Transformation is not UCT's priority

Graphic: John McCann

Graphic: John McCann

Staff transformation at South African universities has recently made it back into the headlines, with a focus on the University of Cape Town.

UCT sometimes receives a disproportionate amount of criticism relative to other institutions that are

quietly getting away with failures in the same areas and of the same dimensions. A good example is its much-criticised affirmative admissions policy: the merits of that deserve a separate article, but it is more progressive than other universities with equally poor racial representation.

Similarly, most academic institutions could do better with staff transformation. Formerly white institutions should have done more to change the demographics of their staff complement, while some others have succeeded in “transformation by numbers” but failed in substantive transformation.

With that said, I agree with the critics of UCT vice-chancellor Max Price’s recent articles, in which he appears to claim that UCT has been doing a lot for transformation and that other universities have done better only because they had inadequate regard for quality.

The claim that UCT has been making concerted efforts to transform is, as far as I can ascertain, false. Pinning UCT’s failures on a concern for quality is disingenuous and damaging. Of course there are thresholds above which trade-offs occur. It seems unlikely that UCT could achieve a nationally representative academic workforce in a year without compromising on quality. But to use such extremes to defend UCT implies the institution is doing all it can to facilitate transformation, which I argue is not the case.

The blame for that lies with senior management and within departments and faculties themselves. Recent defences of UCT by Crain Soudien, the deputy vice-chancellor officially responsible for transformation, and Price have cherry-picked some poorly substantiated proposals by UCT academic Xolela Mangcu about hiring and promotion, rather than dealing with the deeper substance of his claims. This is possible, in part, because of inadequate evidence on transformation efforts in higher education. That conveniently allows a trade in anecdotes, an odd thing for institutions that obsess about rigorous study of other societal institutions.

The uncomfortable truth is senior management at UCT has failed to make transformation a priority. In a recent public debate on the matter, Price acknowledged a “lack of urgency”, but one could go further and say that there has been little emphasis on the issue at all.

Price’s disappointing and unpersuasive defence of UCT’s failure was cast into stark relief by the two other panellists. Where Price was reluctant to acknowledge any failures or weaknesses at UCT, Jonathan Jansen – the rector of the University of the Free State (UFS) – tackled head-on the fact that mediocre white academics exist across South African institutions, including UCT and UFS. That brings into focus the fact that we hear little about existing mediocrity, but a great deal about how transformation may compromise quality.

Arguably, quality has been compromised for a long time. It is galling to see young academics, most of whom are black, struggling to get junior positions for which they are formally better qualified than members of their hiring committees. One cannot, as Price appeared to imply, neatly separate transformation from the application of hugely inconsistent standards across generations.

Perhaps more striking was the presentation by Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-principal of research and innovation at Unisa, who outlined a comprehensive new plan at her institution for transformation that prioritises the quality of research output. The programme’s success remains to be seen, but the contrast was in the emphasis on substantive transformation combined with the recognition that achieving this requires planning, energy, initiative and resources.

By comparison, to my knowledge, such initiatives at UCT have been ad hoc, limited in scope, mostly externally initiated and weakly driven. Theorising about affirmative action is a start, but far from enough to achieve institutional change.

A job too hard
Detailed evidence on staff dynamics is lacking. A popular argument among some academic managers, repeated by Price, is that retaining potential young black academics is hard because university salaries are too low relative to other options. Last year I examined some of the literature and data on academic hiring as part of a task team on academic staffing; I found no rigorous evidence to support this claim.

To be clear: salaries are lower in academia than in the government or parts of the private sector, but that is the case in most countries. Many other factors that might lead such individuals to exit higher education are, I believe, being conveniently ignored or understated. Furthermore, salaries at South African universities appear to be quite competitive by international standards.

Arguably, the more important factors are an unwelcoming institutional culture and the high level of uncertainty about obtaining a position based simply on merit. The latter is compromised by, among others: unreliable funding for postgraduate study; higher demands on new academics compared with their predecessors; variable quality of PhD supervision and funding; an unclear and risky post-PhD process; haphazard availability of posts after PhD or postdoctoral work, partly because of the retention of older academics; dependence on the patronage of senior academics to “smooth over” the above risks; and various policies at the institutional and national level systematically discriminating against new academics.

Financial and institutional privilege play a major role in “riding out” such uncertainty, so it is not surprising that the historically disadvantaged are most deterred – though one could ask why anyone with decent outside options would go this route.

Added to this are institutional policies that unintentionally hinder transformation. One that does so is the requirement that academics cannot be sole supervisors of a PhD unless they have supervised before. This creates a situation where new academics, who should be more likely to be black, are a liability of sorts and are disadvantaged in the hiring process. Yet, contrary to the supposed concern with quality, UCT has not, to my knowledge, demonstrated a link between a history of supervision and supervision quality.

Price has made other claims about UCT’s supposed efforts at transformation that I feel are misleading to outsiders. The implication that UCT has a standing policy to identify potential young black academics at the undergraduate level is not something I have observed in my 10 years at the institution, nor am I aware of any evidence relating to such a policy or its success. There may be a fund for “equity posts” at UCT, but the funding is fairly low, and, again, we are not told about its effectiveness.

Communicating the findings
UCT does conduct exit interviews, but I am unaware of any systematic, university-wide efforts to communicate those findings and do anything constructive with them.

Similarly, there is employment equity training for staff but its effect is questionable. Consider the following story I was told as part of my own training at UCT: there were two leading candidates, both male, for a mid-level post in a technical subject: one was a black South African and the other from northern Europe. The South African was apparently stronger in research but had a quiet voice, making it hard to hear him. The European applicant had a stronger teaching manner.

“Who,” I was asked, “do you think was chosen for the position?” Obviously the South African, I said; since a quiet voice is something that can easily be addressed with technology and development of lecturing skills. Apparently the foreign candidate was employed.

Does this illustration of how affirmative hiring should work sound like a commitment to transformation?

Somewhere between the statements of UCT’s senior management team and day-to-day practice, something appears to be amiss. Besides all its other benefits, a serious effort at substantive transformation would arguably improve quality at UCT by eliminating the favouring of historically privileged groups based on factors other than merit.

Seán Muller was a lecturer in economics at the University of Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity


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