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Sing from the same higher education hymn sheet

This year is the 20th anniversary of South Africa's achievement of the national liberation of black South Africans and democracy. This provides an opportune moment to reflect critically on what has been achieved in South African higher education since 1994 and what continue to be ongoing challenges. 

Insofar as the challenges we discuss are concerned, they are not just threats to the vitality of higher education and its contribution to economic and social development and democracy; they also represent significant opportunities for creating a more vibrant, equitable, responsive and higher-quality universities system, and for higher education to contribute more effectively to the fourfold South African challenge of environmentally sustainable economic development with increasing social equity and social justice — and the consolidation and deepening of democracy.

Research and postgraduate education
South Africa, especially relative to the rest of Africa, has considerable strengths in science and knowledge production. It produces the bulk of scientific research in Africa, and ranks 33rd in world publications outputs. 

Since 1994, research and publications outputs, the enrolments of postgraduate students and the numbers graduated have all been generally on the ascendancy. In 1995 there were 70 964 postgraduate students, comprising 13.7% of the total student enrolment. 

By 2010, the number of postgraduate (postgraduate diploma/honours, master's and doctoral) students almost doubled, the 138 608 students making up 15.5% of the total student body. More than 70% (99 224) were black students and 56% (77 957) were female students. 

There are also shortcomings and constraints. Postgraduate student enrolments and outputs remain low in relation to national economic and social development needs. Between 1995 and 2010 there was a marginal increase of 1.8% in the size of the postgraduate student body. There are relatively poor graduation rates for master's (19% against a benchmark graduation rate target of 33% established by the 2001 National Plan for Higher Education) and doctorates (13% against a target of 20%).

There are also differing graduation and success rates between black and white students. In 2010, graduation rates were between 24% and 34% for black students and 37% for white students; postgraduate success rates were between 65% and 74% for black students and 80% for white students. 

Only 34% of academics have doctoral degrees, which is generally a prerequisite for undertaking high- quality research and supervising doctoral students. The research performance of universities is highly uneven, with 10 universities producing 86% of all research and 89% of all doctoral graduates. 

It has been suggested that "there is every indication that knowledge output (as measured in terms of article production) may have reached a plateau at around 7 500 article equivalents a year (which constitutes about 0.4% of total world science production)".

The 2012 green paper acknowledged that "the number of overall postgraduate qualifications obtained, particularly PhD graduates, is too low". One "significant constraint on the ability of many students to obtain master's and PhDs" was poverty, "as poor students are under enormous pressure to leave university and get a job as soon as possible". 

The paper recognised that "overall postgraduate provision deserves attention and that we need to drastically increase the number and quality of both the master's and the PhD degrees obtained". 

The National Planning Commission has proposed that "by 2030 over 25% of university enrolments should be at postgraduate level" (15.5% in 2010) and emphasises that "the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates should increase significantly"; more specifically, by 2030 there should be "more than 5 000 doctoral graduates a year" (1 423 in 2010) and "most of these doctorates should be in science, engineering, technology and mathematics".

The target of 5 000 doctoral graduates by 2030 is ambitious. But if South Africa is to ensure greater opportunities for participation by indigent students in postgraduate study, significantly more investment will be needed in postgraduate and especially doctoral level study. 

At many South African universities the availability of research infrastructure, facilities and equipment is a constraint on the greater enrolment and production of postgraduates and especially doctoral graduates. This is so even at the 12 universities that produce 95% of doctoral graduates and the bulk of peer-reviewed scientific publications. 

However, the challenge of the enhancement of institutional capacities also relates to the academic teaching and supervision capacities to expand current and mount new doctoral programmes, and the institutional capacities for managing substantial expansion in postgraduate programmes. Improving the proportion of academics with doctoral qualifications will require a dedicated national programme, supported by adequate funding. 

Yet it cannot be assumed that academics with doctorates will be accomplished supervisors of doctoral students; attention has to be given to equipping academics to supervise effectively through formal development programmes, mentoring and experience in co-supervising alongside experienced supervisors. 

Epistemological transformation
A key challenge at the heart of higher education transformation in South Africa is engaging effectively with the historical "legacies of intellectual colonisation and racialisation" and patriarchy, argued Andre du Toit in a 2000 article. "The enemy" in the forms of colonial and racial discourses "has been within the gates all the time", and they are significant threats to the flowering of ideas and scholarship. 

Du Toit linked these discourses to institutional culture and academic freedom. Higher education transformation entails decolonising, deracialising, demasculanising and degendering national universities — and engaging with ontological and epistemological issues in all their complexity, including their implications for research, methodology, scholarship, learning and teaching, curriculum and pedagogy. 

