The Transformation of South Africa's University System

Term Paper, 2002
20 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Introduction

2. South Africa’s Universities under Apartheid
2.1. The apartheid heritage
2.2. Role of the state

3. The Transformation
3.1. The new democratic policy
3.2. Increased Access for Disadvantaged Students
3.3. The language debate
3.4. Affirmative action staffing policies

4. Challenges and Future Perspectives
4.1. Distance learning
4.2. Influences on access policies
4.2.1. International influences
4.2.2. Social influences
4.2.3. Economic influences
4.3. A multi-dimensional view of diversity

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

In South Africa the transformation of higher education is part of the broad political and socio-economic transition to democracy characterising the country and its people. The transformation of higher education is not only a comprehensive process, but also a radical one. Furthermore, it is a precipitous process – almost daily are shifts of emphasis and new issues which dominate the higher education debate.

In the second chapter this paper will give an insight in the South Africa’s system of higher education during apartheid with a special focus on the role that the state played , as this makes clear the reason for any transformation.

When discussing the transformation of South Africa’s higher education system, the first item of business involves changing the racial complexion of university student and staff profiles. Therefore it is necessary to discuss access policies for students and affirmative action programmes concerning staff policies.

In the fourth chapter future perspectives, such as distance learning programmes, and challenges will be considered that universities in South Africa are facing nowadays. The centre of attention are the miscellaneous influences on the higher education system. Finally, this paper will make clear the importance for South African higher education institutions to develop a multi-dimensional view of diversity.

2. South Africa’s Universities under Apartheid

2.1. The apartheid heritage

Education represented a key ideological element of the apartheid project. All aspects of learning were racially compartmentalized with Verwoerd’s 1960 imprimatur that Africans in the officially designated white areas should not be afforded education beyond the level of rendering ‘certain forms of labour’ to the white economy, depicting the apotheosis of racism in the educational field (Schmidt, 1996).

The higher education dimension of apartheid took the form of creating racially and ethnically separate and unequal universities starting in the 1960s, a development which was apposed by the four existing English medium institutions (Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Natal and Rhodes) and welcomed by leading figures at the Afrikaans universities. The following universities came into existence in terms of this apartheid framework (Hugo, 1998): University of the North (1960), University of Zululand (1960), University of the Western Cape (1960), University of Durban-Westville (1960), Medical University of South Africa (1960) and Vista University (1982). In tandem with these developments the ‘independent homeland’ state lets each established their own university: The University of the Transkei (1997); the University of Fort Hare, alma mater to so many luminary African leaders, which had been in existence since 1916 was located within the boundaries of the Ciskei ‘homelands’; the University of Bophuthatswana (1980) – in 1995 renamed the University of the North West; and the University of Venda (1982).

At time of apartheid the 36 institutions (21 universities and 15 technikons) did not develop rationally, but they developed only to serve ethnic and racial needs as part of apartheid (Vergnani, 1998).

The universities were headed by government appointed white vice-chancellors and had white councils, white senates and separate advisory black councils and senates. All aspects of campus life were racially segregated, including catering and toilet facilities. Racially unequal salary scales and fringe benefits also applied. Black and white colleagues in the same department even used separate tea-rooms (Dlamini, 1995).

2.2. The role of the state

Because of the centrality of the state to apartheid, it is important to focus on the role of the state in university affairs. During the apartheid years, the polity was largely state driven and access to the state apparatus was indispensable to the exercise of power. As far as universities are concerned, it was the state that was primarily responsible for shaping and maintaining the apartheid educational system (Davies, 1996).

In general terms, the interaction of the state with the universities has been dominated by the conflicting demands of the state for accountability and of the university for autonomy. The contest is uneven of course, because universities typically have their legal status and authority defined by the state and are financially dependent. It is also inevitable that authoritarian states are even more hostile to the idea of university self-government. Furthermore the state-university relations are mediated by big business pressure, student aspirations and societal/community demands. These constraints on state power mean that the ‘boundaries of state-university relations’ are always subject to flux (Davies, 1996).

In South Africa, interactions between the state and the universities were indeed very volatile. This volatility was to become much more pronounced during the 1980s as the state struggled to resolve the crisis of apartheid, namely the rapidly rising political and economic costs of maintaining such a crude form of racism (Davies, 1996).

Even prior to the introduction of apartheid, South Africa’s universities were already divided along racial and ethnic lines. White universities included English- and Afrikaans-language institutions while the University of Fort Hare was reserved for Africans. However, the English-language universities admitted a small proportion of ‘non-White’ students. It was a state system based on parliamentary statutes and budgetary control. Furthermore, university staffs were state employees and governing councils contained a large segment of government appointees. State control was tempered, however, by a significant measure of government respect for university independence. This manifested itself in the state’s acceptance of the right of universities to enrol Black students (Moodie, 1994).

