What can be done to ensure that universities are well positioned to meet the challenges of the fast-moving twenty-first century? Indeed a challenging question. Many academics in higher education experience both frustration and a sense of powerlessness, because they do not understand the complexities of the contexts in which they work.  Becoming aware of the values and issues of higher education seems to be a first step needed in organising for control of the significant aspects of academic professional development and in studying and researching the field of higher education.

Almost 20 years after the dawning of democracy in South Africa, the pace of transformation (by most standards) is very slow. In 2008, Soudien et al.’s1 report about the state of transformation in higher education and concluded that, in particular, racism and sexism was pervasive and that the pace of redress was painfully slow. Their report noted serious disjunction between policy and real-life experiences of both students and staff, particularly in learning, teaching, curriculum, languages, residence-life and governance.

The importance of transformation in the higher education sector was underscored early on in their democracy. Firstly, consensus in the government of national unity was that higher education was in need of transformation. However, the higher education system in South Africa must be transformed to redress past inequalities, to serve a new social order, to meet pressing national needs and to respond to new realities and opportunities’.

Important as these measures were in following national trends and patterns of transformation within the sector, they lacked details and specificities of categories within an institution and between institutions; for example, if an institution was undergoing transformation it was not clear where within the institution this process was occurring or lagging behind. These general measures were not easily translated into indicators to measure relative performance within the sector. In addition, the usual, erroneous, practice of merely using percentage changes in particular categories does not give a good indication of overall change (especially with respect to equity).

Whenever equity has been raised in the transformation of higher education and policy debates, the tension with quality (development) has also been raised. This issue was particularly apparent during the National Commission on Higher Education. Some also argued quite passionately that a transforming higher education sector driven through equity would compromise quality and standards. It followed, the argument went, that it was therefore not worth pursuing the equity route in transformation but to maintain the status quo.

We have shown previously that the Euclidean distance mathematical formula can be used to calculate EIs of particular categories within an organisation. Here we have used audited data and applied the formula to calculate and analyse student and staff EIs and relate these to research productivity within South Africa’s 23 universities. The study has shown the general applicability of the formula and emphasised the essential role of high-level knowledge production in the quality of equity during the transformation process. Until now, there has been no simple, unbiased, means of assessing individual institutions or holding institutions accountable for their demographic transformation.

Importantly, policymakers can use this index as a vehicle to steer the sector. The simplicity of the measure means that even a layperson can follow the progress of equity in a transparent and objective way. We emphasise that this is the first quantitative measure that can be incorporated into an analysis of transformation. It should complement and enhance the many qualitative measures in existence.



Article by: Busayo Tomoh

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