Slowly but surely, South Africa is moving away from the apartheid era’s ethnically segregated campuses and mainly white academic staff.
But two decades on from apartheid’s end, many have argued that change is happening too slowly, and one vice-chancellor is promoting a controversial ranking system intended to spur progress toward an academy that reflects South Africa’s ethnic mix.
Academics from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, led by its vice-chancellor, Malegapuru Makgoba, have developed an "equity index" that tracks how closely student, staff, senate and governing council bodies reflect the country’s ethnic and gender make-up. This has been done before on a national scale, but never institution by institution, according to Makgoba.
Controversially, the data allow institutions to be ranked by how similar they are to the South African population as a whole, which is 79.2 percent black, 8.9 percent colored (as people of mixed ethnicity are known), 8.9 percent white and 2.5 percent Indian. Women make up 51.2 percent of the population.
The prevailing attitude of South African universities has been "leave us alone, we will do it at our own pace," Makgoba said. The ranking aims to focus minds on how they can do more.
The data give a snapshot of which South African universities have made the most progress, and where they have further to go.
Research and teaching staff were found to be less representative than the university staff body as a whole. Meanwhile, governing councils scored better than senates, owing to their obligation to appoint outside representatives, for example from labor organizations, Makgoba explained.
The research also highlights the country’s poor completion rates. For the majority of universities, the graduating cohort scores more poorly on the equity index than does the cohort admitted to study. "Some groups are being sacrificed in that [process], and it’s often [black] African students," Makgoba said. For these students, who are often "ill-prepared" for higher study, "there are no programs of academic support," he said. Addressing this deficiency would be one way for universities to improve their equity scores.
Promising black undergraduates can be encouraged to progress to postgraduate study and academe, Makgoba noted, adding that he was “comfortable” with targeted assistance based on ethnicity. "Some universities are already doing this but not coherently," he said.
The data, which are presented in two reports prepared by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, can be further dissected to see whether universities are failing on gender or ethnicity representation or both. Having more black students does not guarantee a good score. The heads of some universities whose student cohorts are about 90 percent black were “surprised” to find that they ranked poorly because they underrepresented white, colored and Indian students, he revealed.
And universities that score well on equity often do so because an “accident of history” has left them with representative staff and students, Makgoba said.
Such institutions were typically founded in the apartheid era to teach black students low-level skills, with little or no focus on research. As a result, some universities scoring well on the equity index fall short on research output.
KwaZulu-Natal’s equity index research was presented this week to the South African government, and Makgoba said the ranking would be compiled annually.
But the equity index is "oversimplifying a very complex situation," according to Theuns Eloff, vice-chancellor of North West University and the chair of Higher Education South Africa. His university scores in the bottom third of the index for student and staff equity and it has a significant number of white, Afrikaans-speaking students. Requiring universities to mirror the South African population is inappropriate because some regions have much higher concentrations of certain ethnic groups than others, Eloff argued.
North West will inevitably attract more white students because it teaches largely in Afrikaans on one of its campuses, he added, and these students have the right to be educated in their own language. "We will not try to get 79 percent of Africans into our university because this will discriminate against Afrikaans speakers," he said.
But for Makgoba, the argument about universities drawing on their local populations is "not an excuse.... The university sector in South Africa is treated as a national asset. It draws students from the nation and not the region."
The following are the top five universities based on equity for students and governing boards, as compiled by the University of KwaZulu-Natal methodology:
Top Universities in Equity for Student Enrollment
1. Central University of Technology
2. University of Johannesburg
3. Tshwane University of Technology
4. Durban University of Technology
5. Vaal University of Technology
Top Universities in Equity on Governing Councils
1. University of KwaZulu-Natal
2. Mangosuthu University of Technology
3. University of Fort Hare
4. University of Venda
5. Tshwane University of Technology
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