Ministerial Review Committee Report on racism and discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions: implementation of recommendations
23 Feb 2010
Mr M Fransman (ANC)
The Committee heard a presentation from Higher Education South Africa (HESA), which had been both tasked by the Minister, and taken its own initiative to find a solution to change the system, in response to the widely publicised racial incident at the University of the Free State. The Committee however, was critical of the poor return of responses by the 23 institutions of higher learning. Only six institutions had submitted a response to the Minister’s report on transformation, and the Committee pondered whether this was a reflection of the level of importance being accorded to the matter. Alongside this process, HESA had its own process, which also required a response to a list of recommendations it had made. It was agreed that the recommendations of both were similar and, although there were few returns as yet, the responses were also similar. The most encouraging aspect of the responses and the presentation was the unity on the need for change. The discussion was wide ranging and took into account factors affecting students and academic staff. With regard to students the Committee heard and posed questions on socio-economic backgrounds, entrance requirements, the number of students enrolling, the study streams for which they registered, and challenges encountered by disadvantaged students. The retention of black and women academic staff was a major issue, as was the slow progress of black academics to the professorate. Other issues centred on campus accommodation, institutional bodies’ election processes, the flow of funding based on performance, mergers between universities and technikons, and whether implementation of policies was affected by an institution’s culture. The Chairperson expressed deep concern for the fact that HESA was pointing to school education as the problem and reason for poor performance at higher education institutions. He pointed out that this was a worn out debate and noted that the best experts on education present today seemed unable to resolve this matter, despite 15 years of being familiar with the challenge. Finally, the Chairperson was not convinced that only the provision of bigger funding would lead to transformation, and there was agreement that transformation to a large degree could already take place without more funding.
Chairperson’s opening remarks
The Chairperson said that as a result of incidences of coherence and disintegration in institutions of higher learning last year, the Ministerial Review Committee had embarked on an exercise that produced a set of recommendations to address the matter. The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHE) was asked to briefly summarise the current status.
Ms Kirti Menon, Acting Deputy Director General: Universities, Department of Higher Education and Training, noted tat the Soudien report, produced last year at the request of the Minister, emanated from the racial incident at the University of the Free State and was meant to address the extent to which reform had taken place on university campuses. Following the release of the report the Minister wrote to chairs and vice-chancellors and gave a clear instruction that the report had to be studied and that the recommendations, which ranged from structural problems, systemic problems and policy issues to student experiences, required discussion within institutions. The Minister also asked that the report be widely disseminated and provide an impetus for debate and discussion. Institutions were to formulate their responses by 29 January 2010. Of the 23 institutions in the country, six had responded to the request. She said that her department was in the process of listing those who had and had not submitted their responses. She would table it to the Portfolio Committee.
The Chairperson said that this matter was of the utmost importance and pondered what level of importance was being given to the matter by the institutions, in view of the lack of response to date, but this would be assessed. He said that the Portfolio Committee embarked on a visit to the University of Stellenbosch where they found a 4% transformation in staff. This figure would hopefully rise to 15% by 2015. He asked what difficulty was being encountered to attract black professionals, and also what might have been identified as cultural issues that hindered or helped black professionals. The report detailed and analysed this problem. He asked that Members consider this in their responses to the issues raised in the report. He also said that the huge numbers of students turned away was a problem, and that it could not be only by special intervention that some of these subsequently succeeded. More effort was needed to focus on more than just those few individuals in order to empower students to gain entrance. He asked HESA to summarise how it was responding, and asked the Committee Members to consider what important aspects required a report.
Mr G Boinamo (DA) asked about the status of the student who was admitted after intervention by the Committee, and on what basis that student was admitted.
Dr W James (DA) said that the Committee held government to account, and made sure that government did its job.
The Chairperson said that in one example a letter had been sent after the visit to the University of Stellenbosch. The student’s father called and was advised by a member of staff that it was perhaps best for the student not to study there if his home language was English. He felt that this was an indication of a problem with implementation rather than policy.
Higher Education South Africa (HESA) briefing
Prof Errol Tyobeka led a delegation from Higher Education South Africa, and was accompanied by Prof Irene Moutlana, Prof Barney Pityana, Prof Gordon Zide, Prof Duma Malaza and Dr Max Price.
Prof Tyobeka noted that higher education was faced with challenges, some of which would be shared with Members to enable them to more closely understand how HESA was responding to the Minister’s report.
HESA was a voluntary organisation, representing the sub sector higher education. It was also an independent body representing 23 higher education institutions. The board members consisted of all the vice chancellors. It had an office headed by Prof Moutlana and there were 40 staff members. Its mandate was to plan, design and implement programmes of HESA in order to advance the interests of higher education.
