Navigation – Plan du site
Dossier : Pressions sur l'enseignement supérieur au Nord et au Sud

The Reform of the Academic Profession in South Africa in the Context of Historical Legacies and Global Pressures

La réforme de la profession universitaire en Afrique du Sud, entre héritage historique local et pressions globales
Beverly Thaver
p. 147-168


La première décennie démocratique de l’Afrique du Sud a été marquée par la mise en place de plusieurs réformes dans le secteur de l’enseignement supérieur, visant à corriger l’héritage du passé. En conséquence, le profil du corps enseignant a lui-même subi des transformations visant à le rendre plus représentatif de la diversité sud-africaine. Le mécanisme politique clé fut à cet égard le mandat national d’équité face à l’emploi que les universités ont la responsabilité d’appliquer. L’article s’intéresse à la réaction des universitaires face aux dynamiques liées à la mise en place de réformes d’une telle ampleur, tant au niveau du recrutement qu’à celui des activités de recherche. Ce faisant, l’article explore la relation entre ces pratiques structurelles et l’héritage historique de l’Afrique du Sud, mais cherche aussi à comprendre dans quelle mesure cette relation est dans le même temps conditionnée par les pressions globales.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Introduction and background

1The beginning of the 21st Century has witnessed many changes in the international arena of higher education driven partly by the (liberalized) shift in the global economy. To this end, an important change has been an increase in the demand for access by ‘non traditional’ students resulting in twin (but not entirely mutually exclusive) processes: the privatization of public institutions as well as a proliferation of private (higher education) institutions. Scholars such as Enders (2001), Evans (2002) and Altbach (2003) have argued that conditions such as massification and marketisation (among other things) affect the academic profession internationally. This tends to lead to an academic community that is increasingly unrecognizable (Altbach 2003: 2) as a distinct profession arising out of (among other factors) the casualization of academic labour. These general challenges to the academic profession assume a particular form in Northern and Southern countries culminating in specific national – and institutional – level responses (Altbach 2003). In this regard, South Africa too is confronted with challenges at the level of the academic profession necessitated by the shift from a race-based apartheid to a non-racial democratic political order.

  • 1 The terms white and black remain in current usage in the policy discourse in the first decade of de (...)

2One of several national policy goals in terms of the National Plan for Higher Education (NPHE 2001: 45) refers to the implementation of Employment Equity for academic staff in higher education institutions. However, a decade into the democracy, there continues to be limited transformation of (academic) staff profiles on the ground, ‘with the academic staff complement still being dominated by whites’1 (Council on Higher Education 2004: 85). Against this backdrop, the paper seeks to understand two things. The first concerns processes related to the implementation of a national systemic reform (in terms of Employment Equity) as manifest at the institutional level of recruitment practices. The second is to probe some of the dynamics associated with the research function as academics navigate their way in a context of political transition. In both instances the paper seeks to examine the nature of the structural relationship between the practices and the historical legacy.

  • 2 In the reconfigured landscape, each of the remaining four universities was merged with the old inst (...)

3From the perspective of describing the political conditions under which the sector (comprising of twenty-one universities) was established, the article begins by identifying some of these (conditions) for the late colonial (1910-1948) and apartheid (1948-1994) periods. Following this historical backdrop, it proceeds to sketch certain policy reforms implemented during the decade of democracy (1994-2004) that subsequently resulted in a reduction in the number of originally established universities from twenty–one to seventeen2.

4In addressing the first two historical periods, there will be a specific emphasis on the social function of universities in order to understand the discourses that have anchored academic practices at each moment in time. This is done in order to understand the source of the ideological sustenance for current academic practices in institutions. While the paper assumes a national angle, it also seeks to unravel the extent to which elements of the national dimension of reform practices resonate with international trends. First, a brief note on the design of the study is provided.


  • 3 This project is part of the Education Policy Consortium Research Project, an initiative funded by t (...)
  • 4 Comprising three historically white (two English and one Afrikaans-speaking) and one historically b (...)

