Camp conco us ctions
The whole institutional terrain has shifted, perhaps forever, from one centred on academic excellence to institutional access
for South Africa’s tertiary landscape. Just as the Education Department is riding roughshod for greater access by historically disadvantaged students to restructured universities an “academic meltdown” is rolling with unprecedented size and speed. Normally, that’s the last way anyone would describe the object of the process of amalgamating the tertiary terrain that got under way in 2004. But these days? To speak of the transformation of higher education as lurching forward would be – well, a charitable understatement – when the dropout rate among first-year students is costing SA’s Treasury a whopping R4,5bn/year in grants and subsidies to institutions without an adequate return on that investment, according to latest Human Science Research Council figures.
“It’s a system designed to push the access line at the expense of the quality line and, ultimately, overall performance,” education academic Jonathan Jansen says.
That’s not hyperbolic repartee. Bureaucrats in SA’s Education Department may have preferred to couch the problem in euphemistic catch phrases such as “a crisis of normalisation” and “transformation pains”. However, critics like Jansen have rightly outdone themselves in coming up with synonyms for chaos and terminal decline.
“It’s what I call a ‘stable crisis’ – where one problem or emergency after another feeds off previous ones and so creates new ones in a never-ending cycle – all the while getting bigger with each passing problem,” Jansen says.
Certainly, while Government has renewed its financial case for fortifying newly merged universities against everything from low and qualitatively deficient research output to overstretched resources and financial barriers to entry by black students by tossing an additional R3bn (on top of R3,5bn initially earmarked for the restructuring strategy in 2000) at the merger mess, the scale of investment is being systematically clawed back by a diminishing return as the cost of maintaining the system’s failure continues to mount.
Crisis, indeed. SA’s graduation rate of 15% is now among the world’s lowest, according to official statistics. Of the 120 000 students enrolled in higher education in 2000, 36 000 dropped out in their first year of study. A further 24 000 (20%) flunked or abandoned their second and third years. The dropout rate has been rising exponentially since the 2004 restructuring strategy was inaugurated. Of the remaining 60 000, only 22% on average graduated within the specified three years it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree.
It’s not just that the dropout rate – as high as 40% of first-year students – is a painfully
wasteful and costly venture that’s blasted gaping holes in the education budget, says Jansen. The real test of Government’s gamble on “a fundamental restructuring of 36 tertiary institutions into 23 through new funding formulas, new governance regimes, new institutional combinations and new policies on institutional applications” is a shocking 30% of unemployable graduates and dropouts (according to latest official statistics).
To lend credence to that assertion, a 2008 McGregor report estimated unemployment among graduates jumped from 6,6% in 1995 to 9,7% in 2005 as the quality of graduate skills were steadily eroded and whittled down over the 10-year period. In round numbers, that translated to 36 000 jobless people with degrees and 165 000 unemployed holders of diplomas and certificates in 2005.
Given the seismic shifts under way in employment distribution and the critical deficit of high-level skills, that’s particularly significant. More recently, a growing global appetite for skills has been taken as a signal that universities aren’t producing nearly enough graduates with relevant qualifications for the labour market.
Those rifts between the supply of and demand for skilled graduates are apparent from a 22 000 shortfall of top-flight financial skills, according to latest SA Institute of Chartered Accountants statistics. A stark testimony to a dissembling decline in the overall pass rate (and quality of CAs in particular) is the survey’s finding that in 2008, 1 806 students failed the qualifying exam compared with 2 096 passes. The highest pass rates were credited to previously advantaged universities. The University of Johannesburg topped the list (at 15,8%), followed by the University of Cape Town (UCT) (14,8%) and the University of Pretoria (11,9%). The fly on the wall was the overall failure rate of 76% last year.
If global estimates that advances in knowledge production account for an average onethird of the increases in gross domestic product of a country are accurate, businesses are getting clobbered.
Fresh evidence from a Grant Thornton annual survey of senior executives revealed that 41% of South African privately held companies believe the availability of a skilled workforce is still the biggest constraint to business growth. “This is the third consecutive year that workforce issues have been cited as the greatest impediment to growth in SA,” says Leonard Brehm, national chairman of Grant Thornton.
In the daily grind of business, numbers like those are a real impediment. “We’re finding increasingly that students coming out of disadvantaged and merged universities aren’t prepared for the world of work,” observes Felleng Magoloa, human resources director at Simba Snacks & Beverages.
Magoloa’s decidedly glum sentiment, shared by most corporate executives and human resources managers interviewed in a Finweek survey this week, belies a deeper truth: the entire institutional terrain has shifted – perhaps forever– from one centred on academic excellence to institutional access.
