Transforming higher education in South Africa

Report Post
Transforming higher education in South Africa

By Prof Tinyiko Maluleke
Advisor to the Principal and Vice Chancellor
University of Pretoria, South Africa

In 13 years, the oldest South African university, the University of Cape Town, will be 200 years old. Compared to other higher education systems in the world, the South African system is young.

As with many African systems of higher education, the South African higher education system originally emerged as an offshoot and an extension of the colonial education system. It started as an elitist system, originally designed as an extension of the British education system, constructed to serve male colonial settlers. For much of its first century, the South African higher education sector served a largely white student body.

However, after the establishment of Lovedale College in Alice and the university of Fort Hare opportunities for post-school education slowly opened up for other population groups, especially Africans. The churches established other post school colleges of stature in other parts of the country such as those established for the training of teachers, nurses, priests and journalists. Slowly a small guild of qualified and professional indigenous people started to emerge.

The likes of Tiyo Soga, a South African who received his post-school education in Scotland, Sol Plaatje, journalist and author of the first full novel by an African, and Cecilia Makiwane, a nursing professional and political activist, educationist ZK Mathews, pioneer South African journalist Johan Tengo Jabavu, and Chief Albert Luthuli, the first South African Nobel Prize laureate, are some of the best known among the early products of South African post school education at this time.

Other South African Nobel Prize laureates include: Desmond Tutu (peace), FW De Klerk (peace), Nelson Mandela (peace), Aaron Klug (chemistry), Nadine Gordimer (literature), JM Coetzee (literature), Max Theiler (medicine), Alna Cormack (medicine) and Sydney Brenner (medicine).

The founders of the oldest political organisation in the country and continent, the African National Congress were drawn from the first crop of the tertiary educated among the indigenous.

Today, the South African post-school education system comprises 26 public universities, 50 technical and vocational education and training colleges (TVET) and just under 20,000 academics. The university system has an enrolment of just over a million students. The universities are differentiated along the lines of national universities, comprehensive universities and universities of technology.

With up to seven universities ranked by the most influential university ranking agencies in recent times, the South African higher education system is the best performing and one of best funded on the continent of Africa. The South African sector boasts many students from all over the continent of Africa. It is also being recognised as one of the best in the developing world.

Over the past two decades, we have witnessed a sea change in the system. The student enrolments have doubled from less than half a million to slightly more than a million in 2014. The system produces around 185,000 graduates per annum. Included in this number are 37,000 teachers, 14,000 engineers, 7,250 lawyers, 6,800 computer scientists, 3,200 architects and quantity surveyors, 2,500 mathematicians and statisticians as well as more than 12,500 health professionals. If one adds those graduates emanating from the TVET colleges, one begins to appreciate the remarkable contribution made by the higher education sector to the development of South Africa.

A considerable number of our graduates are part of the first generation to obtain tertiary qualifications in their families. For example, about a third of the University of Pretoria’s 50,000 are the first in their families to obtain a university degree.

As well as the post-school sector, the country has an elaborate national system of innovation. This system includes several key agencies established to support the sector in various ways. Among these must be included, the National Research Foundation, the Innovation Hub, the Academy of Science for South Africa, National Advisory Council on Innovation, the Human Science Research Council and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, to mention but a few. Together with the universities and the TVET colleges, these constitute an elaborate and coherent national system of innovation.

Over the past 22 years, the profile of the student body has changed drastically with black and female students becoming the overwhelming majority. Herein lies the transformation challenge to the system. The system needs to be transformed in terms of culture and curriculum so that it becomes more hospitable to the new student demographic.

Above all, the South African higher education sector is making great strides in producing the research that addresses the country and the continent’s key developmental and economic challenges. For a sector hosted by a developing country, South African higher education is punching above its weight in several key areas of research such as AIDS prevention and vaccine research.

Many may be distressed by the 2015/2016 #FeesMustFall protests that have broken out across the sector in the country. The name of the movement driving the student protests highlights the issue of funding and the cost of higher education. Given the reality of inequality and the legacy of Apartheid, higher education funding and access to higher education remains a highly contested area. But the protests are about much more than funding. They are also about the transformation of institutional cultures and the curriculum. While the violence that has accompanied some of the protests is certainly deplorable, many will accept that the substantive issues raised are valid and relevant. In this regard, it is possible to see the #FeesMustFall as part of the growing demand for what both parents and students have long recognised as an excellent product, comparable to the best in the world, namely, South African higher education.

This paradox should not be missed. What the student protesters are saying, not in so many words, is that the South African higher education sector is worth accessing and that more students from poor families should be enabled to access it if they qualify.

Calls for accelerated transformation and increased access are not condemnations of the system and if managed well, these calls need not lead to decline or deterioration. After all these calls are premised on a recognition of excellence.

Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is advisor to the principal and vice chancellor at the University of Pretoria. He is member of the Academy of Science for South Africa and an SA National Research Foundation rated researcher. He has held various executive management positions at various South African universities, including: deputy executive dean, dean, executive director for research , deputy registrar and deputy vice chancellor.