5The data for this article was obtained from a qualitative research study3 that focused broadly on structural aspects associated with the deracialisation of academic staff at four4 universities in the Western and Eastern Cape regions of South Africa. The study probed how academics at the micro-level of the institutions responded to the implementation of the systemic reform of Employment Equity. More specifically, the study aimed to identify the extent to which the micro-level practices hamper and/or facilitate the recruitment and retention of new (black) entrants to the profession. In light of this, the schedule comprised themes relating to: recruitment, curriculum, teaching, research, community service, academic administration and the personal experience of being an academic. This article addresses itself mainly to the themes of recruitment and research (including that of curriculum).

  • 5 The term black in the lower case (as per the Employment Equity Act of 1998) is used in the generic (...)

6Using the semi-structured schedule, 45 interviews were conducted with black5 and white senior-level academics from Natural Science, Social Science and Humanities departments in four institutions. It is important to signal that the respondents from the different disciplines were not evenly distributed across the universities. In addition to the interviews, relevant primary and secondary source documents pertaining to transformation both at the institutional as well as the systemic level, were analyzed. Newspaper articles pertaining to appointments at other universities were also consulted. Finally, observations obtained during participation in national policy forums where transformation of the sector had been the focus of discussions are reported. The combination of the different types of data provides the empirical basis for this article.

The establishment of universities, 1910-1990

Universities under the late colonial period

  • 6 Such as the Mines and Works Act of 1911; the Black Labour Act of 1911 and the Land Act of 1913.

7Soon after the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 and for a decade thereafter, society was marked by the official structuring of a racially segregated society through the dominance of English capital (Nattrass, 1990). In light of this, several labour-related laws6 were introduced in order to set the society on the path of (racialised) industrialization. Against this backdrop, two colleges catering mainly for the English and Afrikaans-speaking sections of the colonial population in the Cape Colony, had developed into fully-fledged university-status institutions. These were the South African and Victoria Colleges that subsequently became the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, respectively. Coupled with these two universities, were the renamed examining body Cape of Good Hope College (which was changed to the University of South Africa) and the establishment of the South African Native College (SANC). By the mid-1920s with the growth in the mining industry there was a demand for the strengthening of colleges in the Transvaal region that could provide catch points for more high level skills training. Effectively, between 1920 and 1930 two further colleges were granted university status and became the Universities of the Witwatersrand (in 1922) and Pretoria (in 1930).

8In this period the universities started to consolidate their identities, refracted through their admissions criteria. In terms of student access, entry to these institutions was regulated through the languages of English and Afrikaans. In the case of two English-speaking universities, the Universities of Cape Town (UCT) and Witwatersrand (Wits) this criterion was applied (in a limited way) to black students. In this regard, it is worthwhile to note that interaction between white and black students had been limited to the academic and not the social sphere (Murray 1990), also see Behr 1991). It is apparent therefore that during the colonial period there were already traces of segregation between black and white sections of South African society (see Davenport and Saunders 2000).

9The emphasis on specific languages (English and Afrikaans) was symptomatic of the broader political struggles between the respective communities seeking to assert control over the indigenous population. These struggles culminated in the emergence of an Afrikaner nationalism with its associated concept of the ‘volk’ (white Afrikaner people) which was subsequently reflected in the university sector. In this regard, Afrikaner nationalism was asserted in competition with the Anglo-Saxon (more specifically, Scottish) values that also sought to embed itself in some of the universities.

Traditions and background of academic staff

10Current research highlights the extent of the Scottish influence on universities in South Africa in the early colonial period. In 1916-1917 the future heads of the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, both graduates of Edinburgh, had dominated a statutory commission decisionmaking structure (Philips 2003: 126). Similarly, in the early stages of the South African College (later to become UCT), 40% of professorial academics were graduates of Scotland’s four universities, a figure that was to increase by 10% soon after the South African College assumed university status (Philips 2003: 124). This partly explains the phenomenon of ‘strong Scottish accents being heard at the senate meetings at the University of Cape Town in the early days’ (Philips 1993). In a similar vein, the point is made about the extent to which the background and experiences of the academic staff shaped curriculum development and the academic structure generally within the universities (Philips 2003).

