Funding public education

Mthembu told the IAUP conference that government grants to universities – block grants plus earmarked funds – had increased from R5.2 billion in 1996 to R17.1 billion in 2009 and the current allocation stood at about R23 billion (US$2.2 billion). But the growth masked dwindling support through the block grant.

“In turn, this government grant under-funding of the total university education cost has led to increasing levels of tuition fees at an average annual rate of 13.7%, much higher than the government grant annual increase of 9.7% over the period. Tuition fees now hover in the range of 28% to 35% depending on other external fees a university may be able to attract.”

The government responded to the need to improve access for needy students through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, which grew by nearly 170% in the five years to 2012.

“Student protests in January 2013 led to government pumping in an additional R1 billion to NSFAS from somewhere,” said Mthembu. Universities also offer bursaries and scholarships worth around R400 million, while the private sector provides another R600 million.

Challenges and opportunities

Mthembu concluded with several challenges and opportunities, the first one being that “20 years into our democracy, with a progressive and pro-poor government, race is still a considerable differentiator in many spheres of life, including participation rates”.

Second, the government had done well in growing student enrolments in public education, although it was far from massifying African enrolments.

“But its reluctance to open up the system to private higher education and allow more open and distance learning approaches even for contact-based universities compromises opportunities for reaching higher participation rates.”

Third, the idea of government almost unilaterally funding higher education was “fallacious in a developing country”. Government simply did not have the money.

“At 83% of support as of 2009 and now closer to 65%, government needs to accept that it risks compromising massification and the quality of provision – for now, a great strength in the region,” Mthembu said.

“Flirting with a welfarist neo-socialist model – for example, fee-free higher education and capping tuition fees – where government behaves like Father Christmas to all citizens has, in the higher education sector, only spawned more demands from students for fee-free education.”

With higher education both a private and a public good, a country with a limited taxpayer base could not solely fund the sector. “The private sector and individuals must contribute directly, over and above the taxes they pay.”

Mthembu argued that internationalisation – in terms of staff and students – presented “a great opportunity for South African universities, given their relative strength in the continent and developing world”.

More growth could propel more universities to become globally competitive, said Mthembu. However, immigration and employment equity laws mainly empowering Africans were rigid and “unfriendly for expatriates”.

Finally, with the rapid growth in female students “it is the male species that seems to require more gender empowerment”. The participation rate for males is 6% behind females – who are at about 22%. “More needs to be done to understand this phenomenon,” the vice-chancellor said.