News & events


06 July 2023

Universities fall short of ‘deep transformation’

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Thierry M Luescher, Bongiwe Mncwango, André Keet and Crain Soudien

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Transformation remains a highly contested work in progress at South Africa’s universities almost three decades into the restructuring of the higher education system after the introduction of democracy in 1994.

At least half of the country’s public universities continue to grapple, with limited success, with the transformation imperative, both intellectually and in terms of their programmes, according to a new report of South Africa’s Ministerial Transformation Oversight Committee (TOC).

Meanwhile, several institutions have managed to embark on a process of establishing policies and practices that are reflective of a new period of ‘deep transformation’ which was ushered in from 2013.

However, the report, which was commissioned from the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) at the behest of the TOC, finds that no institution has fully realised its transformation potential.

No university has managed to transcend the legacy of its origins and history, says the report.

Deploying a new framework for understanding the nature and extent of transformation in the sector, the report finds that universities have focussed on equity or socio-economic development in their transformation efforts and considers how innovative or limited they are in their approaches.

It identifies and criticises the merely compliance-driven approach adopted by some universities in relation to their responsibilities to promote transformation and social justice, which is likely to lead to “change without change”.

Universities’ self-representation under scrutiny

Reviewing the annual reports produced by universities in 2018 and 2019, the present review uncovers a number of counter-intuitive discrepancies in how universities are responding to transformation imperatives.

For example, noting that historically black and rural institutions hardly ever refer to transformation in their annual reports, the review asks whether transformation is erroneously conceived as a problem of metropolitan and historically white universities only.

It further asks how it is that ‘decolonisation’ is a major term used in the reporting of the University of Johannesburg, but hardly appears in the annual reports of the University of Cape Town, although this institution was where the #RhodesMustFall movement was launched, leading to a nationwide ‘decolonisation’ critique being adopted by students.

In terms of its remit, the report considers transformation in relation to factors including governance; demographic equity among staff and student cohorts; curricula; support for first-generation students; efforts to professionalise teaching; and the mainstreaming of community engagement, as well as the evolution of transformation as a subject worthy of study in its own right.

The slow pace of transformation in the national higher education system has been identified as a problem for some time.

In 2008, the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions, found that transformation in South African universities was agonisingly slow.

In response to this finding and an outcry about the lack of progress with transformation at the public universities, the committee recommended that a structure should be established to monitor transformation in South African higher education, which led to the establishment of the TOC in 2013.

The gazetted terms of reference for the TOC mandated that it should study the annual reports of South Africa’s public universities to monitor their transformation and should identify best practices and challenges around transformation policies and interventions.

This report, The State of Transformation in South Africa’s Public Universities, painstakingly analyses South Africa’s 26 public universities’ conceptions and practices as reported by these institutions in their 2018 and 2019 annual reports.

Undertaken by the HSRC, which was commissioned by the TOC to produce the study, the research uncovers a number of biases and flaws in the universities’ reporting, while also showcasing innovative approaches and practices in their transformation projects.

The HSRC researchers have sought to analyse the annual reports to show the variations and inconsistencies in reporting. In order to make them useful for transformation monitoring, the report makes several high-level recommendations.

Understanding the discursive value and empirical limitations of the annual reports as institutional self-representations, the report employed two methods of analysis: classic content analysis and critical discourse analysis.

The content analysis gives a bird’s eye perspective of how different universities’ reports employ certain terms such as ‘equity’, ‘quality’, ‘decolonisation’, and even ‘protests’. The review then delves into the detailed content of what is being reported by the universities.

Using critical discourse analysis, the meanings and implications of the universities’ self-representation are investigated more deeply. By interrogating the nature and content of the reporting on transformation – intellectually and programmatically – as indicative of the particular institution’s transformation project, the report establishes a typology of transformation narratives, and their respective flaws and biases.

Conceptualising ‘deep transformation’

When the TOC was established in 2013, transformation was approached as concerning the elimination of discrimination and the promotion of social cohesion, based on gender, race, class and historical imbalances.

For the present report, transformation was conceived more widely to encompass a much broader process of change in the university sector, namely, to develop institutions which would advance the range of freedoms, entitlements and responsibilities envisaged in the South African Constitution.

This coincides with scholarly and policy developments that suggest South African higher education entered a period of ‘deep transformation’ as a result of the 2013 White Paper, which produced imperatives that were further promoted at a Second National Transformation Summit of 2015, and by the 2015-16 #FeesMustFall student movement in its demands for free, decolonised African higher education.

