‘Positive signs’ but slow progress on South African diversity

Pretoria’s new vice-chancellor says ‘co-creating’ institutional cultures was critical for a diverse academy

June 12, 2019
Source: Reuters
Slow progress it can be very difficult to change cultural practices across an institution, especially where people haven’t known diversity

South African academia is diversifying very slowly, but it is on the right track, according to the first black vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria.

While the country’s student population has shifted since the end of apartheid to better reflect national demographics, progress on changing the academic workforce has been more difficult, said Tawana Kupe, who took up his new post in January.

“When my brother was a student here before 1994, only 11 per cent of the student population was black; now it is nearly 70 per cent black and 55 per cent women,” Professor Kupe said. “In the past 25 years the demographics have diversified to reflect the population of South Africa.”

In contrast, a 2017 study showed that white scholars still held 49 per cent of the country’s academic posts, despite comprising only 8 per cent of the population.

Professor Kupe, previously vice-principal at the University of the Witwatersrand, said that, because black students got a poorer education under the previous, segregated education system, they were not immediately ready to take up academic positions in the post-1994 world.

In the first decade after apartheid, there were targeted, sustained programmes to diversify the student population, but none for the academic workforce, and diversification was dependent on the retirement of white academics. However, in the last 10 years there has been a more systemic approach from universities and the government, Professor Kupe said.

The 2017 study predicted that black academics would outnumber white scholars in the country some time between 2020 and 2025. “I see positive signs,” Professor Kupe said. However, “it is much slower and sometimes people feel that nothing is happening on the ground”, he added.

It can be very difficult to change the cultural practices across an institution, especially where people haven’t known diversity, he said.

“My approach is to co-create new institutional cultures. In other words, the people who have always been in this space, and privileged to be there, shouldn’t say ‘this is how it is done here’ and the people coming in also can’t just say ‘out with the old culture, here’s your new institutional culture’,” Professor Kupe said. “What you need – and this is particularly important for a university – is engagement, critical debate and discussion…and in that process [to] create new institutional cultures that enable everyone to work together productively. Then diversity means something, it’s not just numbers.”

For Professor Kupe, diversity does not only reflect race and gender. “What about people with different sexual orientations, different social or religious backgrounds, or different regional histories?” he said. “All these aspects are important in crafting a genuinely diverse and inclusive institution.”

South Africa needs its universities to have diverse demographics to face the continent’s challenges, Professor Kupe said. “It’s not just ‘we need x percentage of so-and-so, but how does it translate into a focus on teaching and learning, a focus on research and a focus on engaging with the rest of the world,” Professor Kupe said.

He also said that a more diverse curriculum was critical and intends to bring his work on decolonisation that he led at Wits to Pretoria. “A sense of local, regional and global knowledge broadens a person’s horizons and makes them a global citizen who can imagine a better future for the world,” Professor Kupe said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

Tawana Kupe was discussing the diversification of the African academy at the Times Higher Education Africa Universities Forum, held at the University of Johannesburg, on 13 June.

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