The Chairperson had mentioned some of the issues needing to be addressed. He would detail some others. He cited the National Senior Certificate examination outcome. 334 000 students were eligible for admission to higher education institutions but institutions currently had the capacity to absorb only 100 000 of those students, leaving approximately two-thirds of students unplaced.
The Chairperson asked for clarity on the statistic of 334 000. He said that the real concern was that the sample was much smaller than 100 000.
Dr James said that the challenge was to increase the number of black students. To achieve that more buildings were needed. This was not in the budget.
Ms Menon said that the statistic was further disaggregated because subjects that qualified students for admission to specific courses also had to be considered.
Prof Tyobeka said that participation had increased by only 1% since 2001 to 16%, and that the goal was to work towards achieving 20% participation. Areas of study remained at 28%. The racial breakdown was skewed in favour of White and Indian students. Although enrolments for Coloured and African students had increased, the number graduating was still low. Higher education faced a challenge in meeting the need for professional and research skills, and the creation of knowledge. Transformation was still high on the agenda, and HESA welcomed Ministerial report released in June 2009. He said in the individual institutions’ implementation was quite uneven, given the historical context.
Ms N Vukuza (COPE) noted a recent report on learners not able to read or write. She asked for the impact of this on the first year student number of 100 000. She said that those students who did not make it through to second year must surely be counted in addition to the 100 000 mentioned.
Mr Boinamo stated that only a few who were eligible to do eventually did access university. He asked what could be done to improve the intake of new students.
Ms M Kubayi (ANC) asked how African and Coloured learners could be assisted to graduate.
Mr G Radebe (ANC) said that the number of science graduates did not yet reach the target, and wanted to know how this challenge was being addressed, and what strategy was in place. He felt that debating transformation was pointless if the challenge of reaching this target was not being addressed.
The Chairperson wanted to know why the proportion of students enrolled in Scarce Skills (SC) qualifications was low.
Prof Tyobeka replied that the debate did not exclude implementation. He said that all of the questions posed by members pointed to a serious situation. He said that education at school required a greater effort. In that sector many problems were prevalent, among these were teaching, and involvement of parents. He said that not as much progress was being made as desired, but there were good beginnings.
Prof Malaza noted that the problems should not be fixed only at higher education but in the broader context as well.
Prof Moutlana said that there was damage by the time these learners reached university. She added that under-qualified teachers affected learners’ performance and preparedness for higher education levels.
The Chairperson disagreed and said he could not accept the response from the delegation. He contended that the same problem persisted that had already been in existence over the last 15 years. He said that, in addition to the delegation, many experts were attending to the problem and yet were not able to resolve these issues. One example might be the high dropout rate, ascribed to personal issues. Another example was the 35% pass rate for engineering studies. He believed that this could be improved up to 75% if there was a willingness to “pull together”. He asked whether everyone was indeed acting together to diagnose and resolve the issues stated.
Prof Pityana said that institutional autonomy was important. He said the challenge lay in nurturing black and women academics and to stem the loss of these professionals. He said that the task team within HESA was formed following the incident at the University of the Free State. He said that the issue of transformation seemed to have been focused on placing academics from the previously disadvantaged sector, at executive level, and that there was a neglect for placement at other levels. He said that even with the mergers little had changed, despite the fact that equity policies were in place. He said there was a common concern in the work of HESA and the Soudien Ministerial Report to find solutions. He felt that the report was an important opportunity for engagement. He said that higher education institutions worked within a regulatory environment and shaped the way that this operated. HESA had asked that institutions respond to its document and a researcher has been appointed to analyse the responses. Thus far twelve institutions had responded.
Ms Vukuza said that it seemed HESA wanted to be many things to many people, and that she was not able to understand, from the presentation, what transformation meant. She wanted to know how the Committee would be able to follow that output according to goals set.
Prof Pityana said that the point of HESA getting responses was to understand and draw an institutional template for what institutions were doing. Many had policies in place to deal with issues of race and gender. Others had ombudsmen. There were also conditions of employment. The point of the exercise was to reflect the sector position. Many complaints were raised here. However, it was not enough to say 50% of academics are black or women but also to investigate whether they succeeded. There was a need to understand the dropout and failure rate, and why black students tended to be channelled more towards some areas and not others. There were no easy answers. He said the question to ask was what it would take to become a real community of scholars where different languages interplay.
Prof Zide continued with the presentation. He reiterated that of the 23 universities, twelve had submitted responses to HESA. These would be collated and interrogated. The recommendations were in no doubt about the need for commitment to transformation. He said there was a shortage of specific funding. The analysis of the responses would attempt to come up with a proper understanding of transformation. He said in order to drive them, funding would be needed. The issue of policies and racism were institutional matters.
