As if it never happened

In December 2002 the higher education landscape consisted of 36 institutions spread across the country. Some were in under-resourced rural areas, others agglomerated into cities. These institutions varied widely in calibre, focus, student and staff demographics, and research output.

By 2005 there were 23 universities as a result of mergers, which were not driven by the obvious goals of physical proximity (some mergers involve distances in excess of 400km), removal of curricula duplication or economies of scale, but rather by the political will of the state to remove the last vestiges of a sector deeply shaped by apartheid.

More than a quarter of the 21 universities and 15 technikons were physically and symbolically a direct consequence of the apartheid regime.

The grand plan of separate development understood that higher education could threaten and interrogate the specious logic upon which apartheid was built. As a result, higher education institutions were built with the express purpose of educating black students “into subservience”. Overseen by white vice-chancellors, who were hand-picked to perpetuate the regime, these institutions were under-funded ways of barricading black intellectuals into geographical backwaters. A by-product of this was a spawning of duplicate curricula and infrastructures to maintain separate development.

So when the government started higher education policy formulation in earnest, it found it was confronted with a complex array of competing policy priorities. First, it needed to achieve a balance between the need for redress for the majority of the population and an economic agenda focused on competing in a regional and global market: to redress or to compete.


Redress is by definition backward-looking; its concern is introspective and contained within national boundaries and it seeks to increase access for those marginalised by the previous regime. Competition, especially within a global context, is forward-looking; it is transnational and, under the aegis of neoliberalism, promotes economic competitiveness in its focus on the multitasking, skill-rich knowledge worker. To champion redress unequivocally would retard development within the global arena; to advocate unmitigated adherence to international competitiveness would entrench the apartheid legacy, allowing historically white, already advantaged institutions to prosper further. What followed was a series of compromises, a good deal of bullying and back-room agreements, which ironically still left the research-intensive (read: white) universities untouched.

The story begins with the findings of the National Commission for Higher Education’s A Framework for Transformation, published in 1996. It was an optimistic document. However, it contained a flaw that was to become the fundamental sticking point between state and higher education in subsequent relations. It said that in addition to the establishment of an advisory body — that would finally become the Council on Higher Education — this system also needed a buffer body, the purpose of which would be to protect institutional autonomy and academic freedom. In return it put forward a picture of higher education that was supportive, collegial, unified and willing to collaborate to achieve equity and efficiency. The report misconstrued the reality on the ground. After years of an academic boycott and an internal focus on survival, institutional autonomy had come to resemble autism.

And so, by the time the draft White Paper was published in 1997, the idea of a buffer body had long since vanished and already there was the first mention of mergers. Article 2.45 reads: “Many institutions either require consolidation or retooling for new missions and goals. Narrow self-interest cannot be allowed to preclude planning which may lead to institutional mergers and closures, and the development of new institutional forms where these are necessary.”

This veiled threat might well have been forgotten, lost in the margins of history, but it emerged again, almost inadvertently, in the Size and Shape Report that came out in June 2000. In an attempt to arrive at tangible deliverables to offer then education minister Kader Asmal, the task team appointed to look into the higher education landscape tentatively posited the use of “combinations” to realise some of the core concerns raised in the White Paper: “The task team instead recommends reducing the present number of institutions through combining institutions.”

The fact that this suggestion was adopted so rapidly and eagerly by the ministry indicates that Asmal saw the potential of solving a variety of sectoral problems with one simple move. And the minister was one who tended to prefer radical, far-reaching solutions. In the early days following his appointment to the position of minister he made it clear that “the way we do things in universities is appalling. It’s wasteful. It’s redolent of 50 years ago.” Standards, teaching methods, course content and the way instructors related to students all were “insensitive and out of date’.”

He appointed a national working group, not to establish the desirability of mergers, or their viability, but rather to provide a detailed list of institutions to be merged.

What had been a hesitant suggestion had, without negotiation, become a de facto merger process. This led to much manoeuvring and horse trading on the part of vice-chancellors and councils.

The University of Fort Hare, for example, was at one stage due to be incorporated into Rhodes University. The technikons — always perceived as the lesser cousin of the university but always alert to an opportunity — managed to convince Asmal that they should now be called universities of technology.

This brief sketch describes a process that was neither transparent nor carried out for any of the reasons that usually lie behind a merger. It has not resulted in efficiencies of scale or the removal of duplication. It has probably cost the taxpayer more because no campus was ever closed down. Subsequently, some merging institutions adopted a “merger-lite” approach and brought together financial systems, information and communication technology infrastructure and little else. Other institutions used it as an opportunity to rebrand themselves and to shrug off a sordid past for a brighter future. Some, give or take a dentistry school, got through the process unscathed. Other institutions — and these are the saddest instances of the overall failure of the process — which had been left weak (and destitute) by the former regime found themselves married off to even poorer spouses.

A cynical take on the mergers is that the untouched universities have extended their advantage, the disadvantaged have slipped even further behind and the institutions in the middle have used mergers as an opportunity to rebrand themselves or as a way of continuing to do what they have always done.
Since 1994 the mantra in higher education has been “transformation”. The mergers were supposed to give effect to that transformation.

However, the cumulative effect of policies in the past 15 years has been a negligible increase in student enrolments, a decrease in throughput, an ever-ageing professoriate, static postgraduate enrolment and moribund research outputs. The failure of the mergers is finally semantic in nature. It sought to transform the sector out of the inequalities of the past and in the process forgot to transform the sector into anything.

Patrick Fish is an independent education analyst

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