Experts pick best of the new SA crop

November 13, 1998

The first newspaper survey ranking South African universities and technikons has revealed a rapidly transforming and expanded system, suffering a financial squeeze and still divided along racial and institutional lines - but responding "creatively" to multiple pressures and new government policies.

The "Best in Higher Education" survey, published by the mass-circulation Sunday Times, was adjudicated by a panel of 13 world experts. Fred Hayward of the American Council of Education said the change was "amazing".

The survey avoided directly ranking institutions and did not judge quality, but efficiency and innovation. It relied on 1996 information, since only a third of the country's 21 universities and 14 technikons have submitted 1997 data to the department of education - revealing a serious lack of accountability in the system.

Universities that did well in efficiency were Natal, Pretoria, Rand Afrikaans, Stellenbosch, the Wi****ersrand (Wits), Vista and the Medical University of South Africa (Medunsa). Those selected for innovation were Potchefstroom, Rand Afrikaans, Orange Free State, Stellenbosch, Fort Hare and the North West, and technikons Natal and Port Elizabeth.

The survey revealed more than 700,000 students in South African higher education, including around 100,000 in the growing private sector. About 60 per cent are at universities and 30 per cent at technikons. About 15 per cent of students graduate each year into a formal economy that cannot absorb many of them.

Panelist Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, said the survey avoided the criticism of British league tables: that they apply crude methods and are "too enthusiastic about producing pecking orders"; and instead took account of black universities' historical disadvantage.

It showed a rapid growth in African students. After 1995 the number of white students in public institutions dropped from 213,000 to 180,000, possibly reflecting a shift to private colleges.

There has been a levelling of total enrolments, partly because of poor school results and costs. Enrolments more than doubled between 1986 and 1996, with more than 20 per cent of South Africans between 20 and 24 years old in higher education. While 70 per cent of whites in this group are students, the figure for Indians is 40 per cent, for coloureds 13 percent and for Africans 12 per cent.

There are about 12,500 full-time academics at universities and technikons. "The majority of academics are white - 77 per cent in 1996 compared to 83 per cent in 1986," the survey reports.

Government funding rose rapidly, from R1.19 billion to R5.21 billion (Pounds 121.4 million to Pounds 531.6 million), but growth in numbers means the state contribution per student has not matched inflation.

Panelist Saleem Badat, of the University of the Western Cape, said the old divide between black and white was being replaced by divisions based on what institutions stand for, offer and research.

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