11By the mid-20th century, there were five fully fledged universities and one university college each with their specific missions and serving different linguistic sections of society. One of the central threads that had woven the English and Afrikaans speaking institutions (including the existing SANC) together was the promotion of colonial traditions, symbols and images that subsequently began to embed themselves in the respective universities on the eve of the apartheid system.

Universities under apartheid

12In the period immediately following the assumption to power by the National Party (NP) in 1948, four further existing colleges were granted university status, namely the University of Natal in 1949; University of the Orange Free State in 1950; while Rhodes and Potchefstroom were granted university status in 1951. At this stage, the SANC, became a constituent college of Rhodes, and its name was changed to that of the University College of Fort Hare.

  • 7 For example, the Native Urban Areas Act of 1923 that had laid down the principle of residential seg (...)

13From the 1950s, drawing on existing segregation practices7 that had started to characterise South African society in the early part of the mid-20th century (Omer-Cooper 1987), the NP set about formalizing these into a policy framework underpinned by the principles of scientific racism. The latter argues that there is a biological basis to the intellectual attributes of individuals, aggregated as population groups, which in turn establishes the thesis of racial hierarchies of superiority and inferiority (Anthias & Yuval-Davis, 1992). One of the starting points for this policy had been the promulgation of the Population Registration Act of 1950 that established four racially-based categories, namely: Whites, Coloureds, Blacks and Indians. These racial categories became the institutional mechanisms for steering the public and private lives of South African society in a strictly fragmented and hierarchical fashion, with education being a key site for ideological reproduction. In 1959, the Extension of University Act, No. 45 was promulgated. The purpose of this Act was two fold. It prohibited the established universities (UCT and Witwatersrand) from admitting students from other ‘race’ groups. Second, it established separate university colleges for the official social categories of Black, Coloured, and Indian. Within this framework, six university colleges were established to further serve the four population groups. These were the University College of Zululand (Black), the University College of the North (Black), the University College of Durban-Westville (Indian), and the University of the Western Cape (Coloured); while Port Elizabeth and Rand Afrikaans University formed in 1964 and 1966 respectively, were reserved for those categorized as White.

14From the late1960s onwards, in an environment of political repression as well as rapid economic growth (Nattrass 1990: 14) a shift from a primarily racial (albeit not exclusively, given the relative admissions flexibility outlined earlier) to an ethnic-based policy framework oriented mainly towards the category Black developed. Ethnicity as defined by Anthias & Yuval-Davis (1992) is based on ‘historical, territorial and cultural origins that social groupings use to construct a collectivity’. Between the 1970s and 1980s the application of this approach culminated in the NP government using the existing historical configurations to advance ethnic rule within a framework of the Bantustan-Homelands political administration (for the category Black) and a Tricameral parliamentary system (for White, Coloured and Indian categories). As a consequence of this policy, five ethnic-based institutions were established for the designated category Black. These were Transkei (1977), the Medical University of South Africa (1978), Bophuthatswana (1980), Venda and Vista (both 1982). This brought the total number of universities by the mid-1980s to twenty-one.

  • 8 This comprised of five structures for the category Black and one for each of the categories Coloure (...)

15In line with the National Party’s apartheid ideology, the university system was governed and funded by eight different structures, each with their specific funding formulas and conditions depending on where the university was both structurally and geographically located.8 In accordance with the separate development policies, white and black institutions were subject to central and decentralized structures, respectively. In addition to differentiated governance structures and the monitoring of academic staff appointments, the NP also regulated the admission of students to what subsequently became four racially–based university sectors. The earlier pattern of admissions (at UCT and Wits) of small numbers of black students with English language competency as well as the ability to pay fees, had continued within the framework of an apartheid–based permit system.

16The isolation and separation of the ‘races’ became a matter of public policy that impacted on all sectors including that of universities (Oosthuizen 1981; Davenport and Saunders 2000). As noted earlier, the function of these universities had been to preserve and promote the cultural identity of each ethnic group. What is instructive for this article is that the racial clusters of universities had separate missions all of which began to articulate with the overall apartheid context. These were tied to the principle of leadership training that enabled each population group to remain closely in touch with its habits, ways of life and views (Behr 1978: 137, cited in Oosthuizen et al. 1981). Effectively, the knowledge process in the Black, Coloured and Indian universities was geared to the production of graduates that would articulate primarily with its immediate locale, context and ethnic group. By contrast the English-speaking institutions, had a wider societal mission, going beyond the borders of the white community in South Africa. This process was further enhanced by the foreign backgrounds of academics in some of these universities.

