Lingering Issues

Despite all the legislation, initiatives, and policies that have been put in place since 1994, the higher education system is still struggling with some of the same issues it faced more than 20 years ago. Those issues include, but are not limited to, access and participation, affordability and funding, student preparedness, racial relations on campuses, institutional cultures, and languages.

Access and Participation

Access to the higher education system for historically disadvantaged South Africans has been a high priority for the government since the end of apartheid. But while such access has improved, a second goal—that of ensuring that the racial profile of the student body reflects the profile of the South African population in general, as established in the 1997 White Paper—has proved more difficult to achieve.

In 1993, a report from the vice chancellors’ association, the HESA, showed that black, colored and Indian people made up 89 percent of the population yet only 52 percent of those enrolled in higher education. Black South Africans alone represented 77 percent of the population, but they made up just 40 percent of enrollments. In comparison, white South Africans accounted for 11 percent of the population but represented 48 percent of enrollments. 11

In 2001, the National Plan for Higher Education (NPHE) set a target enrollment rate of 20 percent of the South African population aged 20-24 over the next 10 to 15 years.12 By 2008, or seven years later, 17 percent of that population had enrolled in higher education, and the headcount of enrollments across the system had grown from 744,489 in 2004 to 799,490.13

And between 2008 and 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, all institutional types experienced an increase in enrollments, with distance education growing by 7 percent, universities of technology 6 percent, traditional universities by 5 percent, and the comprehensives by

  • 14
  • 4 percent.

Despite the increase in enrollments, however, the average annual growth rate for first-time undergraduates between 2006 and 2013 was only 1.7 percent, compared to an average annual growth rate of 4.7 percent for the categories of undergraduate students who had previously been in the university system.15 Moreover, the racial profile of the student body has continued to be a challenge. While the percentage of black students enrolled increased significantly from 1995 to 2008—from 49 percent to 64 percent—that was still 15 points less than the percentage of black people in the country (79 percent). Colored students were also underrepresented—they made up 9 percent of South Africa’s population but only had a 6 percent enrollment rate. Meanwhile, Indian and white students were overrepresented in higher education, with Indian students representing 7 percent of those enrolled (compared to 3 percent of the population) and white students representing 22 percent of those enrolled (compared to 9 percent of the population).16

By 2013, the enrollment rate of South Africans between the ages of 20 and 24 had reached 20 percent. Yet black and colored students have continued to remain underrepresented in higher education in proportion to the total national population. The enrollment of black students has increased to 70 percent, but it is still 16 percent less than the total population of blacks in the country (80 percent). And for colored students, the numbers remain the same as they did in 2008. They make up 6 percent of total enrollments yet account for 9 percent of the population. Meanwhile both white and Indian students have continued to be overrepresented.17

It’s also important to consider which students enroll in which institutions or types of institutions. In historically black institutions, the student population remains predominately black. At historically white universities, the impact on the enrollment of black students across these institutions has varied, but the proportion enrolled remains lower than their proportion of the total population.

All that said, looking at the numbers alone, it might be assumed that the goal of making higher education more accessible to historically disadvantaged South Africans is slowly being met—and will, in fact, be reached in the coming decade or so. But the most important underlying trend is that access is improving not by race but by economic class. In other words, traditional universities have become overwhelmingly institutions for the middle class—a relatively small percentage of the overall population. And for people who are not part of that middle-class life, access to education has not materialized. The system is still leaving behind the majority of the black community18—a tough truth that the South African government must confront and address.19

To put the level of inequality that exists in the higher education system in perspective, Martin Hall, emeritus professor and former vice chancellor of the University Cape Town, has used the shopping mall as a metaphor. Like a shopping mall, he says, the university is open to everyone, but only those who have money come in and truly participate.

In South Africa, only eight million of the 48 million citizens have the means to participate in the formal economy, and unfortunately, the situation at universities is similar. As a result, 40 million people are excluded from opportunities that come from higher education.20 And in that way, the government’s policies and initiatives to increase access for historically disadvantaged South Africans have not been as successful as they have often been portrayed.21

Looking ahead, the government’s National Development Plan (NDP) has set new targets for 2030: a 25 percent enrollment rate and a growth in total headcount from 983,698 students in 2013 to 1.6 million by 2030. Yet officials have provided little detail on how they plan to meet those targets.22 What is clear is that the government will need to make difficult decisions about its priorities and how best to use its resources—especially in light of the continuing social and political upheavals on campuses.

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