Extraordinary measures to drive change

Adam Habib. (Lisa Skinner)

Adam Habib. (Lisa Skinner)

In October last year, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the public universities transformation oversight committee (Putoc) conducted a study and found that it could take South Africa’s top five universities — the universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town (UCT), KwaZulu-Natal, Pretoria and Witwatersrand (Wits) — up to 382 years to transform so that its staff and graduates reflect the demographics of the country.

Using an “equity index formula” the study — which examined the demographic profile (race and gender) of 23 South African universities — measured the level of transformation and the production of quality research output against the demographics of the country.

According to the study, four groups of universities emerged: those with good equity indices and poor research productivity; those with poor equity indices and poor research productivity; those with poor equity indices and good research productivity; and those with good equity and good research productivity.

In terms of equity in student enrolment and graduation, the top five performers were the Central University of Technology, Free State University, University of Johannesburg, Tshwane University of Technology, Durban University of Technology (DUT) and Vaal University of Technology, while the worst performers were the universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Western Cape.

According to the study, the universities of North West (NWU), Johannesburg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and Wits exhibited good equity and research productivity while Rhodes, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and the Central University of Technology in the Free State were the worst performers in this regard.


However, Professor Ahmed Bawa the vice chancellor of DUT questioned the importance of the findings. “Without discussing the merits or not of the mathematics of the project, my view is that findings have limited use,” he said. “It tells us about the race imbalances in the system. It sees transformation in a simplistic fashion. Let me put it this way, it is possible for an institution to score highly on the index and yet be very seriously un-transformed.”

Professor Dan Kgwadi, who will soon assume his duties as vice-chancellor of the NWU, said that while he supported attempts to accelerate transformation, the Putoc index was problematic in that it made the assumption that transformation could be directly correlated with national and provincial demographic profiles.

“One cannot reduce higher education to such a simplistic formula. Its focus on higher knowledge production means that it must attract talented people with necessary skills to engage in such knowledge work,” he explained.

“For historical reasons, there is a skewed distribution of those with such skills. Institutions should employ extraordinary strategies to build capacity to create a diverse pool of people who qualify to work in higher education. A deliberate bias towards capacitating the underrepresented groups is justified.” The Wits vice chancellor Professor Adam Habib agreed.

“There’s a kind of craziness that circulates among political figures and other people who don’t think about these things carefully, that there should be a direct match between the demographics of society and the diversity of representation at the university,” he said.

“You’ll never get a direct match — I’m stunned at how often people think you can — if you go to any leading universitiy in the world such as Harvard or Oxford, you won’t see them representing the demographics of their society to the tee, because if they did, they won’t be the kind of global institutes that they are.”

He cautioned, however, against universities becoming too complacent in addressing the historical disparities and injustices of the country’s past. “There are some universities in our society which, even after twenty years of transition, actually pursue a project of explicit representation of one ethnic group – this is unacceptable, morally problematic and unconstitutional.

“So what we have are two extremes. “On the one hand that we have to be demographically representative to the extreme, and on the other hand there’s a kind of ethnic chauvinism that continues to manifest itself in society,” he added. Both scenarios were objectionable he said. “If you want to be a great African institution, a university in post-apartheid South Africa, you have to be simultaneously nationally responsive and globally competitive.

“You have to be an institution that addresses the disparities of the past, but continues to be cosmopolitan.”

Culture and tradition

How then does a university define transformation, if not by merely analysing its demographic profile? “The NWU council approved 10 elements of transformation among which access and success of students receives attention,” said Kgwadi.

“Transformation in the NWU would be to bring about a fundamental change in institutional culture towards a more inclusive culture that actively nurtures diversity and encourages dialogues that explore different perspectives and ideological stances.

“Our definition also includes the manner in which curriculum accommodates different intellectual traditions and ways of understanding, as well as equity of resources among our three campuses.”

DUT has adopted a five pronged approach, which addresses transformation in a holistic way, said Bawa. One of these is addressing the issues of race and gender inequalities that still persist at the institute and finding ways to deal with these issues while addressing the challenges of building capacity, he added.

“Unless we deal coherently with these two ends there is a strong likelihood that both will fail. Because of our history as being the outcome of the merger of two former technikons, the fraction of our academic staff that has doctoral qualifications is much too small.” Curriculum renewal also forms part of transformation at the university.

“(This is) to ensure that our programmes are up to date, that they are sensitive to the needs of our students, and that they improve the employability of our graduates, they are provide the basis for students to be critical participants in our democracy, that they emerge as outstanding and innovative users of technology.

“Perhaps the most important element of this is attempting to build capacity of our students to be lifelong learners,” said Bawa. “At DUT student-centredness is a transformatory project. We want to understand how to maximise the impact of the institution on overall, holistic student development.  “Building the capacity of our staff in the context of a learning organisation approach is another project.”

Summer school

According to Habib a crucial aspect of transformation is striking the right balance between access and quality. “If you provide access to education for people, but give them a shoddy education, you’re not doing them any favours.

“A good example is the school system. Our access rates for schooling are better than some countries in Europe — but once in school, Norway and Sweden will provide you with a high quality education, whereas here, of the 1.1-million that go into school, 50% will not pass. “So we have 96% access to secondary education, but shoddy education in the majority of the township schools.”

To this end Wits offers winter and summer school tuition programmes to a thousand learners attending rural schools, providing them with intensive training and counselling aimed at helping them matriculate. “The university also has a programme whereby undergraduate students who are struggling with their studies are identified early on, and assisted with extra tutorials.

“Just over 70% of our students are black, and just under 30% are white.

“We have to strike a balance between addressing historical disparities and being cosmopolitan. If we are so representative that all our white students leave for overseas, then we are stupid because we are losing some of our best students — that’s not a transformed higher education system; that’s simply one in which we’ve capitulated from one kind of ethnic fundamentalism to another,” said Habib.

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