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A Perspective on Quality and Inequality in South African University Education

Harold Wolpe Zenariah Barends

© Education Policy Unit, University of the Western Cape Harold Wolpe and Zenariah Barends

All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without permission from the Education Policy Unit, Uiversity of the Western Cape, or the author.

First published in February1993 by:

The Education Policy Unit (EPU)
University of the Western Cape
Private Bag X17
South Africa

ISBN: 1-86808-170-2


University of the Western Cape

The Education Policy Unit (EPU) is a joint project of the University of Western Cape and the National Education Co-ordinating Committee. The EPU is commit­ted to a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa and seeks to support through research and training the democratisation and tranformation in particular of the systems and institutions of education and training, science and technology and human resource development.

The objects of the Education Policy Unit are to:

conduct basic, applied and strategic research which addresses macro-theoretical and practical educational issues, as well as science and technol­ogy policy and practice and human resource development; conduct theoretically-informed policy research and analysis on post-sec­ondary education and training, science andtechnology and human resource development on the basis of a proactive identification of topics and issues and on commission and request; conduct education and training of persons around basicand policy research; and present and publish both academically and popularly the results of research and research in progress.

The Working Papers of the Educational Policy Unit represent research in progress and seek to serve two functions. Firstly, to contribute to the policy research and debate around education and training, science andtechnology policy and practice and human resource development, though with a primary emphasis on post-secondary education and training. Secondly, to elicit crititcal responses to the ideas, propositions and analyses advanced within the papers with the objects of broadening and deepening of the policy debates and the further development of research.

The Working Papers are penned either by members of the EPU, researchers attached to the unit for short periods or by researchers who have been commis­sioned by the EPU. Responses to a Working Paper should be addressed directly to the relevant researcher/s through the Education Policy Unit at the University of the Western Cape, Private Bag X17, Bellville, 7535, Cape Town, South Africa.


A striking, although unsurprising, aspect of contemporary South Africa is the ex tent to which actors, who still control predominantly white institutions which were developed in the apartheit! era, have adopted the discourses of non-racialism, democracy and equality which, prior to February 1990, were the preserve of the ANC and the extra-parliamentary opposition.

This shift from the language of racism and domination, which characterised the previous discourses of the dominant institutional order is to be welcomed for it undoubtedly opens space for a dialogue about transition. Yet, it is necessary to register the fact that many who now deploy the language of democracy and non-racism, nevertheless acquired vested interests in the old order either because they contributed to its construction or because they partici­pated, perhaps unavoidably, in it to their advantage even while, in principle, opposing it. For such people, the step from discourses about the 'new South Africa' to policies to realise it is frequently a difficult one. This, no doubt, is at least one of the reasons why bold declarations about transformation are so often accompanied by modest policy proposals whose modesty is almost always justified by the existence of the very structures of apartheid which any meaningful reform must find a way of surpassing.

Equality and development

In the sphere of university education, this tendency finds its expression in the contention that there is an inescapable contradic­tion between equality (or equity) and quality. Of course, there are variants of disposition (see Saunders, 1992; Steele, 1992; Charlton, 1992; Van Onselen, 1991) but essentially the argument runs as follows.

Admittedly, apartheid has generated, at least two extreme in­equalities in the sphere of university education. The first relates to the inequality between the historically white and the historically black universities. The second relates to the grossly unequal access of whites and blacks to, and performance in, ternary institutions.

To begin with the institutional inequalities. In his paper, Tertiary education in a democratic South Africa (1991), Van Onselen dis­tinguishes between the white universities which developed legiti­mately', 'organically' in relation to the core life of the economy and the 'artificial' development, through social engineering, of the black universities at the periphery. Or.e docs not have lo accept inc. problematic distinction between 'organic' and 'artificial' but, nonetheless, Van Onselen captures the duality of the system.