The Chairperson was concerned about the flow of funding relating to the issue of transformation. He asked whether the need for more money meant that transformation was halted. He found this difficult to understand because his view was that some aspects of transformation did not require money.
Prof Zide said that in relation to the funding, HESA was not saying that transformation was halted. He said that there was a level of motivation, a level of collegiality and a willingness to create an enabling environment.
Dr James said that transformation meant taking all measures to ensure success, especially for the black African community. A comparison of graduation rates by race was disheartening, but if it were to be broken down by class a different picture would emerge, namely that working class background homes were not always the most conducive to succeeding at university. He appealed for an understanding of the background of the student.
Prof Pityana said that students were there for a variety of reasons. He was in favour of creating an enabling environment to counter the high failure rate.
Prof Tyobeka said he fully agreed with Dr James that emphasis should be on black and disadvantaged students.
Mr M Mangena (AZAPO) asked what the main difficulty was in developing and keeping black academics.
Prof Tyobeka noted Mr Mangena’s point. He reflected that one of the challenges facing first generation university graduates was the drive to simply go out and support the family. He was in support of residences rather than “digs”, as the latter were not conducive for academic work. He said that in our country 15% of graduates had doctorates, while 35% had masters, compared with developed countries where there were 50% graduating with doctorates. He said a focused programme to develop universities was needed.
Prof Malaza cited the example of training of academics in other countries. This example pointed to a need for a national strategy and perhaps even taking leadership from an international programme such as those in Japan and India.
Dr Price said that the HESA document was a working document that was publicly available. In regard to point 1.2 of the report, concerning the oversight committee, he said the question of autonomy and freedom was somewhat controversial. He said that in relation to point 7.3, there should be a willingness to pay more for black and women academics, and provide better conditions of service.
He also said, in relation to point 6.2, that the institutional forums were not working very well. There was often no quorum for the meetings. The question was whether to strengthen or abolish them. He felt that institutions could be invited to report to the Committee on this. On the issue of resources, he said that the reduction of student intake would allow for more resources to be available to each student and this would have a positive effect. He also said that taking on students with weak results meant they tended to have to spend a longer time at university. In relation to the loss of women and black academics to competitive sectors, he said not a lot could be done except to pay more for their services in order to retain them. On the question of increasing the professorate, by accelerating the path from junior lecturer to professor, he suggested that this matter could be addressed by for example providing more sabbaticals, and reducing the teaching load. He felt more could be done to share best practice.
The Chairperson asked whether it was required of every university to implement transformation. He said that six months had elapsed since the report was first tabled and today the debate had not changed. He said he needed clarity on point 9.5.
Ms Vukuza asked Prof Tyobeka about the mergers and whether these had achieved the objective. She was under the impression that some challenges would be taken care of through mergers. She asked how it would be possible to transform whilst she was hearing two discordant voices – one from HESA and one from the Soudien report. She felt that a common voice had to be sought in order to attain a common solution.
Dr James said that there was a need to move forward into the future and he was concerned therefore about the progress of the debate in higher education sector. He said that the criticism had been unproductive. There should rather be a focus on how to move forward. He said that some measures needed to be put in place to assess the quality of the student, in order to see if a student had a grasp for the basics. He felt that under-performing institutions should be shut down, and their funding re-channelled to better performing institutions. This would introduce a competitive element in the same way that markets operated, and would help to improve performance.
Mr Radebe asked from where the assistance would come for the establishment of universities. He asked whether it would be possible to track support and success and then to put out those statistics – for example, on the number of engineers who had graduated. With regard to point 9.3, dealing with election structures, he believed there was a need to find common ground.
Dr Price offered to read the full text of the recommendation 9.5 which then became much clearer to the Committee. The Chairperson agreed.
Prof Tyobeka said he appreciated comments made with regard to the establishment of new universities. Part of HESA’s mandate was to make a recommendation on the future of higher education institutions. Other challenges concerned issues of ensuring equity. There must be improvement not only in quality but also in efficiency. At a conference on mergers held in October 2009 it was clear that many universities were not doing well in informing their forums on their status quo. He said that on the matter of two discordant voices being heard by the Committee, HESA was open to various views. This engagement with the Committee was useful in assisting and building towards transformation. His view on the under-performing universities was that they needed more, rather than less, support in order to flourish. He was not in favour of the approach aired by Dr James.
The Chairperson requested that the debate and discussion be closed and said that the Committee had given its recommendations on profiling. There seemed to be lack of action in that regard. He further said that the notion of “developmental” did not necessarily mean “poor quality”, and that worse situations were experienced by some countries who still managed to produce quality outcomes. He said the Committee was due to visit the Cape Town University of Technology, when mergers would be on the agenda. There was a strategic presentation planned for Human Rights Day. He implored the delegation, in future, to present a report which advanced the goals of transformation.
The meeting was adjourned.