Transforming Higher Education in South Africa: The Role of Public Authority in Fostering Equity and Inclusivity

Paper presented at the University of Johannesburg, Auckland Park Campus on April 20th and 21st, 2023. Hosted by LSE Centre for Public Authority and International Development (CPAID), LSE Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa, and the University of Johannesburg.

Workshop Theme: Public Authority and International Development

Dr. Job Mwaura

In pursuing an inclusive, diverse, and socially just academic landscape in South Africa, public authorities hold the key to unlocking meaningful change. By actively shaping policies, thoughtfully allocating resources, and strategically guiding the direction of higher education, public authorities can drive transformation and foster equity to help heal the wounds of the past and build a brighter future.

The apartheid era left an indelible mark on South African higher education, perpetuating an oppressive and exclusionary system favouring a select few while denying opportunities to the majority. As apartheid ended, the urgent need to democratize education and prioritize transformation emerged as a critical pathway to redress past injustices and create a more equitable society. The journey towards transformation requires collective effort and unwavering commitment from all stakeholders, particularly public authorities, who are positioned to enact meaningful change.

One of the key issues in the transformation agenda is access and equity. Increased enrolment of black students and those from previously disadvantaged backgrounds has significantly developed in recent years. Financial aid and support systems, such as the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), have been essential in promoting access to higher education for disadvantaged students.

Curriculum transformation is another critical aspect of the transformation agenda. Decolonization and Africanization of the curriculum involve removing Eurocentric biases and incorporating African perspectives into academic content. This process includes integrating indigenous knowledge systems, such as oral literature, and adopting interdisciplinary and contextually relevant approaches to teaching and learning.

Language policies have also been an essential part of the transformation agenda. Promoting multilingualism and indigenous languages helps create a more inclusive learning environment, addressing language barriers that may hinder students’ academic progress.

Institutional culture is another area where transformation is needed. Promoting inclusivity and diversity, as well as combating racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, are crucial to creating a welcoming environment for all students. Staff transformation is equally important, with efforts to increase the representation of black and women academics and support their professional development and mentorship programs.

Several notable achievements and progress have been made in recent years, including student enrolment and diversity growth. The emergence of transformation-focused research centres and initiatives and policy changes and implementation to support transformation are other significant developments. Student activism has played an essential role in driving change, highlighting the need for transformation and equity in higher education.

However, challenges and areas for improvement remain. Systemic inequalities and discrimination persist, and resistance to change can slow the pace of transformation. As demonstrated by the #FeesMustFall movements, financial constraints and funding disparities can hinder progress. Another challenge is balancing maintaining global competitiveness in higher education and promoting local relevance in curriculum and research.

In conclusion, the transformation of South African universities is an ongoing process, with significant strides made in recent years. As public authorities, educators, and other stakeholders continue to collaborate, we can build upon the progress achieved to create a more inclusive, equitable, and contextually relevant higher education system. This collective effort will not only empower future generations of students but also contribute to the social, economic, and cultural development of South Africa as a whole.

Dr Job Mwaura is a researcher at Wits Centre for Journalism, University of the Witwatersrand

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