Quality with equality

February 17, 1995

The approaching anniversary of South Africa's founding democratic election offers a chance to assess the dividends for higher education. Apart from sharing the nation's relief at having broken the spiral of repression and resistance, the main gain for universities during 1994 was the government's stated commitment to formulating a new policy framework for higher education.

The importance of sound policy as the basis of good governance is best appreciated in societies that have suffered the imposition of autocratic policies, or the directionlessness of a policy vacuum. South Africans are familiar with both. In a decade, the policy pendulum has swung from authoritarianism to incoherence, as apartheid's political edifice collapsed piece-by-piece through the tremors of transition. South Africans are getting down to the business of making a success of one of the world's most complex transitions to democracy. We start with the advantage of a shared understanding that good public policy formulation lies at the heart of our endeavour.

It is South Africa's good fortune that in most cases, (including that of the new 13-member higher education commission) the government is turning to experts, rather than politicians for guidance. It is even more fortunate that home-grown South African skills are available and equal to the challenge. Unlike many other countries in transition, we do not have to rely on international expertise to help us forge the institutions of democracy or the policies of development. We have expertise of real quality, able to apply the lessons of international experience to local conditions.

Much of this calibre has been developed and nurtured in the country's better universities, despite (and sometimes in reaction to) apartheid's attempt to bend them to its purpose. It is one of the ironies of apartheid that so many organisations and institutions, in particular the universities, were given a substantial degree of autonomy by an authoritarian state. Several succeeded in building a culture of critical analysis and independent scholarship, keeping alive the values of an open society. The extent of their past (and potential) contribution to South Africa's transition is now apparent. It has the enormous advantage of a developed network of institutions outside the state, ranging from a banking system to a free press, to sustain emerging democracy.

The international experience shows how much easier it is to transform well-established institutions than to create them - a task facing states in the former Soviet Union. Institutional transformation brings its own distinct challenges. As South Africa enters its second year of democratic rule, a test of progress will be the extent to which we succeed in establishing an environment in which the public and private sectors identify and fulfil complementary roles in achieving national objectives.

What does this require in higher education? This question can best be answered if one understands the shortfalls of the present system, and the issues that require urgent redress. There are 21 universities in South Africa. They form one sub-set within a multi-faceted array of tertiary institutions that also includes 15 technikons, 128 technical colleges and 97 teacher training colleges. In 1993 (the last year for which statistics are available) there were some 349,000 students in universities - 161,000 were in distance learning institutions, mainly registered at the University of South Africa. Of the places in residential universities, 87,000 were occupied by whites and 67,000 by Africans (the balance was made up by coloured and Asian students). In the distance education system 56,000 students were white and 89,000 African. A shortcut used by many observers is to describe universities as "historically white" or "historically black."

These labels do not do justice to the country's major "open" institutions, so called because of their opposition in the 1950s to apartheid in higher education. This group, which includes the Universities of Cape Town, Wi****ersrand, Natal and Rhodes, are also sometimes called the English liberal universities. These institutions that actively resisted government attempts to impose segregation in tertiary education, initiated desegregation strategies at the height of apartheid rule, and that are now on the way to achieving majority black enrolment, while continuing to attract good students of all races. These institutions have focused on coming to grips with the major challenge: the need to accelerate access by black students.

National policy must focus on this goal. It will have to address two important issues: financial aid for students who cannot afford fees, and ways of supporting effective academic development programmes to make up the educational deficits of primary and secondary education. (The improvement of the underdeveloped sectors of primary and secondary education must be a national policy goal in its own right.) State funding of higher education presupposes that a significant portion will be met by students paying tuition fees, who are also expected to meet their housing costs, often far from home. State funding makes no provision for costly academic development and support programmes needed to meet the educational requirements of a growing number of students.

Until now, the government has left individual institutions to deal with these problems. They have done so with varying degrees of commitment and success. UCT's achievements in these fields are a matter of public record. Our pioneering academic support and development programme (launched more than a decade ago) that assists underprepared students through an extended degree to meet the university's exit standards, has won widespread acclaim. We operate a multi-million Rand financial aid scheme. We have made this a focus of our fund-raising, and use substantial amounts of discretionary money for this. The challenge is urgent: we cannot sustain the level of funding as the number of students who need assistance increases and fund-raising becomes more difficult.

As national policy formulation focuses on the key goal of greater access for black students, it must also address new questions. The most important are: what opportunities should be offered to school-leavers so that they have an acceptable degree of choice and so that the country develops the necessary skills to compete in the global economy? Where should these opportunities be offered? How can we fully use institutional capacity, while building new capacity? How do we maintain the quality we have in parts of the system while developing quality throughout? How can we establish the principle of functional differentiation with individual institutions fulfilling specific roles within an integrated system - without lapsing into outmoded notions of status differentiation? And how do we come to terms with the importance of striving for excellence, when equity is too often confused with a romantic egalitarianism and where outstanding individual achievement tends to be regarded with suspicion. How do we protect and build our world-class institutions?

One of the advantages of our comparatively late transition to democracy is that we can learn from the successes and failures of countries that have travelled this road before. As important as 1994 was for democracy, so 1995 will be for delivery. We have no time to lose.

Stuart Saunders is vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

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