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Set course for a new destination

As we review higher education over the past 20 years, let me begin with a confession: I have been in the system for more than 20 years. 

In 1994, as South Africa turned its back on apartheid and embraced democracy, a much younger version of me bid farewell to my research assistantship days and became a junior lecturer. 

I must hasten to add that my position was confirmed by my then Afrikaans-speaking university only after I passed a compulsory Afrikaans proficiency module. 

Twenty years later, my receding hairline has run out of receding space and the higher education landscape has changed beyond recognition — and mostly for the better.  

Gone are the exclusively Afrikaans-medium universities — well, almost. The 36 universities of the apartheid era have given way to a tighter set of 25 rejuvenated institutions with markedly progressive and dynamic missions. 

The leadership of South African universities today is much more diverse than it was 20 years ago — in terms of race, gender, nationality and skills set. Now with just under one million students, the sector has almost doubled its 1994 enrolment figures, with the vast majority of the influx coming from the so-called "designated groups". The comprehensive profile of a South African university has changed drastically.

Research productivity
Over the past decade the country's research output has doubled and the sector's international collaborations have tripled. Did you know that  South Africa is among the world's top five countries when it comes to research productivity in plant and animal sciences? Did you know that the country performs above the world average in environmental and ecological sciences, space science, immunology and clinical medicine research? And did you know that the most prolific research country on the continent — producing up to 40% of the continent's research output — is none other than Mzansi?

It is not surprising that South Africa ranks among the top 10 university destinations for international students in the world. Though unemployment remains high, it is a vote of confidence in the higher education system that graduate unemployment is below 5%. Contrast that with the national unemployment rate, which stands at 24.4%.

In South Africa we call what has happened to the higher education sector "transformation" — an over-used and much-abused word. It can be brandished violently like a sword against enemies or sprayed gently like holy water (depending on the topic, the speaker and the audience). To be fair, ANC planners and thinkers, including most of the ministers of education we have had over the past 20 years, have been rather clear and largely consistent about what the transformation of higher education entails. 

The transformation goals of higher education have been as clear as they have been comprehensive. These include changing the shape and size of the system, addressing student and staff inequities, enhancing the capacity of the system to enable students to succeed and ensuring financial sustainability.

Many challenges remain. Ten years since the state-driven public university mergers, we can confirm that, although they have been a remarkable transformation tool, they have not always brought about a fundamental transformation of culture among staff and students. Some of the mergers could more accurately be described as takeovers or federal arrangements. 

Social cohesion gaps
Nor have the universities left untouched by mergers necessarily fared any better when it comes to the transformation of their cultures. There are worrying social cohesion gaps across the higher education sector. To protest against inadequate government funding, students will burn a library. A little below the surface lies the demon of racism that rears its ugly head from time to time. Instead of recognising international staff and students as a marker of our global citizenship as a country and as a system of higher education, there are frequently reported incidents of xenophobic behaviour against foreign nationals.

For a country that emerged out of a negotiated revolution, some of our students appear to "communicate" most frequently through acts of violence against themselves, others and property. In addition, the intolerance of and violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex communities remain rife. 

The long shadow of apartheid is still widely cast upon the broad landscape of the higher education sector. In a country where the majority is black, black people remain a minority in the academy. Black people, especially black women, remain the most underqualified and the most junior among the teaching staff of South African universities. 

As if this was not bad enough, black students generally take much longer to complete their qualifications — if they do not drop out — because of a whole range of issues that mostly have little to do with talent and academic ability. Then, after graduating, it is black students who struggle most with finding employment. Where the white participation rate — that is, the percentage of 20- to 24-year-olds enrolled in higher education — stands at 57%, the black participation rate stands at 14%.

Robust funding model
Twenty years later, I wish to suggest that it is time to go back to the situation room to reimagine and recalibrate the South African higher education sector. The participation rate of black people must be significantly enhanced. But this cannot be done through the poorly resourced National Student Financial Aid Scheme model. It is time for a more robust funding model that factors in the total staff and student experience. 

Similarly, the system needs significant enlargement if quality is not to become the first casualty. In this regard, it is encouraging that the white paper on post-school education, released in January, signals the revitalisation of the college system. For much of the 20 years of democracy, it has been unclear what was expected of the colleges: Are they glorified high schools or legitimate sites of good-quality post-school education? It will be important that the focus on colleges is not conceived of as one separate from public universities in terms of resource allocation.

Twenty years later, the world has changed drastically. Knowledge has become the real fuel that drives development. In this world, higher education is no longer a luxury but a necessary resource for global competitiveness. 

This implies that we cannot afford to insulate and "nationalise" our universities from the global village in which they ply their trade. Our system has one million students inside, but there are 3.5-million young South Africans (between 18 and 24) who are not in education, training or employment. 

Although we are research kings in Africa, overall we are midgets on the global stage. 

Dismal throughput rates
Our annual national research output yield is the equivalent of what a university such as Harvard in the United States produces in one year. Our throughput and graduation rates — especially of the so-called designated groups — remain dismal. We live in one country with one public higher education system, but with universities whose facilities are of such unequal quality in services, products and facilities, they could be in different countries. 

To conclude, I return to my semi-biographical opening. Ten years ago there was no Facebook, no Twitter, and no University of Johannesburg — the university at which I work today. This university resulted from the merging of three institutions 10 years ago. Today it is the youngest university to be ranked among the top 4% universities in the world by the QS World University Rankings. One out of every four black chartered accountants who graduate from residential universities in South Africa does so from this university. 

Where am I going with this? It is this: if a university that did not exist 10 years ago can do as well as this one has done, a country that did not exist 20 years ago should do even better. In the world of today, it is possible to accelerate a country's developmental pace through strategic and robust investment of resources in basic, college and higher education.

But this entails recognising that piecemeal, half-hearted, hit-and-miss investments and interventions in higher education will no longer suffice. All the grand challenges we face as a country, as a continent and as the world, are ones that cannot be tackled without the requisite scientific knowledge. 

The only chance South Africa has of overcoming the so-called triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality is not through social grants — despite their importance — but through education and know-ledge production. 

During the 20-plus years of my sojourn in the system I have seen my hairline recede. But I have also seen a thousand signs that the higher education sector is both a potential and a real game-changer that, through the mobilisation of research and innovation, can radically and fundamentally alter our economic destination.

Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is deputy vice-chancellor: internationalisation, advancement and student affairs at the University of Johannesburg. He writes here in his personal capacity

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