Redefining Equity: Challenges and Opportunities Facing South Africa's Historically Black Universities Relative to Global and National Changes

By Subotzky, George | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Redefining Equity: Challenges and Opportunities Facing South Africa's Historically Black Universities Relative to Global and National Changes


Subotzky, George, The Journal of Negro Education


This article examines equity relative to South Africa's historically Black universities (HBUs) in changing global and local circumstances. It argues that equity should not be interpreted as strict equality, but rather in terms of improved fitness to purpose and relevance in terms of global and basic development, with the goal of enhancing HB Us ' status. Small but significant innovations HBUs have made in community-oriented teaching, research, and outreach provide the basis for conceptualizing an alternative to the "market" university model. The multiple disadvantages suffered by HBUs under apartheid are described, and cross-national comparisons with U.S. universities are made.

INTRODUCTION

National development in the contemporary South African context involves a set of dual but competing challenges. On the one hand, it entails enhancing the country's participation in the high-technology, information-led global competitive arena. It also involves facilitating socioeconomic reconstruction and development to meet the basic needs of the majority of the nation's population. Higher education institutions in South Africa currently face formidable challenges as well as some promising opportunities amidst the context of transformation and reconstruction. As part of the broad changes preceding and following the first democratic elections in 1994, a legislative and policy framework for the restructuring of higher education was developed and outlined in the new government's "White Paper" policy document the transformation of higher education (Republic of South Africa Department of Education [RSADE], 1997) and the Higher Education Act of 1997. This new framework provides for a single, coordinated, programs-based system geared toward reversing the disparities, disadvantages, and dysfunctionality that characterize the present system. To this end, two main policy goals have been identified: first, the reduction within the system of apartheid-generated inequalities based on race, gender, and location; and second, the maximization of the contribution of higher education toward national and regional development.

South Africa's 11 historically Black universities (HBUs)l have a crucial role to play in relation to these recent developments and policy goals. Established under apartheid as separate institutions for Black students, the intended purpose of the HBUs was to perpetuate the racially defined divided social order. Their primary function was to provide personnel for the separate homelands civil service structures and for the small, emerging Black middle class. Accordingly, they assumed particular institutional characteristics and academic cultures in which the overwhelming emphasis was (and has largely remained) on undergraduate teaching, concentrated in a narrow range of fields associated with the racial division of labor under apartheid-namely, health, education, social work, law, and public administration. The vast majority of HBU student enrollments comprised underprepared Black students. Faculty were generally junior and underqualified, and student success rates were comparatively low. Under the discriminatory and repressive conditions of apartheid, the HBUs were subject to severe financial and other disadvantages, with the result being that their institutional infrastructures are generally poor.

Relative to the proposed national and institutional planning framework, a number of interrelated challenges face South Africa's HBUs. Among these are: redefining their institutional missions and functions; strategically identifying specialized and niche teaching and research programs; academically supporting underprepared students; developing appropriate curricula; promoting quality, effectiveness, and efficiency in all aspects of institutional life; and building academic, planning, and managerial capacity. Additionally, they face difficult financial planning choices under conditions of severe fiscal constraint. …

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