These include the expansion of access and equity in success at university for a socially diverse staff and student cohort; advancing an anti-discrimination and social justice ethos; improvements in the quality of teaching and learning; curriculum renewal; the expansion of socially relevant and impactful research and community engagement; the strengthening of governance, leadership and administrative systems; and the establishment of fit-for-purpose physical and virtual infrastructure.

In this regard, the report systematically develops a notion of transformation that takes as its starting points the principles for higher education transformation affirmed in successive white papers, including academic freedom, accountability and autonomy; equity and redress; efficiency and effectiveness; democratisation; development; and quality.

These transformation principles are cross-referenced against a number of empirical dimensions of higher education. These include the core functions of teaching and learning, research and community engagement; governance, leadership and management; the composition of staff and student bodies; and experiences of higher education.

The operational definition and indicators of transformation take the Transformation Barometer developed by the sectoral organisation, Universities South Africa (USAf), to a level at which it can be implemented.

Innovative transformation practices

Focusing on university transformation policies, practices and interventions in detail, the report reveals substantial but highly uneven progress across the various dimensions of higher education. The review particularly highlights the good practices that have been reported and are worthy of study and emulation.

These include interventions to create transformative governance structures and innovative ways of combating corruption, discrimination, and gender-based violence at the institutional level.

At the same time, the review points out instances of reported non-compliance and governance arrangements that are clearly not fit for their transformation purposes.

Progress and stagnation with respect to creating demographically representative staff and student bodies is illustrated and discussed, as well as ways of seeking to create institutional cultures that are more just and conducive to teaching and learning.

Curriculum transformation initiatives, sometimes under the heading of decolonisation, are showcased, as are interventions to enhance the development and use of South Africa’s indigenous languages in higher education.

First-generation and first-year students from disadvantaged backgrounds receive particular attention in the review as do interventions to professionalise teaching and enhance it with the use of information and communication technologies, or ICTs.

The report shows how higher education transformation has become a subject of study by some specialised research chairs and centres, and how the expansion of institutional research capacities contributes to the kind of knowledge about transformation that is available to university leaders and managers.

Finally, an analysis of the nexus of community engagement and transformation highlights ways in which the public universities have intentionally contributed to development within their localities, as well as new ways of conceiving this role – for example, in relation to ideas of ‘precinct development’ and becoming an ‘anchor institution’.

Transformation narratives

There is considerable variation in the transformation challenges faced by the different institutions, but no particular transformation challenge is the exclusive realm of a distinct group of universities or particular type of institution.

The TOC report argues that, based on their annual reports, all South African universities face significant transformation challenges and none – whether historically black or white, merged or not, university of technology or traditional university – has successfully transcended the legacy of its origins and history. However, there is important variation.

To manage analysis of this variation, the report developed a high-level interpretative framework shaped by two variables. The first examines the institutions’ transformation foci which tend either to emphasise either equity or development. The second examines the universities’ approach to addressing transformation imperatives. Interpretation according to this variable indicated that some institutions have created strong cultures of innovation in relation to transformation, while others show quite limited, compliance-driven approaches.

Figure: Institutional transformation narratives

The analysis found that some institutions were approaching equity with a strong improvement culture, while others were approaching it simply as a compliance exercise.

Those institutions which placed the focus on development did so in ways that either creatively established their relevance or, less meaningfully, in order to comply with expectations. This high-level finding provides the sector and the universities with insights for a practical response.

The new classification of universities produced by the report does not coincide neatly with the existing classifications of universities, which tend to be based on their histories, locations or mandate. The new classification shows that no institution has fully realised its transformative potential. Rather, it reveals that all universities should work towards ‘deep transformation’.

More broadly, it provides a new way for understanding the public university landscape in terms of their transformation narratives, identifying some as diversity-focused, some as developmentally engaged and some as contested universities.

The term of the TOC came to an end in 2021 and its functions have moved to the Council on Higher Education as the statutory monitoring, advisory and quality assurance body for the sector. This report, published in June 2023, was part of the TOC’s close-out report.

The in-depth analysis of the universities’ annual reports undertaken by this latest review indicates that there should be reconsideration of the existing reporting requirements of universities, including in relation to the overall format, content, presentation, and quality of reporting.

It is hoped that the present review and its recommendations will generate critical and thoughtful discussions across the sector and at the department of higher education and training.

Professor André Keet holds the Research Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation and is the deputy vice-chancellor for engagement and transformation at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa. He is the former chairperson of the TOC. Professor Crain Soudien is emeritus professor in the school of education of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and a former member of the TOC. Professor Thierry M Luescher and Dr Bongiwe Mncwango are researchers at the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa.

This article was previously published by University World News.

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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