Traditions and background of academic staff

17Race–based policies were also reflected in the academic staff profiles across the four racial clusters, with a preponderance of white academics in all universities across the ethnic divide. In this regard, there was continuity (from the colonial period) in the profiles of academics at the older and newly established white institutions, insofar as the (academic) staff were white at all levels of the academic hierarchy. Gwala (1988) has argued that the majority of the academic staff appointed at the Black/ Coloured/Indian universities in the early period of apartheid had been academics with strong Afrikaner ties acquired through their training at these institutions. At the newly established black universities, white and a small number of black academics predominated at the senior professorial and lower levels, respectively. This racial shape was influenced partly by the fact that the selection committees in the recently formed black universities were largely white (Oosthuizen et al. 1981: 63).

1910-1994: A contested period in terms of control over the shaping of the university system in South Africa

18The period between 1910 and 1994 was marked by contestations in terms of control over the shaping of the university sector in South Africa. Each of the ‘waves of establishment’ (that had culminated in twenty-one universities) was characterized by specific political and economic conditions as identified earlier. While each of these conditions was marked by their specificities, the respective governments steered the universities in ways where the type of knowledge produced would enable graduates to articulate with different sectors of the economy, state and civil society, albeit in a hierarchical fashion. This hierarchical pattern of knowledge was also replicated in terms of the emphasis that was placed on teaching, research functions and the development of scientific fields of study (Centre for Science and Development 1992; Badat et al. 1994; Wolpe 1995; Sehoole,1996). The old racial hierarchical principles within a colonial/ Eurocentric/white/Western framework became the foundational basis on which the university sector was fashioned. Effectively, the architecture of the system inherited by the democratic government in 1994, was, in the words of the Minister of Education, Prof Kader Asmal, of an ‘apartheid imagination’. The question of how the democratic government sought to steer the sector is the subject of the next section.

Universities in the first decade of democracy (1994-2004)

  • 9 Under democracy, the higher education sector includes universities and the old institutional type c (...)
  • 10 See Footnote 2.

19Following the democratic elections in 1994 the constitutional initiative took effect, culminating in the Constitution of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996) whereby ‘race’ is not constituted as a key criterion for the functioning of a society. Several legislative frameworks have arisen from the constitutional imperative and of note are those directed at steering the higher education sector from a racially fragmented to a more unitary one.9 One instrument for steering the higher education sector has been the adoption of the White Paper (1997) that had as a focus an instrumentalist social function for higher education premised on the principles of equity and redress. Following the promulgation of the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997, the state regulated the sector via the National Plan for Higher Education (NPHE, 2001). The latter highlights several policy goals, one of which is restructuring the size of sector. At the time of writing this article, certain universities, especially those that had been established at the turn of, as well as during, apartheid, have merged.1010 Another systemic reform is the transformation of the academic staffing profile of institutions in ways that reflect the diverse democracy. This reform as introduced by the Education Ministry (as per the NPHE) for academic staff is also being reinforced by the implementation of the Labour Ministry’s Employment Equity Act of 1998 that aims to achieve equitable representation in all occupational categories and levels in the South African workforce.

20The aforementioned historical background of the sector and its relationship to certain dimensions of the academic profession over a period spanning almost a century, begs the question of institutional responsiveness at the levels of recruitment and research practices. In light of this, the paper now draws on the empirical data from the research study, first by way of presenting the data and then by analyzing some of the emerging themes. In instances where the empirical base has some resonance with the international arena of higher education, this will also be addressed.

Recruitment of academic staff

21One area investigated in the research study is the nature of the recruitment process, including aspects such as the integration of the Equity policy, the role of selection committees and the criteria used in the process.