Mahmood Mamdani has argued that "the central question facing higher education in Africa today is what it means to teach the humanities and social sciences in the current historical context and, in particular, in the post-colonial African context". Moreover, he asked, what does it mean to teach "in a location where the dominant intellectual paradigms are products not of Africa's own experience but of a particular Western experience"?

This highlights that questions of social exclusion and inclusion in national higher education extend well beyond issues of access, opportunity and success. They also include issues of institutional and academic cultures, and largely ignored epistemological and ontological issues associated with learning and teaching, curriculum development and pedagogical practice. 

Although there have been various changes related to curriculum, insufficient attention has been given to a number of key issues. These include: How have the dominant discourses that characterise the intellectual space of higher education developed and been reproduced historically? What are the implications of the dominant discourses for social inclusion and social justice in higher education for the affirmation and promotion of human dignity and rights, social cohesion and respect for difference and diversity? What are the prevailing conceptions of epistemology and ontology and to what extent have these been or are being deracialised, degendered and decolonised. 

There is frequent reference to providing students with "epistemological access" rather than just physical access, but to which epistemologies? How do the dominant cultures of higher education affect student learning, progress and success and social equity and redress? Similarly, how do these dominant cultures also affect the development and retention of next generations of academics that must, in the light of historical and current inequalities, be increasingly women and black people? 

The challenge of funding
Since 1994, government's support for higher education has been significant. The funding of universities has been on an upward trend, from R11-billion in 2006 to R26-billion in 2013. While the increases are welcomed, it should be noted that higher education expenditure has been declining alarmingly in both real and student per capita terms. It is also declining as a percentage of the government's budget and of gross domestic product (GDP). This decline has put pressure on the other two sources of income available to universities, namely tuition fee income and third-stream income (typically research grants, contract income, donations, for example). Although universities have increased levels of third-stream income to some degree, these increases have by no means compensated for declines in government subsidies, leaving universities in increasingly worsening financial positions. 

The recent student protests at some universities highlight the sad reality that the allocation is not adequate to meet the funding needs of students eligible for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) loans and bursaries. Three other factors are likely to compound the funding challenge of universities in the coming period:

• The recent white paper on post-school education and training sets a target of university participation rate of 25% by 2030 (representing an enrolment of around 1.6-million students) through planned growth; 

• The 2012 National Development Plan (NDP) also proposes an increase of gross enrolments from 950 000 in 2010 to 1 620 000 in 2030. The plan admits that a "greater understanding within government is required to acknowledge the importance of science and technology and higher education in leading and shaping the future of modern nations". 

Given this acknowledgement, and despite recognising that funding for higher education as proportion of GDP has declined from 0.76% in 2000 to 0.69% in 2009, it is disappointing that, in a report bristling with targets, the plan refrains from setting a target for increased GDP funding for higher education; and

• The class of 2013 achieved a national senior certificate (matric) pass rate of 78%, the highest since 1994. The number of bachelor's passes increased by 60%, and the number of overall passes increased by 32%. It is projected that this number of passes will increase in the coming years, putting pressure on universities and other post-school education and training institutions.

Fundamental questions arise: How is the projected student enrolment growth in universities going to be funded? How will NSFAS support be sustained over time, in order to make possible increased participation in higher education to meet both equity and growth targets? What is required to plan for and adequately resource the expected growth, given the tighter fiscal space and the funding shortfall for students who are already in the system? How does the state align the policy aspirations expressed in the white paper and the NDP to available funding to ensure that enrolment growth, equity and quality are all pursued simultaneously? 

The development of higher education and the achievement of key goals require negotiating consensus, building legitimacy and ensuring that there are effective policies, planning and implementation. Realising the ambitious transformation vision and goals of the recent white paper entails establishing new institutions, reconfiguring old ones, changing institutional cultures and practices and mediating numerous and difficult paradoxes that arise in the pursuit of a variety of equally desirable goals. 

It also involves ensuring the availability of well-qualified academics and support staff, infrastructure, facilities and equipment, and adequate funding for undertaking effectively the key social purposes and roles of universities. 

Visions, goals, strategies, plans and people with the necessary know-ledge, expertise, skills and appropriate values and attitudes have to be stitched and held together effectively to ensure progress and success.

This is an edited extract from Higher Education South Africa's presentation to Parliament's portfolio committee on higher education and training last month. The Hesa delegation comprised Dr Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town and Hesa's newly elected chairperson, Dr Saleem Badat, vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, and Hesa chief executive Dr Jeffrey Mabelebele. The visit, at the invitation of the portfolio committee, was part of a stakeholder engagement process, inputs from which will form part of the handover process to the fifth Parliament, to be constituted after the May general elections. This edited extract reflects only three of the six issues the full presentation made — the other three being student access, opportunity and success; securing the next generations of academics; and the higher education institutional landscape. The full presentation can be found at

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