UNIVERSITY of Zululand’s Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Professor Mashupye Ratale Kgaphola, shares his views on transformation in South Africa’s higher education.
The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation recently released a report of a ministerial task team, whose core mandate was to investigate the paucity and marginalisation of South African black academics in our universities.
The investigation has laid bare the harsh realities and the systemic barriers that are still faced by black students and academics across the system. Indeed, much of what has been exposed has been the cry of many in the post-1994 era, but which was so often muffled under the pretext of ‘transformation plans’.
Arguably, the report raises not only educational transformation issues, but fundamentally suggests some discomforting political and sociological questions.
One of these questions relates to the extent to which black academics and education activists may have, perhaps unwittingly, demobilised in relation to the transformation agenda.
Taking account of only permanent South African staff, and using the comparative figures of 2007 and 2017, a number of broad trends emerge from the report.
Black academics across the university system increased from 39% in 2007 to 53% in 2017, while white academics decreased from 61% to 47% during the same period. But the bigger story lies beneath the aggregated figures.
In general, historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) carry the highest proportion of black academics, while historically advantaged institutions have the lowest percentage of blacks.
The latter group varies from 5.1% at Stellenbosch University to 32% at the University of Johannesburg in terms of black academics. Male staff overall held a greater proportion of doctoral degrees than female staff.
Consequently, male staff dominated the senior positions while females dominate the junior levels. In terms of South African staff, 52.6% of white staff held doctorates.
African, Coloured and Indian staff with doctorates comprised 30%, 38.1% and 41% of their respective groups. Trends with regard to postgraduate enrolment are not encouraging.
A 2015 study on the retention, completion and progress rates of SA postgraduate students shows that the postgraduate pipeline in South Africa decreases substantially as students progress from undergraduate to postgraduate studies.
The majority of students who did doctoral study did so part-time, resulting in the completion time averages of five years instead of the regular three years.
African and Coloured students have the lowest completion rates, followed by Indians, while white students have the highest throughput rates.
Overall, there has been a growth in absolute numbers of doctoral graduates across all fields of study in the country during the period 2000–2017.
That said, there is however a serious and urgent concern in that the proportion of South Africans as a percentage of the total doctoral graduates has decreased drastically in this period from 81% to 57%.
Worse, it has been projected that, on the current trend, the number of international doctoral graduates will surpass the number of their South African peers by 2021.
The challenge now is for the university sector to do an introspection and ask how we can improve our performance for the long-term benefit of our nation and our very institutions.
Surely history has taught us enough to know that any institutional stability that is imbedded on an injustice is akin to a house built on sand.