SA dentist helps to heal racial abscess

January 17, 1997

When Jairam Reddy left school in the 1960s there was nowhere in South Africa where he could study his chosen profession, dentistry. There were universities which offered dentistry, but not to people of Asian descent.

So he travelled to Britain and the United States, where he obtained degrees in dentistry and biology, and fellowships and teaching posts, before returning to South Africa. Back home he lectured at the "historically black" universities of the Western Cape and Durban-Westville, where he became the first black vice chancellor in 1990 - the year political reforms were announced and Nelson Mandela was freed.

Then Dr Reddy was given the task of transforming the higher education sector that rejected him on racial grounds three decades ago.

He chaired the government-appointed national commission on higher education, which completed its work in August 1996 with the publication of a 414-page report, A Framework for Transformation. He was subsequently seconded to the department of education with the job of writing new higher education legislation, expected to be adopted in parliament early this year. The department's green paper on higher education, based on the Framework, was released late last month.

Both propose sweeping reforms to South Africa's 21 universities and 15 technikons (polytechnics).

"There has already been a good deal of change," says Naledi Pandor, African National Congress MP, deputy chief whip and member of the parliamentary select committee on education. "But mostly it has been through the independent actions of institutions since the 1980s. We need to see more targeted reform. " Both also outline a more proactive role for the state in "steering" South Africa's highly autonomous higher education system in the direction of national needs and goals, using incentives rather than interference. So, for example, institutions will be financially rewarded for producing more science graduates, which the economy needs, and more black graduates, a social need.

The overall plan is to expand higher education rapidly, correct the vast inequalities created by 45 years of apartheid, make higher education more financially efficient and govern it more democratically.

This will be easier said than done in a sector that is strong but seriously shaken by a decade of real terms funding cuts and campus unrest - and it will probably not be enough for students, whose protest-led demands for radical transformation continue to rock many campuses.

Massification of higher education will aim at a doubling of student numbers, from 800,000 in 1995 to 1.5 million in 2005, reaching a higher education participation rate of around 30 per cent of all 20 to 24-year-old South Africans. As elsewhere in the world, expansion will not be accompanied by equal increases in state funding. There is stiff competition for resources.

South Africa already commits 6.6 per cent of its gross domestic product to education - a substantial proportion by international standards - and 1.2 per cent of GDP to higher education.

"We will try to pay for expansion by making the system more efficient, raising funds from donor agencies and asking people to pay more," Dr Reddy says. "We will also need to redirect existing resources and develop cheaper means of delivery."

The Framework and green paper recommend improved access, more distance learning, a national information and admissions service, improved student selection, and funding programmes to bridge the gap between further and higher education. They also suggest a single coordinated higher education system including universities, technikons, colleges and private institutions, and a "rolling three-year national higher education plan".

The second major thrust is righting apartheid's wrongs. "Clearly those disadvantaged in the past expect a lot more support," comments Dr Reddy.

First, access must be eased for African students, who comprise more than half of all students but are under-represented in terms of their 75 per cent population share.

But higher education in South Africa is not free - institutions depend heavily on tuition fees - and since most African students are needy, improved access has to be accompanied by financial support. A national student financial aid scheme is now in place, with the government spending R300 million (Pounds 38 million) in 1996 on student loans and bursaries.

Second, there should be far more black academics and administrators. While universities and technikons have succeeded in rapidly changing the racial composition of their student bodies, they have not succeeded with staff: in 1993, 87 per cent of academic staff in the sector were white.

Institutions accept the need for affirmative action policies, but argue that it is impossible quickly to change the racial profile of academics because they cannot compete with companies snapping up black graduates for high salaries, and because there are not yet enough very highly qualified black people.

Third, historically black institutions have suffered decades of poor funding and are in urgent need of finance to improve their human and physical resources, get serious about research and compete with their "white" counterparts.

Redress is proposed through state funding targeting disadvantaged institutions, over and above institutional subsidies, and capacity building programmes. The government has announced that R250 million (Pounds 32 million) will be made available for redress in 1997.

"While we all agree what we should be doing, we don't know if we can afford it," Dr Reddy says.

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