Integration of the Equity policy into the selection process

22An overview of the data shows a general awareness on the part of all respondents of the importance of the Equity policy with steering and oversight occurring at the central (in the case of three sites) and faculty (in one site) levels. In this regard, the data reveals that institutional responsiveness to the new legal framework of Equity varies between a high form of central management of the process to, investing ‘trust in the self-steering capacities of academics as long standing and socialised professionals’ to make the decisions (Enders 2001: 6). It may be worthwhile noting that both forms of ‘steering’ (or, of management) have their weaknesses insofar as the highly centralised (and, bureaucratic) approach interferes with traditional and autonomous forms of professorial power and as such may generate resistance. Similarly, management at the faculty level poses problems. Given the racial legacy of the professorial base, traditional notions of autonomy could be invoked (at the faculty level) which then assume the form of resistance to the new policy imperative. More specifically though, the effect of the policy reform could be that pressure is placed on the current cohort of (white) academic staff in relation to aspects of job security and tenure. In both instances there are inherent contradictions and tensions in relation to trust and legitimacy, which may partially explain the qualitative difference in the responses to the question. For example, the responses of the white respondents were either procedural (‘we follow the policy of the university’), or had traces of the standards/excellence dilemma. By contrast, most of the black respondents, more specifically in two of the sites and partly in one other, tended to take personal responsibility and offered responses based on the imperative of implementing Equity. In this regard, dynamics associated with the selection committees were highlighted.

Composition of selection committees

  • 11 Historically White University.

23In four sites respondents outlined the structure, permanence and historically constituted nature of the selection committees. In recounting experiences of these committees respondents cited the important role of Deans, Heads of Departments as well as senior level professorial academics with lengthy institutional histories, in these processes. One of the recurring themes in the data revolves around the ‘long-standing membership of these committees which effectively means that they are closed to newer entrants’. As revealed, in practice, although there are ‘once-off nominations’ (which then brings in senior black academics), the composition base comprises ‘largely senior white male academics’. There is a perception that given the low number of senior black academics who qualify to be members of the selection committees, the ‘issue of recruitment and selection of black academics may be jeorpardized’. The implication here is that by having a senior black academic in the selection process, there is a stronger likelihood of black candidates being considered. As mentioned, the importance of this revelation is that in the absence of an individual (black and senior) champion who could cut across the stereotypical bifurcated (black/lower standard) discourse there is a perception (among the black respondents) that the existing (white) academics ‘may exercise some reservation around the assessment of the black candidates’ credentials’ especially as this applies to competence at a senior level. It was emphasised that ‘it is not that the black candidate may not be short listed (or possibly selected), what is at stake is the level at which the candidate will be considered in light of the (racial) stereotypes at work’ (Prof. at a HWU11). This brings into question the criteria deployed in the process.

Criteria used in selecting candidates

24The general criteria used in the selection process for permanent (tenured) positions are driven by a long standing policy document from 1974 (the Main Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Universities) which states that a ‘University Teacher should hold a four-year degree with either a doctorate or equivalent status in intellectual leadership in a particular profession’. There are indications from the data to suggest that this general and open policy (from the old order) tends to be institutionally reconfigured. Similarly, there are also indications that as the pressure began to build in terms of the Equity imperative, so the benchmark for qualifications began to shift. As a result, in the current climate with new entrants to the profession, there is increasingly more emphasis on holding a doctorate. This emerging key criterion comes into conflict with the current shape of academic staff qualifications’ insofar as not all of the professoriate holds doctoral degrees. Thus, what is an international trend (the increase in the qualifications’ benchmark) is given a racial slant culminating in the common perception among black respondents that ‘with black academics entering the profession, the goal posts begin to shift’. Having signalled some elements and dilemmas around the formal criteria, the more important aspect is about the form of the discussions and debates that mark these meetings.

25The answers (from those with direct experience of the selection process) to the question regarding the application of the criteria yielded two sets of responses. The first set focused on the need for the appointment of high quality academics who excel in their field of study. In this vein, it was noted that it is not ‘enough to appoint academics because they are black but it has to be because they have academic excellence’. Asecond set of responses yielded the extensive rationalisations that have to be marshalled in order to ‘justify that the credentials of the black candidate measures up to the standard of excellence’. Clearly, the discourse of ‘black’ immediately conjures up the question of ‘excellence’.

