2010 Legacy: Now we need to grow black brain power

2010-07-15 13:33

The higher education system in South Africa has been described by some as the jewel of the ­continent – but it has also been criticised by others for its inability to confront its exclusionary history.

Where will it find ­itself in 2014, 20 years since 1994?

Of South Africa’s 21 major institutions, no fewer than three or four are among the world’s leading research and teaching universities.

On the continent itself, nine out of the top 10 universities are in South ­Africa.

The current system is, however, confronted by real challenges which pose a danger to its sustainability, even in the medium term.

The question of what it will look like in 2014 is real.

Will it by then have been able to sustain its strengths and ­improved on its weaknesses?

Three challenges must be addressed.

The first is the low participation rate. In 2006, for instance, it was 12% for ­Africans, 13% for coloureds, 42% for ­Indians and 59% for whites.

The second issue is that in terms of ­productivity – that is, of research activity – the system is dominated by an ageing white male population.

More than 60% of all research in the country is ­produced by white men over the age of 55.

The third issue is that of high graduate unemployment rates among African graduates.

A recent ­Human Sciences Research Council study showed that up to 42% of African students surveyed after graduation were without jobs.

Why is this the situation?

What is it about this jewel of the continent that makes it so apparently difficult for black students to get the same benefits that accrued to white students?

Why are black students not able to ­flourish?

There are two explanations.

Central is the structural legacy inherited from apartheid – but so is the whole ideological framework of racism which persists in visible and invisible ways in shaping the relationships between people of different backgrounds.

Bad schooling, unfavourable home ­circumstances, poverty and endemic ­social stress in township life, on the one hand, and discriminatory attitudes in broader society, on the other, all conspire to keep young black ­people from realising their full ­potential.

Reversing this situation is an ­immensely complex business, but it has to be high on the priority list of the post-apartheid government.

What must be done?

»?The first order of business is to fix schools. This, however, cannot be done quickly.

In the interim there needs to be increased ­financial ­support for poor students.

The ­universities themselves will have to ­significantly change how they teach.

“Killer” courses such as mathematics must be urgently looked at to see how pass rates can be improved.

Universities from Venda to Cape Town are going to have to confront the awkward reality that they will have to change the ways in which they teach, and give up the illusion that students are all well-prepared, ­middle-class people.

By 2014 we must have new curriculums with new teaching pedagogies.

»?Universities also urgently need to do more to keep talented black students in ­postgraduate study.

Steps to consider must include deliberate mentoring.

­Retiring white male professors must be ­redeployed as mentors within the system.

Contracts must be entered into now ­between universities and professors in their late 50s and early 60s around the deliberate identification of talent.

A culture of mentorship, instead of professors concentrating on their own interests, must be the norm by 2014.

»?Finally, universities must begin a ­serious dialogue with industry to understand what makes their graduates so ­undesirable.

If it emerges that low-quality degrees are the problem, universities must begin emergency ­renewal exercises.

If it emerges that it is racial discrimination on the part of industry, serious steps must be put in place by government to end this.

If fines need to be instituted which will help change attitudes, these must be seriously considered.

The higher education sector in 2014, if it is to not only survive but flourish, will have turned itself around from having the self-interest of lecturers as its ­primary animating force to one which is intently focused on its renewal and ­development.

» Professor Soudien is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town

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