The accession to power of the (Afrikaner) National Party in 1948 and the advent of apartheid resulted in considerable change to the university system. Apartheid was more doctrinaire, extensive and repressive than the existing racist regime which was judged by the National Party to be unequal to the task of defending White domination and economic prosperity against the threat posed by an increasingly assertive urban African working class. The subjugation of the African, Coloured and Indian population came to rest more thoroughly on state power, which was Afrikanerised to ensure also the political hegemony of Afrikaners over their rivals – the more economically-advanced, White, English-language community. The most novel feature of the new dispensation was a scheme to convert tribal reserves into ‘independent states’ thereby fragmenting racial solidarity and justifying the withdrawal of civil rights from Africans in ‘White South Africa’ (Davies, 1996).

A profound effect on education on all levels had the debate about how to reverse African urbanisation without thereby undermining the economic benefits of African labour.

Universities were segregated by statute through the Extension of the University Education Act in 1959 and Blacks were denied admission to ‘White’ universities, without special permit. Africans were required to attend different tribal institutions in the bantustans and Coloureds and Indians were provided with their own exclusive campuses. But bantustan universities were only appendages of the central state, which appointed their governing bodies, dictated their academic standards and prescribed the curriculum and ensured that government-supporting Afrikaners dominated administrative and academic positions.

3. The Transformation

3.1. The new democratic policy

In contrast to many other countries where the focus for democracy education is on the curriculum, the new South African policy framework for higher education emphasises governance and istitutional climate – in other words, democratic practice (Cross et al, 1999). Its central aim is, firstly, to democratise institutions as part of the broader democratisation of society and, secondly, to produce ‘socialised democratic citizens’, a process facilitated by structures such as Institutional Transformation Forums and Student Services Councils aimed at providing space for greater participation.

In South Africa, many higher education institutions do not seem to be self-consciously and enthusiastically committed to promoting democracy and diversity. The reasons are complex but generally seem to be related to the following factors (Cross et al, 1999):

- loss of confidence in what counts as democracy
- loss of confidence in what counts as knowledge; and
- loss of community in higher education itself.

In practice, there seem to be mainly two types of curriculum reform that offer possibilities for citizenship education. First, some departments have been introducing significant changes in the content and form of their courses to accommodate issues of democracy, rights, and citizenship. Second, at institutional level, efforts have also been made to reorganise traditional discipline-based courses into ‘programmes’ offering modules on issues relating to citizenship (e.g. at the University of Cape Town, University of the Witwatersrand, University of Natal, University of Stellenbosch and University of Port Elizabeth).

Due to new challenges that the South African economy is now facing, a higher education policy is emerging as the system has undergone fundamental restructuring. The 1996 report of the National Commission on Higher Education provided the framework for the reconstruction of the higher education system and laid the foundation for the government White Paper on higher education (DoE, 1997) and the subsequent Higher Education Act in 1997. The new policy framework establishes the foundation for a unified, equitable, well-planned, programme-based system. It aims to overcome the prevailing mismatch between higher education output and the demands of economic and social development, to ensure quality, to reduce wasteful duplication through planning, and to redress the severe race, gender, geographic and institutional inequalities which are the leagcy of apartheid (Kraak, 2000).

3.2. Increased access for disadvantaged students

The racial and ethnic composition of South African’s universities has, in fact, changed beyond recognition in the past decade. Especially among black students the outcome of the first democratic election in 1994 created enormous expectations of reward in the form of access to universities and life chance enhancement supposedly flowing from such access (Hugo, 1998). The Ministry of Education has argued that universities are national assets, which must reflect the colour and nature of the whole population. (Die Burger, 1996).

Hence the most important problem to solve was that the Afrikaans universities should accept the ethos of multi-culturalism and, along with their English-language counterparts, move rapidly in the direction of reflecting within their rules the racial demography of the country.

This resulted in a rapid growth of Blacks enrolled in higher education. Since 1998, the numbers of Black students at universities and technikons have averaged an annual growth of 24%, compared to an average annual growth of four percent for White students (NCHE, 1996). The most spectacular growth in numbers of Black students has occurred at Historically White Universities (HWU’s). But massification or increased access has not so much brought about an increase in the absolute numbers of students, but at historically advantaged institutions did result in bigger proportions of students coming from educationally and financially deprived backgrounds (Fourie, 1999).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

As figure 1 shows, in 1988, the ratio of African to White university headcounts was 21:66, in 1993, it was equal (44:44) and by 1998 it was 52:36. In absolute numbers, African headcounts rose from just over 40 000 in 1984 to 90 320 in 1988 and then doubled to 181 685 in 1998. Further, it becomes clear, that white headcounts increased from 131 111 in 1984 to 155647 in 1988, but thereafter dropped by about 30 000 to 125 876 by 1998. African student numbers fell by almost 20 000 between 1996 and 1998, which was largely at the historically African Universities. The proportions of Coloured and Indian students remained more or less constant, but in absolute numbers Indian headcounts rose from 15 349 in 1984 to 27913 by 1998 while Coloured students reached a peak of 19198 in 1995 and then fell to 16 255 by 1998.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Transformation of South Africa's University System
Stellenbosch Universitiy  (Faculty of Economics)
Modern Economic Systems
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
595 KB
university, Universitätensystem, South Africa, Südafrika, Apartheid
Quote paper
Franziska Pfund (Author), 2002, The Transformation of South Africa's University System, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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