To be sure, black student numbers have been rising at a blistering clip in an expanding system seen as a way to widen access to postschool education, raise student numbers, plug the skills gap and improve the diversity of tertiary education. Since SA’s eve of democracy, total enrolment in higher learning institutions was around 17%. Participation rates were highly skewed by race: approximately 9% for Africans, 13% for coloureds, 40% for Indians and 70% for whites.
According to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, the statutory body responsible for allocating student grants, the ratio of black and white enrolment has since been virtually inverted. The scheme noted in a recent submission to Parliament that 91% of those students that benefit from the grants were black. The plan is to enrol 1m further education students by 2014, says Penny Vinjevold, a deputy director at the Education Department.
But while increases in enrolment figures (already soaring to the 20% mark this year) are recasting the racial profile of universities, 70% of students who flunk or leave come from low-income (black) families, a 2007 McGregor report revealed.
Such numbers are causing a minor revolt among a small but growing coterie of academics in top performing institutions. Some education pundits now worry the costs of restructuring tertiary education – on top of everything else – will generate pressure at the grassroots to speed up the integration of merged institutions, with all the deleterious effects of disjointed financial allocations on the quality of output.
For one thing, the ground-level confusion is already fuelling anxieties about the “perverse” funding priorities of the Education Department. Top research institutions, such as UCT and Stellenbosch – old school elites untouched by mergers and incorporations – are apparently roiled about being “penalised for over-performing” by a Government subsidy scheme crafted to help former technikons and historically black institutions catch up on research and teaching capacity, the Finweek
As things stand, all universities receive an annual subsidy based on their research outputs: the number of journal publications and the number of Masters and PhD graduates. However, the sting in the tail is that there’s “no qualitative measure” to determine whether subsidy allocations to universities are commensurate with output, says Christopher Vaughan, deputy dean of research at UCT’s faculty of sciences.
Meanwhile, as the revenues of comprehensive universities have soared, Vaughan argues that stellar performers such as UCT, Stellenbosch and Pretoria have seen their budgets trail to a trickle as a result of Government’s attempt to finance its restructuring and transformation efforts.
For example, UCT experienced a dip in research outputs from 2 848 in 2001 to 2 496 in 2003 throughout its faculties, an internal audit of the university’s financial and academic performance showed. The allocation as a proportion of the quantum of quality output has since dwindled even further.
The same can’t be said, regrettably, for merged institutions. There was an unspoken assumption among those interviewed by Finweek for the survey that merged universities were more concerned with getting the numbers out of the system than quality and were willing to earn a lower-calorie throughput.
Even more staggering is the wild discrepancy in the earnings of vice-chancellors. In November last year a salary review by the Mail & Guardian found that suspended vice-chancellor Aaron Ndlovu, of Mangosuthu University of Technology (incidentally, one of the worst performers in Finweek’s survey) topped the pile at R3,68m in 2007 for running a campus with just 9 828 students.
The packages of heads and State allocations to revenue of four of SA’s biggest research-producing universities for 2007 – UCT, Stellenbosch, Pretoria and Wits – were, by contrast, relatively low. For example, the vice-chancellor of UCT – an excellent overall performer, according to our survey – earned R1,55m for heading a financially stable campus with 21 188 students.
Add to the mix the fact that the pressure is on to pummel more unprepared black academics through the system, as more than 50% of the most highly qualified and productive researchers prepare to retire within the next decade, and the potential scale of the crisis starts to hit home.
So far, Government interventions have focused on what Jansen calls a “progressive dumbing down” of the quality of academic output by “awarding professorships to graduates without any record of scholarship, without a track record in research and without any credibility in the competitive world of research journals, research certificates and research programmes”.
He attributes that acidic trend to a “growing malpractice” in (especially technikons) and some universities to create a new class of (mainly) black professors in response to “an unseemly haste to propel those institutions overnight into university status – such as the so-called universities of technology – on the back of professorial appointments made, in the main, to young black academics”.
The unintended consequence is that the post2004 institutional landscape has been a fallout in a struggle to redefine hegemonic identities. “The result is that not only is there a hierarchical battle for control (between black and white academics) but these battles are also divided along cultural (and financial) differences they inherited,” says Jansen.
Such fears are no longer idle talk. If the mergers have caused widespread anxiety, pessimism is already spilling over into open revolt against the newly merged institutions. Last month two institutions – Tshwane University of Technology and North West University – were hit hard by internal squabbles over problems related to mergers, inequality between black and white academics and infrastructure, and questions surrounding racial equity.
A report tabled by a ministerial task team into the affairs of North West concluded the closure of the Mafikeng campuses on at least three occasions last year was due to a power struggle over resources and cultural differences between the Potchefstroom and Vaal campuses and Mafikeng campus.
In their assessment of the Mafikeng campus, investigators noticed it had the lowest
Throwing money at the problem. Naledi Pandor