Nurtured by their links to the core political economy, the white universities developed into centres of excellence indexed by high reputation ratings, access to resources, good student outputs and the development of talent or 'value added' reflected in research and publications (Saunders, 1992). By contrast the historically black universities remained as they began, peripheral institutions with poor ratings on all these indices.

The adequacy of these criteria for judging the quality of institutions has been challenged by Millard (1991) among others. Millard contends that the type of indices listed by Saunders to assess quality may be totally irrelevant or inappropriate. Nor, furthermore, is any attention given to the fact that the criteria of quality are themselves the outcome of contestations which are settled through political struggles in institutions, professional organisations and so forth. These are important considerations but are not dealt with here since they are subordinate to the main object of this paper.

The result of this history of development of the universities, it is contended in this line of argument, is that the historically white universities alone have the capacity to produce the human resources and to provide the research which will be required by a complex economy which will have to become competitive on international markets and simultaneously meet the basic needs of the people in a democratic South Africa. It follows, therefore, that whatever policy is pursued to advance the black universities, the capacities of the white universities must not be endangered. This means that resources should not be redistributed to the black universities in a way and to a degree which would impair the maintenance and development of the historically white universities - since clearly to turn the former institutions into 'internationally' recognised uni­versities with research and post-graduate capacity would require a massive input of financial resources.

If the black universities succeed in getting greater state support to redress inequalities this would "further diminish the amount available to those with commitments to running expensive high-tech facilities at the core..." (Van Onselen, 1991:5). But this begs the crucial question which is, why should the historically black universities not acquire the capacity to have this commitment? After all, it is not case that the 'commitment' was 'freely' accepted by the historically white universities and 'freely' rejected by the historically black universities. The latter were formed by the apartheid system, as Van Onselen recognises, so as to preclude them from accepting such a commitment.

Of course, in principle the historically black universities could have been constituted so as to equip them to take on such commitments, just as the new white universities (for example. Rand Afrikaans University and the University of Port Elizabeth) were and as has happened elsewhere. (In Britain, for example, a number of new universities were established in the 1960's - all of them within the model of British universities with a range of disciplines in the natural and human sciences and with research capacity). Merely to register the historical origins of the institutional inequalities and to take these as an unproblematical point of departure not only leads to the reproduction of these inequalities but precludes the question of redress from being posed.

This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that the existing functional division between the historically white research and historically white teaching universities is taken as the basis for the future development of the university sector.

In the new SA - as in the old - but for reasons no longer predicated on considerations of race alone (sic), there will be a continuing need for a wide range of institutions of tertiary education operating at different levels which, wil] seek to address the needs of a complex and diversified economy, a society informed by several cultures and traditions, and a political system that is sensitive to imperatives encountered over a vast terrain. (Van Onselen, 1991:3)

Here, it seems, lies the solution. Since functionally differentiated institutions are necessary, the black universities can continue with their chief role as undergraduate teaching universities, only now upgraded and improved - something which can be achieved, apparently, at relatively little cost.

This conclusion illustrates the point made above concerning the gap between discourse and policy. What it amounts to is this: since the development of the historically white universities was' organic' to the core political economy and hence 'legitimate' and since, as a result, they fulfill a necessary function, therefore, the state funding and policies which facilitated this and produced the dis­parities must continue and can now be justified, not on racial, but functional grounds. So to speak, the triumph of development over equity.

It should be noted that in this approach, it is assumed that the definition of the functions of the universities (which is central to the question of 'quality') which evolved in the era of apartheid and before, and which prevails now, will continue to hold in the future - that is to say the 'quality' universities will continue, mere or less, along the same trajectory as before. We will return to the crucial question of the functions later; at this point we want to deal with be issue of unequal access.

Equality and quality

Inequalities of access manifest themselves in three principal respects which are very well known and need no more than a brief restate­ment here. First, a much higher proportion of whites than blacks enter the universities; second, the historically white universities still remain overwhelmingly white, particularly at the Afrikaans language universities; thirdly, black students, by virtue of grossly inadequate schooling, are much less well equipped than whites to cope with university education.

