The survival of the fittest

August 25, 2000

South Africa's former homeland universities are still struggling post-apartheid, says Hugh Macmillan

South Africa's six black and rural universities are in crisis.

The bantustans, or homelands, have gone - they have been incorporated into new provinces and associated with surrounding white areas - but their universities remain. They retain many of the worst characteristics of the bantustans - a tendency towards tribalism or xenophobia, incompetent or corrupt management, and lack of financial accountability. They have their own peculiar academic problems, including isolation from other institutions, academic staff who often lack commitment to teaching and research, and undifferentiated student populations.

Their problems began with their illegitimate birth as tribal colleges and as the academic flagships of Bantu education. The University of Fort Hare's origins were in the period of segregation rather than apartheid, but the universities of the North, North West, Transkei, Venda and Zululand were all established in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of bantustan development.

Sibusiso Bengu, the first post-apartheid minister of education, had no clear vision of how to transform these universities. His major preoccupations were the creation of a single national education system and the introduction of a controversial outcomes-based curriculum. There was a demand for "redress funding" for the historically black universities, but no large sums were forthcoming.

The passing of the 1996 Higher Education Act led to moves to standardise university governance and to place all universities on the same funding basis.

The funding formula had been designed in 1983 for the white universities and suited their mix of postgraduate and undergraduate students, their distribution of students between the arts and sciences and their involvement in research. Its application to the black and rural universities with their predominance of undergraduate students in the humanities and education faculties, their slow graduate output and their lack of involvement in postgraduate teaching and research resulted in subsidy cuts.

These were phased in and the ministry clearly hoped that they would encourage economy measures, including the retrenchment of surplus staff. But the application of financial pressure to institutions with weak management, minimal financial controls and no real experience of institutional planning, accentuated internal fissures and brought them to the verge of collapse. Tight macro-economic policies ensured that there was no cash to bail them out and they are all now operating on large and expensive overdrafts from commercial banks - guaranteed by the ministry.

There has, meanwhile, been an increase in the number of African students completing secondary school, but a decline in the number qualifying for university entrance - a reflection of the state of the schools. Almost all universities have seen a decline in student numbers as white students move out of the system, but the decline in the black and rural universities since 1998 has been dramatic.

They have for the first time had to compete for students with formerly white universities; with historically black universities in urban areas - such as Western Cape and Durban-Westville; with technikons, which offer graduates the prospect of immediate employment; with the new distance-education arms of Afrikaans universities; and with the burgeoning private sector.

Students have also been turned away by cumbersome admissions procedures, increased fees, a shortage of bursaries, frequent unscheduled closures and political uncertainty. They also fear these universities do not offer value for money and that employers rank their graduates below those from other institutions.

The government faces a difficult conundrum. These are black institutions and are usually situated in the most remote and underdeveloped parts of the country, where they ought to play a developmental role. Their closure would carry political costs and would add to the disillusionment that led two former bantustan capitals, Umtata and Mafikeng, to vote in 1999 for their erstwhile dictators, Holomisa and Mangope.

Kader Asmal, the present minister of education, has, however, taken a tougher line than his predecessor. He has given himself the power to appoint administrators to run failing institutions. Declaring that he was not a Bonapartist, he recently presented the first of his dictators to the ill-managed University of Transkei. It is too soon to judge whether this approach to institutional reform will work. Professor Asmal has said there will be no university closures, but there is no prospect of additional money for the overhaul of higher education and there is as yet no new funding formula.

The recent report by the Council on Higher Education's Size and Shape Task Team, chaired by Mamphela Ramphele, then vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, has abandoned the notion of a level playing field and has opted for differentiation and diversity within a single system.

It envisages a three-tier structure of universities and technikons and calls for a reduction in the number of institutions through mergers. There are already signs of opposition to its proposed mergers of the Universities of Fort Hare and Transkei with Rhodes University, and of the North West with Potchestroom. Merged institutions would clearly face serious initial problems arising from geographical distance and cultural difference. However, the only alternative may be, as Dr Ramphele once suggested, a Darwinian one - the survival of the fittest.

Hugh Macmillan has lectured at the universities of Swaziland, Zambia and Transkei.

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