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South African Journal of Science

versión On-line ISSN 1996-7489
versión impresa ISSN 0038-2353

S. Afr. j. sci. vol.105 no.5-6 Pretoria may./jun. 2009


Higher education transformation



The transformation of the South African higher education sector remains no less vexed than that of other facets of our society. But two recent reports at least provide insight into the complexities involved in this process, and usefully, suggest some ways forward.

The first is that of the ministerial committee on transformation in higher education, appointed over a year ago by former education minister Naledi Pandor, and which tabled its report last November ( Report.pdf). No-one is denying that racism still exists on South African campuses—last year's disgraceful incident at the University of the Free State is evidence of this. But undergraduate enrolment is now moving steadily closer to reflecting the country's demography, although large racial differences in participation rates remain: in 2006 the percentages of 18–24-year olds engaged in tertiary education were 59 for whites, 42 for Indians, 13 for coloureds and 12 for black Africans. In terms of staff transformation, the situation is even less satisfactory: universities struggle to retain talented black staff members, as the relatively low remuneration they receive often results in their leaving academic life for either the public service or the private sector, where they can earn higher salaries.

This is corroborated by evidence by the second report—on postgraduate studies in South Africa—commissioned by the Council for Higher Education, and compiled by the Centre for Research into Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University ( This found that postgraduate enrolments grew in the first five years of this decade, but not nearly as fast as undergraduate enrolments during the same period. Although there has been growth in numbers of South African honours students, particularly in humanities and social sciences, it is clear, that were it not for significant increases in enrolments from other African countries, there would be very little growth in our master's or doctoral enrolment figures. Most strikingly, whites in the 25–34 age group are 28 times more likely than their black African counterparts to be enrolled in a doctoral programme.

The picture that emerges is one of our universities struggling to encourage South African students of colour to study beyond the honours level; and then again to recruit the few that do so to their academic staff. Students from other African countries, by contrast, are eager recruits in both categories. This does amount to transformation of a kind, is certainly good for South Africa, and is probably also good for the continent. But the problem is that (correctly), employing foreigners does not satisfy the country's employment equity requirements. So what is to be done?

The ministerial committee found that funding for staff development at universities was inadequate—in particular, for training black staff members to take up senior level positions. It recommends that earmarked funds for staff development posts be made available as part of the state subsidy to higher education institutions; and that the provision of these funds should be based on the submission of institutional plans for staff development. It further recommends that postgraduate bursaries should be competitive with the remuneration levels for entry-level professional posts in the public service. Some universities have already taken their own initiatives in this regard—of which the recently announced University of Johannesburg scholarship programme, which makes available R150 000 per annum for a three-year period for doctoral students, is an example. □

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