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Free Thinking?
March 26, 2013 - 8:11pm

Recently, Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s Minister for Higher Education and Training, announced that the country’s first universities to be founded since the ending of apartheid will open in 2014. Work on a university in Kimberley in the Northern Cape is set to begin in September, so that it can open in time for the beginning of the academic year in January. The second university will be based in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, a significant agricultural district about 340km northeast of Johannesburg.

Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly apparent that South Africa’s 23 publicly funded universities are not coping with the steep increase in the number of university applications since the mid-1990s. According to the Department of Higher Education, student numbers jumped from 473,000 in 1993, to 799,658 in 2008.

At the end of 2012, the University of Cape Town – the country’s top research university – received around 20,000 applications for 4,200 first-year places. The University of the Western Cape, established in 1960 as a university specifically for so-called ‘coloured’ people, admitted 3,800 students out of the 34,000 who applied.

The University of Johannesburg had 85,000 applications for 11,000 places in 2011. At the beginning of 2012, the mother of an applicant was killed in a stampede as desperate matriculants – high school graduates – tried to push their way into the university.

This situation is untenable, and the two new universities are intended to provide more places for those wanting to attend tertiary institutions. However, I have a couple of reservations about the plan.


Firstly, I’m not convinced that universities offer all students the best preparation for employment. South Africa has fifty further education and training (FET) colleges, the bar for entry to which is lower than for universities, and the tuition considerably cheaper, yet matriculants believe overwhelmingly that universities offer them a better chance of employability after graduation. To some extent, they’re correct: for years the sector was badly run and underfunded. Last year, the Department of Higher Education announced R2.5 billion (around $270 million, or £177 million) to upgrade FET colleges. I hope that this will fund a campaign – involving business and industry – to demonstrate the value of vocational training.


My second concern relates to the courses presented by the universities. As Nzimande explained, his department “is committed to increasing the production of graduates in engineering, the natural sciences, human and animal health sciences, and teacher education”. Neither university will offer humanities or social science degrees, but, rather, courses relevant to the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga; Nelspruit will emphasise agricultural science, and Kimberley, in a province which hosts some of the most sophisticated astronomical observatories in the world, will offer postgraduate degrees in astronomy.


I’ve no objection to science- and technology-focused universities, but this exclusion of the humanities and social sciences is part of a troubling trend in South African higher education policy. Early last year, the government published a charter for the future of the humanities and the social sciences, which aims to reinvigorate these areas through a series of new research institutes, as well as by encouraging academics to consider ‘eight points of reflection.’ These range from pre-colonial African historiography, to “a thorough discussion on the interface between the natural, social and interpretative sciences.”


As many academics have noted, this is an attempt to direct what universities research. John Higgins argues that the charter ‘subordinate[s] the humanities and social sciences to an instrumental agenda’ of ‘an applied nationalism.’ Although he suggests that


committing to the project of an African renaissance could simply mean support for the renewal, revitalisation and extension of work across all fields of the humanities by African or South African scholars

this could also mean “the undue narrowing down of the legitimate scope of teaching and research in the humanities to African subjects and topics only and exclusively.”

Coupled with a tightening of the Department of Higher Education’s control over universities, I am anxious that these two new universities represent a kind of brave new world of tertiary education where research and teaching are informed by centrally set targets informed by an unthinking Afrocentrism.

I was struck that the Kimberley university – based in a city best known for its central role in South Africa’s diamond industry – will offer courses in ‘heritage’, but not in history. To some extent, heritage is history repackaged for tourists. Students will not, though, be provided with the means of interrogating the ‘heritage’ which they study: for questioning why some sections of South Africa’s past are deemed worthy of study and celebration, and why others are not.

Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa and is a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be contacted at



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