/ 4 September 2015

Transformation — part of everyday business at UKZN

Students on the steps of the Memorial Tower Block at UKZN.
Students on the steps of the Memorial Tower Block at UKZN.

As part of the overall transformation plan, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) has adopted a transformation charter — the first of its kind in the higher education sector in South Africa. 

The charter ensures that transformation is part of everyday business and that it is entrenched in all aspects of the university’s strategic orientation, goals and conduct.  As a result, the responsibility does not fall to one person (either the Vice-chancellor or a “transformation officer”) but is owned by the entire university community. 

This approach has resulted in a transformed workforce and ethos.  Our demographics, policies and processes and access opportunities have improved dramatically since the 2004 merger; centralising the core values of transformation.

Specifically, in relation to the demographic profile, in 2015, 68% of the 43 283 students enrolled are African South Africans, as opposed to 50% of 45 666 in 2004.  In 2014, 62% of the 9 591 graduates were African South Africans — an increase from 44% of 8 525 in 2004. Our staff profile has changed in concert with the student profile. In 2004, only 16% of 1 564 academic staff were African South Africans (47% Black); in 2015, this has increased to 28% of 1 349 (61% Black). Overall, the staff racial profile improved from 26% of 4 001 staff being African in 2004 to 38% of 3 157 in 2015.

We have also transformed the gender profile of the University.  In 2004, a healthy 56% of students were women. This position has improved marginally to 58% in 2015. Of our graduates, in 2004 57% were women versus 61% in 2014. We have improved the academic staff gender profile from 41% women in 2004 to 48% in 2015.

Together with the change in staff demographics, we have achieved a dramatic increase in research activity. In 2004, only 32% of staff were research active. This improved to 52% of staff being research active in 2012.  

While only 35% of academic staff possessed a PhD in 2004, this has increased to 56% in 2015. These increases have seen UKZN top the Department of Higher Education and Training productivity report for the past two years in a row. We believe that this puts to bed the myth that transformation can only be achieved with a drop in standards. 

Indeed, not only has UKZN achieved demographic transformation together with research excellence, we argue that the research excellence has been achieved through demographic transformation.

As compelling as these statistics are, it is important to look at non-demographic transformation as well.

 UKZN is particularly proud of our access record in opening the doors of higher education learning to students from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds; and particularly our profile in attracting, retaining and graduating students from the African continent which resonates with our mission to be the premier university of African scholarship. Each academic program at UKZN has set aside a minimum number of places for students from quintile 1 and 2 schools. 

Such students come from very impoverished homes and are often the first in their families to access higher education opportunities. Our intake doubled from 1 315 out of 17 345 (8%) in 2007 to 2 763 out of 17 677 (16%) in 2015. 

We have also undertaken a dramatic overhaul of our curricula to ensure more relevant content appropriate to the changing landscape of South Africa and the pursuit of African Scholarship. 

We were the first university to adopt IsiZulu as a module requirement for all students.

We have also taken the discourse to a higher level by developing a unique tool to help monitor, guide and drive transformation. While all sectors in South Africa argue convincingly that they are involved in transformation activities, so far, there has no been any way to properly measure the success of these efforts. 

In a first for South Africa, researchers at UKZN devised an “Equity Index” that indicated the disparity between an organisation’s demographics and national (or regional) demographics. 

At UKZN, we were able to determine that the overall profile of our staff demographics was progressing well towards reflecting the national profile.  

However, we were also able to gauge that our academic staff profile had stagnated.  This has led to a series of targeted interventions to ensure that our staff profile achieves its required shape and size.

The UKZN experience demonstrates that that while challenges remain, transformation in higher education can be achieved and can inform the strategic direction, values and activities of institutions.