26An overview of the data shows that one of the key areas where the legacy plays itself out is in a discourse that tends to be fraught with racial paradigms of thinking. There are perceptions that much of the discussions revolving around the selection of the best candidate are beset with racial dichotomies. The debates within these processes tend to usher in a plethora of dichotomies some of which include that of equity/merit; capacity building/professional development; lack of quality/excellence. What happens is that the left and right sides of the binary refer respectively to black and white academics. In other words, there is a racial conflation between on the one hand, notions of quality and whiteness; and on the other between that of capacity building and blackness, as the following quotation shows:

When diversity and deracialisation issues come up, the discourseimmediately turns to the lowering of standards (Prof. at a HWU).

27Similarly, in all the sites, with (black and coloured) respondents who had not been directly involved in the selection process, there are perceived traces of the stereotype proffered as the ‘lowering of standards’. Within this racial framework the white candidate is perceived to embody a higher standard. Consequently, the former is perceived as an equity appointment denoting tokenism whereas the latter is perceived to be based on meritocracy. It may become increasingly difficult to conceptually dislodge this binary thinking based on a racialised epistemology given the fact that the latter (arising from the colonial and apartheid periods) has structurally embedded itself across all sectors of South African society. This culminates in the perception on the part of the senior level black respondents that quality and the lack thereof are automatically associated with the left and right sides of the binary.

28In one of the sites, the assessment of the occupational criteria for a specific level of appointment, attempts to invert this racial binary when approaching the qualifications and experience aspects of the criteria. In this regard, it was noted that in the ‘first instance emphasis is placed on the merit of the black candidates’ credentials assessed in conjunction with opportunity potentials’.

For me equity is crucial, I would first look at the black person, look at merit, and then I will shift support. If there is only one person (and the person is white) who can do it then that is fine. But we all need opportunities to grow, the same as me, if I did not have opportunities, I would not have grown and developed to this (Prof. at a HWU).

29From the above, the argument would be to measure the merit aspect of the credentials with that of the provision of opportunities. The crucial point would be to make a judgement (using the evidence at hand) on how the potential of the candidate could be further developed through the provision of opportunities.

30Of further interest is that the white respondents do not frame their responses in terms of ‘race’. In other words, aspects of recruitment criteria and job suitability are discursively articulated in an ‘objective’ and deracialised way as being linked to notions of universal standards and meritocracy. In other words, the latter is not perceived to be linked to any form of social bias that arises out of the historical structures (such as race, class or gender). By contrast, the black respondents frame their responses in terms of the ways in which the (racial) context has shaped the nature of the candidates’ credentials placed before the selection committee. There is a sense in which the two views are diametrically opposed.

The application of different standards in the recruitment process

31In three of the sites, white respondents stressed aspects of uniformity in terms of applying the public criteria and the need to subject the candidate’s credentials to the universal specifications of ‘quality and excellence’. By contrast, the black respondents cite inconsistencies and in fact, less uniformity in the application of the criteria. There are strong perceptions that the specification of ‘quality’ is stretched, at times to the limit, when seeking alignment with the credentials of the black candidate. In other words, it is a harder case, as the following quotation shows:

You have to justify why you appointed a black person, you have to show that the best committee made the decision, that the highest standards were set, that the person made it and now you can justify it (Prof. at a HWU).

32There are perceptions that differential standards are applied when assessing the competencies of black and white academics at the level of selection. As outlined earlier, given the existing shape of the qualifications of the professoriate, the perception is that the doctoral criterion being applied to new entrants has traces of ‘differential standards being applied to black and white candidates’, resulting in some form of anomie.

