“Excuses” hinder varsity transformation, academics say

Academics believe that excuses and being comfortable with the current status quo are some of the reasons that have led to the higher education sector not being fully transformed.

This was the conclusion of a discussion at last week’s inaugural Universities South Africa’s (USAf) higher education conference, held in Pretoria. USAf is a membership organisation representing the country’s universities.

In what were often heated exchanges, senior academics tried to work out what — 25 years into democracy — some universities are still not transformed in class, colour or gender representation.

Speaking on the topic titled “the production of institutional culture in South African universities and the limits of transformation”, George Mvalo — director of social justice and transformation at the Vaal University of Technology — told the delegates that not much had changed in terms of the academic profile at universities.

“If it was not for the nGAP (New Generation of Academics Programme) programme, I would submit that some of our universities will still be found wanting 25 years down the line.”

He said that the lack of transformation was “for the simple reason that sometimes we do not have the political will to do the right thing to ensure that we embrace diversity and inclusion in our spaces”.

The nGAP was established in 2015 to help transform universities. This is done by establishing permanent academic posts in areas of greatest need in the higher education system. Preference for these posts is given to people who are young, black and women who are South African citizens.

Mvalo added that, like with demographics, not much had transformed in terms of gender at universities — there is also still a gender pay gap within these institutions.

“Whatever matrix we utilise, whether you look at heads of departments in faculties, whether you look at the deans in our universities, the deputy vice-chancellors and so forth, with few exceptions, you then find that we are still way behind in terms of embracing gender diversity.”

He said these are things that the sector needs to grapple with, and engage on the way forward.

Mvalo said universities are seen as leaders of society and as such there must be exemplary in how they embrace diversity. “We always have excuses or justifications. We always want to justify how we can’t find women. How we can’t find a suitable, qualified person with a disability, how our environments are actually not suitable for someone in a wheelchair. We always have these excuses,” he said. “We find it very comfortable to be able to bring and to attract, to retain the same people we are most comfortable with … Because if that was not the case it would have been easy for us to say in 2019 as a sector we have really began to make strides in terms of an enabling environment for both staff and students.”

Responding to the presentation, Professor Adam Habib, the vice-chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand, said that — while he acknowledged that there was still a long way universities have to go to say they have fully transformed — he disputed that they had not truly transformed.

“Really, do you think we have done no transformation for over 20 years?” he asked. “So take Wits. I know Wits well, but I could use other thousands examples. Wits was 70% white students in 1994, it is 82% black [now]. Wits in gender terms would have had 23 or 24% women academics in 1994, now it is 51%.”

He said there are still problems with transformation, but that transformation in the sector is a process that can take up to 50 years to be fully realised.

He said the debate needed to shift from talking about the challenges but instead look at why institutions are failing to transform and what needs to be done to remedy that.

Fundisile Nzimande, a member of the education department’s transformation oversight committee, said it is prudent to spend time looking at the limits and stumbling blocks of achieving transformation in the sector. “For example, we seem to be making excuses about why certain things are not happening… History will really judge us real harshly because we have squandered so much time and resources without showing fair results.”

Also speaking at the conference, Blade Nzimande, the science and technology minister, said there are broader transformational issues that are external to universities but that there were internal transformational challenges that these institutions needed to deal with.

He said these included the necessary changes that need to happen with the demographics of students, staff and research personnel.

“I am extremely concerned that despite the very significant progress we have made to change the demographics in our universities we, however, still have some way to go. The gender and profile of our senior and research personnel still require significant changes,” he said. 

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