Wednesday, July 21, 2010

South Africa's Higher Education System: Reaching a Crossroads?

Earlier in the week, after visiting the University of the Western Cape (UWC), I observed that the themes from the presentations about the state of South African higher education we heard at the university were surprisingly similar to those we hear in the U.S. (see 7/19 posting) Today, we visited the University of Cape Town (UCT), which according to most sources is the top ranked university in South Africa ( (To the right is a photo of UCT I downloaded from the internet, to the right.) Regardless of whether it is indeed the #1 or #2 institution in the country, UCT’s market position in South African higher education is the equivalent of that of the Ivies in the U.S., certainly in terms of prestige and reputation. Perhaps UCT is at the top based on the quality of its educational offerings and the outcomes of its graduates…that’s a debate and argument for someone else to tackle.

We were treated to about a half dozen presentations during the visit, with presenters and their subject matter varying. We heard from academic officers and faculty members who commented on the state of higher education in South Africa and UCT’s service learning organization, to other administrators who discussed UCT’s efforts in fundraising and development and what the institution is doing to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic that plagues the country’s people.

There were numerous differences between our visit to UWC and to UCT, including the curb appeal of the campus, the interior finishes of the buildings (at least of those we saw), the perceived progress being made by each institution towards realizing the higher education improvements in post-Apartheid South Africa that are so desperately needed, and the experience and expertise of the faculty and administration. In all of these areas, at least in the opinion of most of us who visited, UCT comes out clearly on top. A word of caution… at neither institution were we presented with enough data or exposed to enough of the people (including students, of which we heard from/spoke to none) and the place to make a truly informed decision about each institution. But if I were forced to choose the more advanced institution, it would easily be UCT at this point.

The aforementioned differences aside, there also were some similarities in the visits. First, I observed a sense of restlessness and recognition at both campuses that all is not well in the country’s higher education environment, even though they have been working on improvements at least since 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president. Also at both campuses, we were provided with noticeably scant information about each institution’s individual statistics and issues; they clearly focused more on national data and issues. Based on what we heard, some common themes regarding higher education in South Africa emerged for me at both institutions:
  • With the new South African Constitution that was developed under Mandela’s leadership, improving education and higher education for all South Africans is a priority goal
  • Since 1994, numerous, in fact many, many policies have been developed whose desired outcomes would make noticeable and significant improvements towards the nation’s education goals 
  • While increases in overall enrollment and in participation rates among non-Whites have improved, the magnitude of those improvements is minimal (e.g., Black enrollments as a percentage of the total have improved from something like 5% to 7% since 2000); the same can be said for completion rates 
  • Because the level of improvements has been so minimal, versus the desired outcomes that are rooted in all of the education policies that have been adopted, the country is at a point of not quite being sure what to do next to make more rapid and considerable progress.
These common themes are absolutely limited in scale and scope and are literally based on what I’ve heard during the two campus visits. However, with these caveats, I fear that the South African government, its policy makers and influencers, and its higher education community may need to shift its collective focus if the country is to have any chance of achieving its vision for a more equitably and competently educated populace.

This blog, and particularly this posting because of its already cumbersome length and the lateness of the hour, is not the place for me to offer solutions. But I do have some thoughts percolating in my mind, and I am thinking a post-trip posting may be a more appropriate spot. Perhaps you have some thoughts?

As for me, I’ll have experienced Johannesburg by then, and hopefully I’ll be caught back up in sleep so as to be thinking with a clear, rested mind. For now, it’s time to call it a night. We’ve got a 4:50am wake up call to catch our flight to Johannesburg. In addition to the travel and getting settled at our hotel, the agenda for tomorrow includes a visit to the Apartheid museum. I am suspecting the opening of my mind to the South African peoples’ history and experiences is about to widen and intensify. I’ll let you know.


1 comment:

  1. Great job Marc! This is very rich and thoughtful. :) MB