Chance to right the wrongs

A Legacy of Inequality:
February 24, 1995

South Africa is moving from oligarchy to polyarchy. Although this move is often portrayed as unique, a number of countries in southern Europe and South America hit this road before we did.

This means that western Europe and North America are not the best guides through the problems on our agenda. We should ask ourselves rather what Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Turkey, as well as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela can teach us about making the transition from being governed by the interests and needs of a few to being governed by the interests and needs of many.

In one sense, the lesson is simple. It is about legitimacy, governance and rectification: about who is allowed to make decisions, about how decisions should be made, and about how to rectify the wrongs of the past.

In another sense, the lesson is difficult. Legitimacy, governance and rectification are chameleon concepts: they change their meaning as they move into the particularities of time and place. They are also contested concepts that come into debates firing a great deal of ideological ammunition.

This is why legitimacy, governance and rectification are grist for a philosopher's mill. And Ian Bunting, professor of philosophy and dean of social sciences and humanities at the University of Cape Town, has enjoyed grinding them in the policy research and debate on the reconstruction of higher education in South Africa.

With the usual dishonest disclaimer about the innocence of the people who helped to shape his ideas, his book revises and consolidates reports he originally produced for the National Education Policy Investigation, the National Education Coordinating Committee, and the Policy Forum of the Union of Democratic University Staff Associations.

The 14 chapters give us a broad but critical overview of the state of South African higher education - the dirt on its universities, technikons, colleges of education, and technical colleges - from 1986 to 1992.

Using department of national education publications and statistics, he examines nine hot issues, starting with the structure apartheid imposed on the system and ending with requirements for its transformation.

Between this past, which struggles to survive, and this future, which fears to be born, there lies the nitty-gritty. It is about the legitimacy and governance of the higher education system, as well as about its rectification.

In a set of tightly argued chapters, Bunting examines apartheid-driven policies on the nature and functions of the system, apartheid-created ways of governing institutions, access to the system, its shape and size, student outputs; staffing resources, and income and expenditure. With insightful commentaries on many tables and graphs, he carefully documents the legacy of inequality in higher education.

Although the detail clarifies what others obscure, it also makes it difficult to review the book. And so, instead of trying to tell the story he has told, I will confine myself to three uncomfortable conclusions about universities and point to a place where his argument wobbles.

The first uncomfortable conclusion is that blacks have a much smaller chance of entering the university system than whites. Bunting's calculations tell us that about 280 white students in every 1,000 who begin school are admitted to university. For blacks, the comparable figure is 28.

The main reason for this discrepancy is the unfavourable schooling offered to blacks. But poverty as well as the language and admission policies help to generate this inequality.

Because these universities charge expensive fees, and base admission on language and mathematics scores in the matriculation examination, competition for places is inherently unfair.

The second uncomfortable fact is that the four predominantly white and liberal universities - Cape Town, Natal, Rhodes and Wi****ersrand - protested vehemently about the unequal funding of schools, but remained silent about the unequal subsidies to higher education from which they benefited.

Using 1990 as a yardstick, Bunting concludes a detailed 40-page analysis of the funding mechanisms with a damning observation: in that year, the universities which serve primarily the white advantaged students were more than 50 per cent better off per student than the universities which served primarily the other-than-white disadvantaged students.

The final uncomfortable conclusion is that most universities flaunt mission statements which commit them to non-racialism, but continue to operate as tribal colleges. The two exceptions are Western Cape and Durban-Westville: The proportion of coloured students at UWC fell from 88 per cent in 1986 to 68 per cent in 1990, and the proportion of Indian students at UDW fell from 87 per cent in 1986 to 59 per cent in 1990.

Since 1990, UDW has continued the struggle to shed its tribal status and become a genuinely open university: in 1994 only 47 per cent of its 10,505 students could be classified as Indian.

And Natal got into the act: whereas the students at Rhodes (70 per cent), Wi****ersrand (64 per cent) and Cape Town (61 per cent) were still predominantly white in 1994, at Natal only 46 per cent of the 14,808 students could be put into this category.

UDW and Natal are entitled to be proud of these changes, but their ability to keep moving away from what apartheid imposed on them - or even to maintain what they have achieved - is threatened by a shortage of funds for bursaries and loans. And they still have to go through the eye of the needle: when will their academic and administrative staff reflect the composition of the student body?

Bunting's book is not only about inequalities of the kind I have surveyed. He also tackles questions about the legitimacy and governance of higher education. And in the final chapters the focus is on rectification, on some of the ways in which the higher education system must change in order for the unjustifiable inequalities in it to be eliminated.

This is where his argument wobbles. Instead of going for a robust theory of rectification, he fiddles with theories about equal opportunities for all and limited or unlimited access for all.

The "equal opportunities" theory is a plea for levelling the playing fields so that everyone has a fair chance to get a higher education. The access theory is a demand: either to be admitted to the institution one has chosen, or to be admitted to the higher education system.

These theories have their moments but, because they accept what has to be rectified, none of them can run. The belief has to be corrected that the mechanisms which the predominantly white institutions have used to rape everyone else are appropriate norms for a new system.

Although it ends with a whimper rather than a bang, Bunting's book is required reading for anyone who wants to transform South Africa's higher education system. Even if one can quibble with his prescriptions for a cure, nobody can doubt the sickness he has diagnosed.

James Moulder is a former professor of philosophy and now director of public relations, University of Durban-Westville.

A Legacy of Inequality:: Higher Education in South Africa

Author - Ian Bunting
ISBN - 0-7992-1515-5
Publisher - UCT Press

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