Monday, July 19, 2010

Learning More About South African Higher Education, Past and Present

Yesterday, we had our first dose of South Africa’s amazing natural beauty, and we got a taste of the injustices that occurred during the Apartheid era in the country. Today, our focus turned to higher education with a visit to the University of the Western Cape ( UWC was established in 1959 for “Coloured” people. The term Coloured in South Africa has different meaning than how it has been used in the U.S., and to understand it requires some knowledge of the legalized racial sorting that occurred via Apartheid in South Africa. Admittedly, I am no expert in this subject area, but as an attempt at describing it most simply, the National Party that ruled South Africa from 1948 until the Nelson Mandela era began in 1994 used race as a means of empowering and disempowering certain groups of people according to their skin color and racial descent. Whites were at the top of the privilege scale, Indians next, Coloureds third, and Blacks were treated as most inferior. The racial categories were legally defined and interpreted during Apartheid. To learn more, visit

UWC was designated for the Coloured's, and as a result, the resources allocated to the institution and the quality and limits of the education offered to its students lagged far behind those for the Whites and Indians and only surpassed those for Blacks. Today, 16 years after Apartheid legally ended, the institution continues to serve a student body that almost entirely comes from Coloured or Black backgrounds. During our visit, we had several faculty members and administrators present to us about the institution as well as about higher education in the country.

As I listened to the presentations and their formal as well as informal remarks, I was struck by the similarities between the challenges facing South African higher education and those faced by our own postsecondary system. Without a doubt, the severity of the challenges and shortcomings are on a much larger scale than in the U.S., but nonetheless, had I closed my eyes and forgotten about my whereabouts, I could have been listening to a discussion back home. For example, South Africa is faced with appalling participation and completion rates that were proliferated during Apartheid. Today, only 17% of South Africa’s 48 million population is enrolled in higher education, and in my opinion even more concerning is that only 16% of those who enroll in higher education graduate. By contrast, in the U.S., the college participation rate is currently at more than 50% with some type of degree or enrolled in college and the national completion rates for 2008, according to, were 56% for bachelor’s degrees and 28% for associate’s degrees. Indeed, we have legitimate and serious needs to increase our nation’s participation and completion rates, but in South Africa, they are frighteningly low. Of course, we need to remember that South Africa is only 16 years into a democracy, so we have a bit of a head start in making educational opportunities available to all of our citizens.

One of the presenters also talked about the tensions that exist in South African higher education between accountability and academic freedom. Here too there is a parallel between South Africa’s higher education environment and that of the U.S. I am starting to understand with more clarity why Penn chooses to bring us to South Africa to learn about its higher education system. On Wednesday, we will be visiting University of Cape Town, which was originally chartered to serve the White population during Apartheid, and today is perhaps the most prestigious university in the country. I’m looking forward to how it compares with UWC.

Tomorrow brings another day of exploration in the Cape Town area, including a trip to Cape Point, with a stop on the way to view a colony of African penguins. Cape Point, also referred to as the Cape of Good Hope, is the southwestern most point in Africa, off the coast of which the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. For any scientists (or oceanographers or those who are just more educated in their ocean knowledge), if I put my foot in the water off of Cape Point, will I be able to say I touched both the Atlantic and Indian oceans simultaneously?

Until tomorrow,


1 comment:

  1. Marc,

    Nice descriptions, and totally clear. Thank you for posting the links; they are great when we seek to learn more.

    As for the oceans, I would think that, if you put your right foot in, then your first and second toes are in the Indian Ocean, and your fourth and fifth fall to the Atlantic. The second toe is intercontinental. If you continue to the South Pole, you can look north without worrying. But, to look south...up??

    : ) Tim