When South African university leaders met President Thabo Mbeki recently to discuss the future of higher education, the predominant skin colour in the room was brown. Yet even though most of the country’s university leaders are black, as are most of its students, race remains a hot issue across South Africa’s campuses.
Some 13 years after the final collapse of apartheid, and despite some startling progress in terms of black access to higher education, many people in the university sector feel strongly that a race legacy lingers.
The race question will be central to a book on transformation planned by Jonathan Jansen, an outspoken black scholar and dean of education at the University of Pretoria, which is predominantly Afrikaans. He aims to write it during a Fulbright scholarship to Stanford University later this year.
Last year, his article “Black Dean” was published in the Harvard Educational Journal.
Professor Jansen believes “race is very much alive” on the country’s campuses, but he says South Africans do not like to talk about it “except by shouting about it”.
This is a startling claim, because South African universities have tackled issues of race on campuses through affirmative action in appointments, by opening access to black students, and via academic and funding support to disadvantaged students.
Mala Singh, interim chief executive officer of the South African Council on Higher Education (CHE), which advises the Government and conducts quality assurance audits of universities, said all the institutions evaluated so far had tried to introduce strategies to improve student access and attract black academics.
“The CHE has looked at the demographics of institutions and how these have changed over time,” she said. “But transformation is not only about numbers—it is also about tackling issues of institutional culture, creating a more supportive environment for black and female academics and putting in place policies that improve access for students and ensure their success.
“Race remains a resonant issue within higher education institutions, and we need to continue to engage with it. But it has to take into account the demographics while also moving beyond the numbers game.”
In terms of the student body, universities have achieved extraordinary transformation. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme supports more than 100,000 black students a year with low or no-interest loans.
Stroll through any urban campus and its multiracial character is striking.
In the mid-1980s, a quarter of students were African; in 1994, they comprised half; now they make up 61 per cent of South Africa’s 735,000 students. White student proportions have shrunk from 60 per cent to 25 per cent in the same period.
According to academics such as Professor Jansen, that is where South Africa’s higher education miracle ends. Look closer and you will see that most students interact along race lines.
Six in ten white youngsters enroll in higher education, but the figure for Africans is only one in eight, or 12 per cent. Race also skews the chances of graduating. Many African students struggle to overcome the handicap of poor schooling, and many drop out because of financial difficulties.
Although universities are now “black” at the very top (the level of vice-chancellors and their executive teams) and “bottom” (students), a hangover from apartheid remains at the “middle” level, among academics.
Nearly two thirds of middle-ranking academics are white—the proportion is higher at some formerly “white” universities. The higher up the scholarly ladder to professor and other senior academic staff, the more white faces there are.
There is a related problem of a rapidly ageing body of research academics whom universities are finding it difficult to replace. The Human Sciences Research Council reported in 2004 that more that 80 per cent of all published articles were by academics aged 50 years and older.
The accepted explanation for the domination of white academics is that highly qualified Africans are snapped up by a growing economy that demands affirmative action and black empowerment. They are, as Professor Jansen said, “offered ten times more pay for half the work”.
Low pay also makes it difficult to attract and retain scholars, while higher salaries overseas make universities elsewhere attractive. A 2004-05 survey by the Association of Commonwealth Universities showed salaries in South Africa to be considerably lower than in Australia, the UK, Canada and New Zealand.
An explosion in student numbers in the past two decades has placed a growing work burden on academics. Also, black academics criticise a lingering and alienating ‘Western’ culture at universities, while affirmative action makes it difficult to employ more white scholars.
For their part, many white (and some Indian) academics complain that racism has come full circle and is now marginalising scholars who are non-African.
They say that at some institutions black “Africanist” leaders are silencing criticism.
The Government and universities have encouraged the enrolment and support of a growing pool of black postgraduate students who are poised to alleviate the issues of a white academy and its shrinkage.
There have, some argue, been dramatic changes in higher education leadership, with black scholars now doing the job and influencing the direction of higher education.
Professor Jansen believes that few “white” universities have managed to address “the racial authority of teachers” successfully.
“Even where there are growing numbers of black faculty they are still quite junior,” he said. “This makes it difficult to convince white students to change their minds about stereotypes. The world looks very white in terms of the authority of knowledge.”
He said that although universities had been desegregated racially since the end of apartheid, many remain segregated socially. Student politics is often divided along race lines and so, too, are student residences. The University of the Free State, which has separate residences for black and white students, says students want to live apart for “cultural” reasons.
Professor Jansen believes the reasons are racial and exacerbated by crime, which is often committed by black people against white people. “We must look at the society in which we are embedded,” he said.
By and large, students of different races get together only when they must, in lectures, for example. Professor Jansen explained this as “intergenerational transmission of crap”. He said: “Black and white students behave as if they are in the past. Stories are carried over from their parents.”
This is especially acute among Afrikaners, many of whom attended all-white schools. “English kids at least experience learning with black students, so race issues are less sharp.”
Meanwhile, according to Professor Jansen, black students “have heard the war stories and know the songs. They come with the expectation of a fight.”
He said: “Students are still interfacing on the basis of race.
This is soul-destroying for me as a black person. I have waited years for this to change, but it has not.
“We have not made our peace with race yet.”
International Effort To Transform The Face Of Faculty
When Jonathan Jansen took up his job as dean of education at the University of Pretoria—a former bastion of Afrikanerdom—he resolved to transform the faculty by, among other things, recruiting black academics and improving student race relations.
“The first thing I did in 2001 was to travel around the world for a month, visiting Cambridge, Sussex, Harvard and other top universities, seeking out top South African scholars and persuading them to come home.”
Professor Jansen also set up an international scouting system, paying people overseas to point out promising South African and African scholars.
“The world is big, and it’s difficult to know who is coming through the system,” he said.
He drafted a five-year development plan for black recruits and “got personally involved to ensure they stayed here”.
“It’s difficult to change the racial demographics of the academy,” he said.
“Universities think that hiring a black academic is enough. But academics need a nurturing, supportive environment, a reasonable workload, encouragement to develop their PhDs and to be exposed to the best minds in the field.
“This is especially so for black academics here, who are also highly mobile and bombarded with offers from the public and private sectors.”
In 2000, there was one black academic in the faculty. Today, 45 per cent of about 100 academics are black, and Professor Jansen said that he had not lost a single black colleague.
“That is a lot and we are continuing. We can’t stop half-way,” he said.
“Currently, our postgraduate class is 80 per cent black and our undergraduate class is 80 per cent white—but that is changing dramatically because of bursaries now being awarded to black education students by the Department of Education.”
Professor Jansen’s international look-out system has been adopted by Pretoria as a university-wide project in its efforts to reverse the academic brain drain and persuade promising students abroad to return home with job offers.