33It may be worthwhile to divert from the research sites and cite an appointment ‘event’ that resonates with the aforementioned perception around differential standards in the selection process. This approach was stark in a recent recruitment debacle concerning the appointment of a senior administrator of a newly merged institution. The latter was the result of the incorporation of historically black and white institutions. In the appointment process it was evident that the preferred candidate although perceived to be lacking in the requisite academic credentials was nonetheless selected despite the presence of two candidates with higher academic credentials. For example, the latter had outstripped the former in terms of the number of academic publications, yet the overriding criteria on the part of the former had been strong business competence. From this, the evidence suggests that scholastic merit continues to remain subordinate to the primacy of colour/ whiteness (Seepe 2004). Furthermore, there are indications that the argument raised in favour of the preferred candidate is the issue of the alignment of traditional (white) norms and practices embodied in the preferred (white) candidate with that of the hegemonic constituency (white) of the merged institution (Jansen 2004). What is interesting for the purpose of this article, is that while two institutions, both of which are products of the colonial and apartheid political projects, were to be incorporated into one institution, the interests of the white constituency took priority over that of the black. Appointments are becoming an increasingly contested area, a process further fuelled by an emerging managerial cultural creep that stresses business acumen over academic credentials especially at the senior administrative level.

Research practices: competition for time and value

The nature and process of research

34A further area of investigation was the general nature, processes and dynamics involved in meeting research demands at the micro-level. All respondents cited the constant tension between managing teaching loads and the increasing pressure around conducting research. More specifically, in one of the sites, there was a concerted effort on the part of a senior-level white informant to ‘develop ways for inexperienced staff to participate in existing research team-based activity’ which was factored into the allocation of teaching loads. However, in another two sites, four of the (senior-level) black respondents perceived the allocation of workloads to be done in such a way as to ‘limit the time that one has to conduct research’. In light of this, two of the (black) respondents felt that ‘they had lost out between four and seven years’ which – in their words – effectively worked against their research passion and productivity. In both instances, respondents cited a perceived lack of support and disinterest on the part of their peers at the faculty level. Clearly, the historical conditions of social separation as outlined at the start of this article tend to delimit the nature of academic interaction and traditional forms of collegiality. Ultimately, these conditions also determine the individual’s approach to managing the tension between teaching and research. The latter remain competitive partners in (among other things) financial resources as well as academic staff’s career intentions (Enders 2001: 17).

35A second set of responses in terms of research activity focused on the contestations around ‘what constitutes research’. There was a view in two of the sites about the need to challenge traditional measures of research output. The need for a reward system for research arising from discipline– and field-related policy processes was also mentioned. On a deeper level, there was a strong perception from two senior-level black respondents in one of the sites that higher value is accorded to a research and curriculum focus that has a Western and Eurocentric underpinning than is accorded to that from an African orientation. This approach partially arises out of the traditions and background experiences of academics as highlighted earlier. More specifically, this view is in harmony with the argument that universities in the South are very much tied to the (research) models and agendas that arise from the North (Altbach 2003). In other words, the emphasis on Western epistemologies and methodologies in the South arise very much from the Northern dominated norms and values with the former ultimately seeking validation from the latter (Altbach 2003: 4). However, there are certain racial specificities arising from the historical context.

36One area where the white superiority/black inferiority dichotomy is manifest is in terms of the different points at which knowledge production unfolds. The data suggests that there is an unconscious acceptance of the ‘white norm’ as being dominant, regardless of whether this carries with it a muted approach to the generation of new knowledge. It was mentioned that:

  • 12 Historically Black University.

It does not matter whether the white person is not contributing to the overall pool of knowledge; the contribution is valorized, which is less the case with black academics (Prof. at a HBU12)

37In other words, there is an apparent embodiment of quality/standards/ excellence in white academic staff in contrast with that which operates for black academics. This dominant theme runs through the data for all sites including the historically coloured site. The legacy is such that in all four universities, the interactions (at the level of academics and students) between on the one hand, white and on the other hand, coloured and black; as well as between coloured and black are perceived to be marked by an Ethnocentric attitude premised on the binary racial framework identified earlier. This informs notions of what constitutes research, with, in certain instances topics being defined by the ‘white, western, male hegemonic norm’. For example, in one of the sites, it was mentioned that the research focus of Indigenous Knowledge Systems had taken a long time to be recognized when the voice that carried it was a black. However, when a white voice carried it, there was a perception that it was ‘recognized a lot quicker’, despite the white voice possibly and potentially not having the required competence and skill. On other hand, as noted, when the black voice carried the topic, public criteria were marshaled such as the extent to which the topic is ‘academic enough’ and the:

Extent to which there is sufficient evidence to show that the proposed topic has drawn on the available literature (Prof. at a HBU).

