Maties 'not black enough'

Stellenbosch University has the lowest African student enrolment in the country, and black academics appear reluctant to apply for posts there, a Council of Higher Education (CHE) audit has found.

Central to both trends are perceptions of the university’s deeply conservative culture, including a controversial language policy that still prioritises Afrikaans.

The CHE conducts institutional audits of universities as part of its statutory obligation to advise Education Minister Naledi Pandor.

The audit praises some aspects of Stellenbosch, pointing out that it is South Africa’s third most productive research university, makes innovative use of technology to support learning, has one of the highest proportions of postgraduate students and that students have a high reputation in the world of work.

But it finds transformation is proceeding very slowly, specially in regard to student and staff numbers. ‘More than a decade into a democratic dispensation in South Africa, Stellenbosch remains as the institution with the smallest number of African student enrolments in the country,” it says.

Figures supplied by Stellenbosch show that of nearly 22 600 students, 72% are white, 14% coloured, 12% African and 0,02% Indian. The proportions improve at postgraduate level, where 58% of students are white, 24% African, 14% coloured and 3% Indian.

Of 770 permanent staff, just 20 are African, 11 are Indian, 75 coloured and 664 white.
But there are almost as many black as white temporary staff, such as junior lecturers, and ‘this is a considerable improvement from staff figures in 1996”, the audit notes.

It quotes interviews with staff and students as suggesting ‘there is deeply ingrained conservatism in institutional structures, especially in relation to student services and residences, which may be delaying, if not obstructing, the institution’s progress towards the achievement of its goal of diversity in campus life”.

It adds that Stellenbosch’s language policy, ‘which requires staff to be able to lecture in Afrikaans or to be amenable to learning the language well enough in order to be able to teach in it”, works against a more equitable profile and could be ‘precluding black academics from applying for positions”.

Jan Botha, professor in Stellenbosch’s academic planning and quality assurance division, said senior management is still to discuss the audit report in detail. But most of the issues it raised ‘have already been identified for attention”.

He said the language policy is under review, that the university recognises that the staff and student diversity profile ‘is not ideal”, and there is a ‘concerted effort to address aspects of institutional culture”. The audit’s recommendations ‘therefore do not come as a surprise”.

Education faculty dean Yusuf Waghid said there are no strategies in place ‘to develop a culture that’s not alien to all staff ... There is a lack of recognising what’s different and other”. However, there had been some positive changes.

‘I’m black and Muslim, and when I came here 10 years ago I felt marginalised. Black colleagues were asked, ‘Is this a foreign invasion?’ We’ve shifted a lot since then: the fact that most of this faculty are white, yet supported me in becoming dean, as did the senate and council, shows a recognition of diversity.

‘I don’t experience alienation—though some do—and I feel safe and welcome, more than I did as a student at the University of the Western Cape.”

Waghid said the education faculty has seen the most transformation at Stellenbosch, and ‘black academics have contributed to excellence, not to any lowering of standards”. But the language policy has to change, he said, ‘otherwise we won’t attract many students from disadvantaged backgrounds—namely African students”.

SRC member Danmur Lucas said black students often find it ‘challenging to integrate socially on campus” and are often in a minority in residences. ‘I’ve found these students lose all interest in residence activities, in part because activities are often alien to their culture.”

But Lucas added that ‘being coloured myself, I’ve found the university environment very welcoming — Support services for students go to huge lengths to accommodate and assist students financially, academically and psychologically.”

‘Our challenge is to influence people’s comfort zones, so people from different backgrounds feel comfortable around one another. When you look at social interaction in residences, it’s encouraging to note how far this level of acceptance has advanced.”

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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