Since the historically black universities are already inhabited virtually entirely by black students, if the disproportionate re­cruitment of white and black students relative to the 'racial' distribution of the population is to be corrected, not merely by increasing the intake in the historically black universities but also through the 'Africanisation' (following Moulder's (1991) use of the term) of the predominantly white universities, then there will have to be a vast increase of black and a relative reduction of white students in these universities.

Here the tension between access (equality) and quality asserts itself again. The conventional response of the historically white uni­versities is that in order to protect the quality of the university, it must be ensured that only students who meet certain admissions criteria should be admitted although this is coupled with special admission procedures and academic support programmes (ASP) for black applicants.

But as Moulder (1991) has argued, the ASP, as a programme for Africanisation of the universities, is based on the assumption that there are merely pockets of 'underdevelopment' in South Africa which can be dealt with by 'avoiding organisational change' in the universities:

This strategy is driven by the belief that, by and large, there is nothing problematic about the syllabus or the curriculum of the degrees being offered by our universities. What is problematic is that a large number of under prepared students have entered the university; and they are under prepared in the sense that they cannot cope with what it demands of them. What the ASP is required to do is to see that these students learn how to cope with what the university demands of them. They (the students) have to change so that it (the university) does not have to change. (Moulder, 1991:117-118)

Professor Jakes Gerwel has repeatedly made a similar point in a different way when he has characterised the issue of access as a majority, not a minority problem. The point is that both Moulder and Gerwel recognise that Africamsation cannot be achieved by a 'tinkering' programme which might be acceptable in conditions in which the excluded/disadvantaged group constitutes a small pro­portion of the population. This is patently not the case in South Africa, hence a more radical solution has to be found. One type of institutional change is entailed in the academic development pro­gramme (ADP) instituted at UWC and elsewhere. By contrast with Academic Support Programmes, the ADP's do not define the students as the 'problem' and therefore remedial teaching as the solution; rather, the question is how the institution can be recon­structed to teach the majority of students who come from a specific historical and socio-economic milieu.

For Moulder, this is not merely an issue affecting the relationship of the universities to the black population. He argues that an important clue to the nature and size of the problem of access and success in South Africa is to be found in what he calls 'the neglected crisis in white education'. He argues:

The dilution of the matriculation requirements paved the way from elite to mass universities for whites....But the gap between school and university is too big. That is why many white matriculants fail to graduate, or fail to graduate in the required time...

White university students are no longer an elite. And, in spite of lowering their standards by allowing students to take two years more than the minimum time required to complete a degree, the predominantly white universities still operate at too high a level. This is why there's a mismatch between matriculation and graduation requirements.(Moulder, 1991:19)

However, for Moulder (see also Moodie. 1992; Young, 1990; and  Strydom, 1992) the issue of access does notrum only the relationship  between the universities and the general level of education of the  population, but also on how the role of the universities is to be ' conceived in the social and economic conditions of contemporary South Africa. That is to say, the differentiation of the functional  roles of universities and the levels at which they operate and, therefore, how the 'quality' of the institution indeed, faculties and departments within universities, is to be assessed, is historically specific.

For the most part, however, as is manifest from the argument so far, the debate about the 'maintenance' of the historically white uni­versities (not transformation of the historically black universities), is the predominant preoccupation of the protagonists of this line of argument. Furthermore the meaning attached to 'quality' proceeds on the assumption that 'quality' attaches to a single, ahistorical and, therefore, universal model of the university; and therefore, any departure from this model entails the loss of "quality '.It is precisely this that has to be problematised in order to open up questions about the functions, levels and 'quality' of the universities in the concrete historical conditions of South Africa. We have to ask, as Strydom (1992) has argued, not merely assume, what the objectives of the universities should be and the n pose questions about levels, standards and 'quality'.

