1 April 2021

This article by Mark Paterson is republished from University World News Africa Edition.

A failure to define what ‘transformation’ means and how it may be measured is blocking prospects of broader change at South Africa’s public universities. In fact, the term is so “overladen with what may be called ‘surplus politics’ that it obscures, rather than clarifies, research and debate”, according to a number of the country’s leading higher education analysts and former planners.

The discourse around the concept, which was first popularised by anti-apartheid activists, has obscured the actual changes taking place within the system – such as the significant increase in the numbers of black students and academics at South Africa’s higher education institutions.

It has also crowded out other important indicators of performance, such as those for efficiency, success and productivity.

The idea of transformation has dominated higher education discussions and policy-making in South Africa – informing several bills and pieces of legislation, leading to the establishment of a series of national quangos and studies, and informing university efforts at self-regulation.

Yet, few commonly agreed indicators have been established by the government or the universities, themselves, to track its realisation.

Equity without numerical targets

In the field of equity – the shaping of student enrolments and academic recruitment in line with local racial demographics – which has become a major concern in discussions of transformation, there is actually only one indicator that has been agreed on at the national level; and even that one, which appears in the 2012 National Development Plan calling for more black and women postgraduates, sets no numerical or proportional targets.

In the absence of a clear idea of the kind of change being sought at the country’s 26 public universities and the targets that should be set for that change, it is impossible to assess whether transformation is on course and whether, in the light of the progress or lack of it towards the goal, it is necessary to adjust expectations about what may be achieved.

In the place of such assessment an “ideology of no transformation” or “infinite failure” has taken root, a group of scholars from Stellenbosch University argue in a forthcoming article in the journal Higher Education.

Meanwhile, although it may have not have received the recognition it should, there has been significant, actual change at the country’s universities in terms of equity.

The number of black undergraduate enrolments doubled in the 18 years from 2000; the number of black postgraduate enrolments tripled; and, by 2017, at least half of all staff, including academics, were black.

Decades without clarity

But “without measurable targets or outcomes, one cannot talk about a transformed system, and the political narrative of no transformation will prevail,” note the authors François van SchalkwykMilandré van LillNico Cloete and Tracy Bailey in their article titled ‘Transformation impossible’.

They are from the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

The scholars, who have experience in drafting policies and plans for national governments in Africa, describe the current predicament for their own university and the rest of the higher education system in South Africa as the result of a decades-long failure to create greater clarity and consensus around what constitutes a transformed university system and how it may be attained.

In their study, which considers the racial profile of the student cohorts and staff complements in the country’s higher education system as a whole, but with a particular focus on Stellenbosch University (SU), the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), the University of the Western Cape and the University of Fort Hare, the scholars describe a number of ‘policy windows’ when opportunities to operationalise the idea of transformation were created, only to be missed.

They cite a systemic restructuring which entailed university mergers in 2004, and #FeesMustFall student protests which erupted nationwide in 2015, both of which were initiated to produce more equitable universities.

But neither, the authors note, led to meaningful discussion or consensus on what would actually constitute post-intervention transformation.

Rhetoric, not data

Meanwhile, the process of identifying the change sought in the higher education sector in South Africa in the democratic era since 1994 has been characterised by an oversupply of rhetoric and a dearth of empirical data.

Since ‘transformation’ became the du jour term for ‘change’ in South African radical political circles in the 1980s, it “has dominated as a singular, seemingly immutable, discourse”, the authors note.

At the same time, the discourse has continually emphasised a lack of transformation and-or an inability to forge any national consensus on the issue.

So, for example, the efforts of the National Working Group appointed by the government in 2000 to address the issue generated controversy.

It produced targets that 40% of students and professional staff should be black and 50% female. However, following a national outcry, this tentative attempt to measure transformation as a component of performance was abandoned after it was rejected by the universities.

Subsequently, in 2010, a report produced by a ministerial committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education found the pace of transformation to be painfully slow.

That same year, a national Summit of Higher Education Transformation was convened, following which, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) required all universities to produce transformation plans.

Then, in 2013, a Transformation Oversight Committee appointed by the then higher education minister, Blade Nzimande, noted that it would take 43 years to achieve racial balance among staff at present rates of progress.

Claims of ‘no transformation’ also reverberated during a national debate on a proposed Equity Index. Further similar charges shaped the public discourse on the issue in 2014 and 2015.

Policy produced by the South African Department of Science and Technology has also emphasised a lack of transformation.

In 2002, the department expressed concern with a ‘frozen demographic’; in 2008, it stated as one of its key principles the “crucial need to expand the numbers of black and women scientists”; and, in 2019, it produced a White Paper claiming that there were too few women and black research and development workers at the highest level.

In 2018, the South African Human Rights Commission also joined the fray, noting that transformation in the sector had been relatively slow, in large part as a result of a lack of intervention from DHET.

However, at the same time that policies have expressed the need for the greater participation of black South Africans and women in research and development, indicators and measurable targets for transformation have been “either absent, inconsistent or invisible”, the authors of the recent article note.

Targets unrealistic or absent

This, they argue, points to a worrying continued lack of clarity about the ideal state to be sought more than 25 years after the end of a racially segregated university system.

Where targets have been set, they have been found to be inconsistent across plans and-or unrealistic, given prevailing conditions.

“This adds further fuel to the ideology of no transformation because impossible targets feign empiricism and create unrealistic expectations,” the article notes.

In the process, the concept of transformation, itself, has also become quite vague and so indistinct as to be of no real practical use – “a term so overladen with what may be called ‘surplus politics’ that it obscures, rather than clarifies, research and debate”, according to the authors.

The scholars suggest the present predicament may be attributed to poor policy design; politicisation of policy processes; and acknowledgment of the varying organisational contexts across the higher education sector.

Meanwhile, there has been exponential growth in the actual numbers of black enrolments and academics over the 18 years from 2000 to 2017. Black undergraduates and postgraduates now represent 86.5% and 70.3% of total enrolments, respectively.

Racial profiles

At the same time, there are significant differences among universities in relation to their racial profiles.

For example, white students still outnumber their black peers at Stellenbosch University.

Similarly, although there were significant increases in the numbers of black staff at SU and Wits, which rose 14% and 27% respectively, the gains were from a relatively low base in both cases.

In this regard, although there clearly have been notable changes in the racial profiles of many South African universities, a key challenge remains how these may be assessed against a commonly agreed yardstick for transformation, indicating what has been achieved and what may be realistically expected.

Such a measure is required in order to answer such pertinent questions as whether, for example, Wits should be considered ‘transformed’, now that more than half its academics are black?

In 2017, Universities South Africa published a Transformation Barometer Framework intended to provide universities with guidance on how to self-regulate their performance in relation to the issue of change.

However, notwithstanding such efforts, there is little evidence of common or exemplar indicators being adopted among universities at present and, thus, no apparent consensus about what may constitute a shared idea of transformation.

No consensus

In the absence of such consensus, the authors of the new study argue, transformation remains impossible, and the significance of any change that does take place can be denied, regardless of the data.

Only 15 indicators relating to growth, diversity and equity have been produced in the national government’s three most recent policies and plans for the knowledge production sector. This, the new article suggests, is far too few.

In this context, the authors recommend moving away from “overly ideologised notions” of what constitutes genuine, progressive change (although they acknowledge that defining or quantifying transformation cannot be an apolitical process).

“For this to happen,” the authors note, “the actual quantum of change and targets, if not endpoints, of transformation need to be defined.”