HE as a public good demands greater system efficiency

Since the onset of democracy in 1994, higher education in South Africa has undergone various changes to address the systemic challenges of access, equity, democratisation, transformation and sustainability arising from the legacy of apartheid.

This has been happening in the context of the country undergoing various economic crises as well as the disruptive period brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The changes that have been occurring in South African higher education take place in the context of the political economy of neoliberalism. This means that, to assess how higher education pursues a public good role, there is a range of issues that need to be considered. Chief among these is: ‘What do we understand to be the ‘public good’?

In our research project, titled ‘Higher Education, Inequalities and the Public Good: Perspectives from Four African Countries – South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria’, published as a special issue of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa we acknowledged that two distinct ways frame the ways in which higher education and the public good have been conceptualised.

The one is an instrumental understanding which prioritises a version of the public good where its qualifications, knowledge production, innovation, development of the professional classes and expertise are perceived to lead to manifestations of the public good.

The other one is intrinsic where the intellectual, physical and cultural experiences enabled through higher education express and enact the public good.

Given the contested nature of the meaning of the notion of public good, we worked with an interpretation of the concept of it being non-rivalrous, intermediated by relations of power and the structure of the economy.

Most participants in our research interviews understood public good as involving the range of issues that influence the role of the state in higher education or even the way inequalities in society shape higher education. We appreciated the fact that asking people in interviews to expand on a philosophical idea would be challenging given that there is a long intellectual tradition of studying the public good within disciplines such as philosophy and political science.

As we proceeded with the research, we asked ourselves: Can the public good be researched through qualitative interviews? What additional new insights would such interviews bring? Are the perceptions of stakeholders in higher education any different from any other person’s views on the public good question?

Access should lead to success

The context of higher education post-1994 has been influenced by a variety of internal and external factors, many of which are intricately connected to the nature of the democratic transition in South Africa. In the early 1990s, there were strongly contending positions on how equality, equity, redress, as well as development and quality, should be approached in the university system.

At the core of dealing with the apartheid legacy was the paradox of redressing historical imbalances in the context of a global capitalist order that, since the 1990s, has pressured institutions in the Global North to adopt neoliberal reforms aligned to cost-sharing, rankings and fiscal austerity.

Since 1994, there has been a dramatic expansion in the enrolment of black African students in higher education institutions, in absolute numbers as well as proportionally. A report by the national Department of Education in 2001 stated that, while in 1993 only 30,000 (or 25%) of the African students in contact higher education institutions were enrolled in the historically white institutions, this had increased by 1999 to 148,000 (or 57%).

The demographic shifts in higher education occurred because of the emergence of a new social order in South Africa that is central to our research on the public good. The notion of the public good agenda of higher education in the South African context is interpreted to relate strongly to transformation, which is centred primarily on redressing racialised inequalities of the past.

National policy positions over the democratic era have acknowledged that demographic changes in access are inadequate if they do not translate to success and the timeous completion of academic studies, by black African students.

A strong sentiment in higher education policies is that the efficiency of the system needs to be improved, the poor success rate of black African students is a matter of serious concern, the mix of academic programmes needs to favour having more black African students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and more supportive mechanisms need to be put in place to support black students in the university system.

HE mirrors society

South Africa is a country with high levels of inequality, which poses a variety of tensions on the processes of transforming universities.

Paul Ashwin and Jenni Case in 2018 argued that two main tensions prevail in the higher education system of democratic South Africa between, firstly, the aspirations of school-leavers and the current provision of undergraduate higher education, in which case public funding has not grown in accordance with growing enrolments in South Africa and thus an increasing share of the cost has been shifted to students and their families.

Secondly, there is a tension between massification and stratification: the massification of higher education is typically, but not inevitably, accompanied by increased stratification.

These tensions create new patterns of inequality. The questions of affordability of university tuition fees and a family’s inability to meet the costs of tuition fees mostly affect black students.

The #FeesMustFall protests of 2015 and 2016 arose out of these conditions and sparked a lot of debate about the financing of higher education, the prospects of fee-free higher education, access and success within higher education, the colonial orientation of the curriculum, student voices and the political economy of falling fees.

The #FeesMustFall campaign opened a debate that goes beyond the balancing act required to keep the fiscus stabilised and allocate resources fairly across all the pressing needs facing the government.

This is a question about the nature of social and political redress in South Africa. It involves the types of choices that are required to make social transformation and inclusion truly possible.

In pursuing this research, we realised that the higher education landscape mirrors many of the prevalent inequalities that exist in society, especially within an African context.

While we could not possibly have exhausted all such issues, we do acknowledge that, globally, higher education is transforming in ways that are aligning strongly with the nature of neoliberal changes that have engulfed early 21st-century society across the world.

‘Global prestige economy’ affects HE

The attempt to subject all facets of human life to the capitalist logic has not escaped the university system at micro or macro institutional levels.

Future research on the public good and higher education in South Africa needs to consider three key issues: Firstly, how pressure on universities in the Global South to catch up with Global North universities and move up the ladder of what is called the ‘global prestige economy’ of universities affects their pursuance of the public good.

Secondly, university campuses have become sites of masculine and aggressive cultures in which gender-based violence against women and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Intersexual (LGBTI+) communities are becoming more prevalent. A public good agenda in higher education has to address such questions and create the kind of conditions to enable all voices that have been marginalised to be heard.

Thirdly, a public good agenda in higher education has to ensure that technological transformation does not result in students from poor and working class families being marginalised.

Our research has shown that here is no single understanding of the relationship of higher education and the public good shared across constituencies in South Africa, but a common view is that the state is central to achieving a public good role of higher education.

Siphelo Ngcwangu is an associate professor in the sociology department of the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. The full text of the article ‘Researching the public good: Reflections on experiences of doing research on higher education and the public good in South Africa’ was published in the Journal of Higher Education in Africa.