Transformation at universities: There's a need to tackle racism, sexism - report finds

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  • The full report is available on the department's website. 
  • The report highlights 17 observations and makes 20 recommendations. 
  • Racism and sexism are among some of the issues mentioned in the report. 

There is a need to tackle institutional and individual racism and sexism in direct and visible ways at universities. 

This is one of the 20 recommendations outlined in the 57-page report prepared by the Department of Higher Education and Training's Ministerial Task Team, which looked into the recruitment, retention and progression of black South African academics at universities.

Institutional and individual racism should be tackled as well as penalising perpetrators in ways that will help build institutional cultures that embrace diversity and are anti-racist and anti-sexist, the report said.

Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande appointed the team, which was chaired by former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa, Professor David Masoma.

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The aim of the task team was to investigate issues relating to blockages underpinning the slow pace of academic staff transformation at universities. 

"This (tackling institutional and individual racism) means moving from hoping that this will happen naturally to actually putting measures in place to ensure it happens," the team said in the report.

Nzimande announced the release of the report, which would be made available on the department's website, while giving an update on measures taken by the sector during Covid-19. 

'Blatantly and covertly'

Among the many observations made, particularly when it comes to race, were that the numbers of black and female academics were growing at universities.

But it was happening at a slower rate than needed, particularly in the micro-ecology of some department spaces.

"Racism and sexism are experienced both blatantly and covertly - for example, in how discourses relating to excellence, quality and tradition are couched, often with underpinning insinuations that people are not recruited or are not progressing in the system because they do not meet a particular standard, or that they were recruited for demographic rather than academic reasons," the report states. 

The team recommended that universities must interrogate how institutional cultures and traditional practices may be creating alienating environments, which intentionally or unintentionally worked to exclude, and to put proactive measures in place to address the issues.

They also recommended that university leadership and management must lead and get training on how to put the measures in place. 

Among other recommendations made were that universities critically review their existing policies on recruitment, retention and progression of black academics. This would ensure that issues of transformation were explicitly addressed in the primary policies implemented across the institutions.

Some of the observations made by the team, particularly on the hiring policies of academics, were that, despite institutions all having broad policies regarding recruitment and retention of academics, in most instances, they were silent on demographic transformation, especially towards black scholars.

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The report found that policies at institutions were generalised and did not directly reflect issues relating to black South African academics.

The few institutional policies that made specific mention of black academics were only going as far as defining designated groups as being African, Indian or Coloured, the report outlines.

The task team also noted that institutional autonomy could not supersede prevailing legislation in South Africa. There was a raft of employment equity legislation – and universities must, therefore, be held accountable for the way they complied with those policies.  

The report says:
"This requires collaboration between the DoL (Department of Labour) and the DHET (Department of Higher Education and Training) on the extent to which there is university compliance with employment equity legislation, and where this is lacking, steps must be taken to address it."
 

The task team also observed that, despite policy specifically on black South African academics being silent, institutions were, however, having a diverse range of strategies, plans and activities in place on their hiring and progression processes.  

Review

They also acknowledged that the institutions reviewed had initiatives, plans and strategies on black academic progressions, although they varied widely in nature and extent.

"Staff transformation issues, therefore, tend not to be addressed in primary management instruments such as policies, but in secondary management instruments such as plan and strategy documents. The implications of a policy–strategy disjuncture need to be carefully considered".

To address issues of policies, the task team also recommended that there be a "system-wide" appraisal of conditions of service of lecturers and junior lecturers, including levels of remuneration across the university system.

This must be done to improve the conditions of service, where it is necessary to allow the best young graduates to be attracted to an academic career.

There must also be a development of a broad definition of the concept of transformation that could generally apply in higher education.

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