The question of quality

It is clear from what has already been said that conventionally the notion of 'quality' (leaving aside the difficulty of assessment alluded to earlier) is used quite uncritically and as if it applies to a single model of the university - a model derived from Oxbridge and similar prestigious universities elsewhere. That is to say, the notion of 'quality' is employed in an entirely undifferentiated and unproblematic manner.

Indeed, the very terms in which the theme of the 1992 South African Association for Research and Development in Higher Educa­tion (SAARDHE) Congress on "Quality and Equality in Higher Education" is couched exemplifies this point.

In higher (tertiary) education one of the main challenges will be, firstly, to maintain quality in teaching and research com­parable to standards accepted internationally, while con­fronted by rationalization, financial retrenchment, etc. On the other hand a large segment of the South African popula-tion will enter tertiary education from a deprived milieu, and will negotiate for equality (equal opportunities). Will it be possible financially, academically and politically to satisry the demands of both these (divergent) schools of thought (emphasis added).

However, in order to open up to scrutiny the issues involved in the relationship between equality and quality, and function, it is necessary to 'deconstruct' and historicise the meaning given to these notions.

Michael Young (1990:4) asked of the University of Cape Town (and other white universities) which

makes much of its commitment to upholding international standards of academic excellence at the same time as making a concerted attempt to recruit and support black students..... What are these standards? Where do they come from? What are their purposes? Are they albeit unintentionally impeding a wider aim of achieving more open enrolments? (see also Srxydom, 1992)

To demonstrate the relevance of such questions Young traces the historical originsof the assignmentof differences in 'quality' to the difference between education and training. The origin of this distinction in Britain lies "in the process of industrialisation that accentuated the division between mental and manual labour.." (Young, 1990:5).

In the United Kingdom, historically, the economy "depended on the intellectual resources of only a very small section of the population..." and on factories that were able to absorb "large numbers of people with minimum education to do routine jobs for very low wages" (ibid:5). The result was

...the separation of an education system.....based upon aca­demic knowledge from an agricultural and industrial system based upon people's work... (Young, 1990:5)

Quality' was, and still is, assigned to the former (academic knowl­edge) since, in England, there is an "intimate relation between educational divisions and divisions between social classes....anything associated with the practical, the manual or the technical (is) only appropriate for people who are in some way inferior..." (ibid:5). The similarity along race and class lines in South Africa needs no emphasis.

Thecrisis in British education, Young argues, is that the conditions for the survival of the economy which was served by such an educational system no longer exists but that educational system persists.

Young (see also Moodie, 1992) stresses the histonciiy of models of education in the following way:

Academic standards are not fixed or God-given; we have inherited them from previous generations and they must be related to their educational and broader social purposes. Any educational institution should examine its definitions of standards, how far they are necessary as guarantees of quality, and to what extent they may have become a licence for exclusion and for preserving the status quo more gener­ally. A recent report in the UK has argued that many of our existing physics degrees are unnecessarily abstract and mathematical. Such criteria no longer assure quality but they certainly succeed in excluding many people from studying physics at all. (1990:4)

Universities and the future

What these considerations lead to is the need to reconsider the model of the university appropriate to the transformation of South African society. The question we have to pose is what are the objectives that a new university system should set in the process of building a new South Africa?

The question of which of the existing institutions should be maintained and developed and in what directions and/or what new ones should be introduced depends, in the first place, on an analysis of the needs of the political, economic, social and cultural policies which are to be facilitated by the work of the universities. Only once this has been determined can we begin to engage with the crucial issues of how the inequalities between existing institutions can be abolished or, at least, radically reduced and how new institution-, can be developed so as to preclude the reproduction of apartheid institutional inequalities.

In summary form, it is argued, the objectives which the universities must aim at are:

  1. To service an economy reconstructed to meet both the basic needs of the mass of the people and to make South African manufacturing competitive in the world markets.

