Transforming the Culture of Higher Education in South Africa

By Thaver, Beverley | Academe, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview

Transforming the Culture of Higher Education in South Africa


Thaver, Beverley, Academe


Opening up the conversation about institutional culture and race in South African universities.

Stumbling blocks remain on the road to a fully equitable culture in higher education in South Africa. Between 2003 and 2006, 1 conducted two research studies that probed the nature of the transformation of higher education institutions in the country. The first study focused specifically on institutional culture; the second examined the implementation of employment equity in the academic profession while also considering aspects of institutional culture. Both studies sought to track the extent of the changes at one historically white institution with the goal of identifying remaining problems and, ultimately, determining what could be done to address them. I present here a review of the qualitative data from these two research projects, which were funded, respectively, by the National Research Foundation and the Swedish and Dutch governments through me Education Policy Consortium.

In South Africa, the idea of institutional culture occupies a large space in policy and institutional discourses about higher education. The 1997 South African government white papera Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education (online at httoy/download.che.ac.za/documents/d000005/White_Paper3.pdf) and its regulatory instrument, the 2001 National Plan for Higher Education, signaled the need for institutions to "change their institutional cultures," and that goal has become one of the elements of the framework meant to unify a fragmented national higher education system.

These two documents locate some of the systemic problems in South African higher education within the domain of culture. From these documents, it appears that the higher education system may become more efficient if we reform the culture of institutions. A relationship is drawn between the apartheid-based norms, values, beliefs, and assumptions within institutions and the new cultural norms that, it is assumed, will come with the establishment of a critical mass of black academics. By implication, new entrants to South African higher education will be carriers and creators of different cultural norms and practices.

Following the foundational values outlined in A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education, the National Plan for Higher Education established several policy goals for the reconfiguration of the higher education system. One of these is improved equity among staff. The plan notes that, in efforts to improve staff equity, "an important strategy that institutions have largely ignored is the need to change institutional cultures." At the same time, the plan identifies challenges (and opportunities) that continue to confront the higher education system in the fledgling democracy.

At the institutional level, certain South African symbols and rimais are being reconfigured. Buildings at some historically white institutions, for example, are being renamed, drawing on African symbols. Furthermore, women and black faculty are being appointed. The responsiveness of institutions to efforts to improve equity and address social divisions among faculty is influenced, however, by historical and institutional contexts. Thus, for example, where the languages of either English or Afrikaans predominate, proficiency in the predominant language is deemed crucial. Similarly, in instances where the demographic profile of faculty has historically been largely white, whites tends to be favored in appointments. In other words, many believe that race is overdetermined as a criterion in the recruitment process. Several media reports and policy review documents have emphasized the exodus of black academics from certain institutions, and specifically from historically white institutions, where a white, male, and Eurocentric institutional culture is perceived as a substantial barrier to black academics. There is thus a perception that the conditions required for establishing a critical mass of black academics may not yet exist. …

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