Without in any way trying to be exhaustive, it can be noted that this may call for an explosion in levels of training below  the present levels in the professions - for example, a shift of emphasis towards the training of paramedicals and paralegals.

Furthermore, a new science and technology policy may  indicate that the emphasis in science and technology training  should move towards the production of scientist and ;.ech-  nologists able to mediate overseas high tech inventions for use in South Africa. This is not to suggest that fundamental scientific research should be abolished, it is a question of where the emphasis should lie.

In addition, there could be a need to develop curricula and degree schemes which do not reproduce the opposition between education and training - the one concerned with academic knowledge, the other with 'doing'.

  1. To service a new democratic political order by, at least, providing for the education and training of middle range administrators not only equipped to occupy positions in state structures but also in social movements, non-governmental organisations and community based organisations and hence to articulate the universities with 'civil' society.

Furthermore to raise the general intellectual and cultural capacities of large numbers of people at the university level by providing education which takes cognisance of existing educational and cultural levels.

Reference has already been made to the necessity of shaping the universities to deal with the actualities of the levels of education of the South African population. To put this in another way, Moulder argues that our universities are trying to operate at too high a level and, therefore, they will have to lower this level without ceasing to strive for excellence. There are many precedents for such a policy - the level of American liberal arts degrees, for example, is set to cater for mass education at the tertiary level.

This does not mean that all departments within universities or, indeed, all universities must follow this model. Undoubtedly, any policy for the universities must recognise the need for differen­tiation and consequently a variety of levels and also of standards. What needs to be stressed, however, is that the Oxbridge model is not the only one and that by conceiving of a variety of models the possibility is opened up of a variety of access paths without abandoning the role of universities, or some universities to contrib­ute at high levels and to an academic culture.

The possibility of different types of universities should not be ruled out because the form in which that proposal has so far been advanced has remained caught within a framework which permits the reproduction of apartheid inequalities. The idea of specialist institutions (forexample, technological universities) and of specialist teaching institutions (such as the liberal arts colleges in the USA) which prepare students for graduate studies, is not necessarily locked to the reproduction of inequalities. This is all the more so if the internal differentiation of universities occurs to meet the type of objectives referred to above. And we must remember that 'quality', even today, does not perfectly coincide with the categories of 'black' and 'white' institutions.


It need hardly be stressed, in conclusion, that a different model (or models) of the university will provide not only for a variety of levels and functions of good quality which will be consonant with the socio-economic conditions of the present and the path of development which is opening out before us, but will also open the way to a redress of historical institutional imbalances and racial and gender inequalities within the universities.


Charlton, R. (1992) "Emerging national perspectives". Paper pre­sented at UDUSA National Conference, 1-3 July, Durban
Millard, R. M. (1991) Today's Myths and Tomorrow's Realities: Overcoming Obstacles to Academic Leadership in the 21st Cen­tury. Jossey Bass: San Francisco
Moodie, G. C. (1992) "Quality, access and resources". Na'ional Education Policy Investigation Background Paper
Moulder, J. (1991) "The predominantly white universities: Some ideas for a debate" in J. Jansen (ed) Knowledge and Power in South Africa. Skotaville: Johannesburg
South African Association for Research and Development in Higher Education (1992) Communication around the Congress on "Quality and Equality in Higher Education"
Saunders, S. J. (1992) Access to and Quality in Higher Education: A Comparative Study. Rondebosch
Steele, J. (1992)"Post-secondary education -Buntingcriticised" in Academic Standard 1 (7), September, pp 8-9
Strydom, A. H. (1992) "Redressing institutional inequality: Frameworks for rcdresss (Afrikaans Universities)". Paper pre­sented at UDUSA National Conference, 1-3 July, Durban
Van Onselen, C. (1991) "Tertiary education in a democratic South Africa". Unpublished mimeo
Young, M. (1990) "Education for a democratic South Africa: Lessons from the British experience". Paper presented at Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA) "Schools for the Fututre" Conference, Cape Town, September 21-23