38There are strong perceptions that this (scholarly criterion) is not the case when assessing the validity of the research topic when it is carried by the white voice. As mentioned by one of the respondents, there tends to be a tacit assumption that if a white person carries the topic that ‘with a bit of panel beating of the topic here and there, that it should be fine’. To the contrary, there is a perception that objective criteria are marshaled in terms of assessing the validity of a research topic when it is carried by a black voice. In this regard, there are also signals around dominance of (Western) forms of data collection and techniques. This phenomenon resonates with the argument that the academic systems of dependent countries are closely tied to those of the centre/metropole (Altbach 2003).

39A third set of responses focused on some of the dynamics and tensions involved in the research processes at the micro–level. From the data in all the sites this tends to be characterized by both a dominant and an emerging trend. The overwhelming trend in the data suggests that the research process is one of an individual-based activity. This leaves much leeway to academics to decide on an area of focus and then pursue the necessary funding for such a project. However, the data also suggests that there is an emerging team-based trend arising from some of the donor and state agencies’ criteria which emphasizes proposals that are based on group or collective expertise. The latter trend suggests a greater degree of public accountability in relation to both the content and the process of research. This shift from a private (individualized) to a more public (team-based) approach to research (Scott, 2003) is an international trend that is occurring simultaneously as South African society transforms from one that was racialised and fragmented to a more diverse and unitary one. In light of this, black and white academics are under pressure to reconfigure old patterns of work (research) arrangements in ways that are more inclusive and publicly accountable.

Concluding comments

40In setting out the historical development and growth of the university sector in South Africa in the last century, this paper has identified the colonial and subsequent apartheid influences and the attendant ideologies. From the empirical data, these conditions to some extent shape the nature of the academic practices both in relation to recruitment as well as research. To this end, several cross-cutting themes emerge.

41The first relates to the strong white power base of structures that continues to embed itself in the universities that have formed the focus of this study. This racialised and genderised power base is mediated by elements of occupational rank and seniority. This base has both colonial and apartheid signatures arising from the two historical periods. While there are specific discourses for each period, these tend to fade into each other as they began to imprint themselves on the academic practices. Consequently, a decade later, a notion of European hegemony is used synonymously with that of ‘white supremacy’ making (in the words of one of the respondents) the ‘colour of knowledge white and either, English or Afrikaans’. The content of this statement resonates with some of the earlier points made in relation to the contestations around the hegemony of English and Afrikaans over that of the indigenous languages. This brings me to a second theme, namely the dominance of Western norms and values that permeate aspects of the data. As shown at the start of this article, the historical traditions and background of academic staff fashioned their approach to knowledge in these universities. It is therefore no accident that the principles of a Western and Eurocentric academic system nest themselves within these practices. As noted earlier, this is an international trend (Altbach 2003). The third theme, has already been extensively discussed, namely that of the application of differential standards that emerges at the points of both the selection of new candidates as well as the peer review process of research topics. The fourth theme identified is that of a racially-based discursive trend.

42As identified earlier, there is a tendency for black and white respondents to discuss the ‘race’ issue in a somewhat parallel way as was signaled through the thin and thick dimensions of the data. In light of this, there are traces of contradictory discourses insofar as the majority of the black respondents openly engaged in how ‘race’ informs the daily practices. By contrast, there tends to be some silence on the part of the white respondents. From this, there are indications to suggest that there is some form of polarization between white and black academics, with much variation among the different sites. More importantly, the racial stereotypes and binary forms of thinking occur in both historically white as well as the historically black sites. Within the former, the binary is between white and black (including that of coloured), whereas in the latter, it is between white and black as well as within the black category, between coloured and black/African. With regard to the latter, the democracy has inherited both the colonial and the apartheid ethnic debt.

43The historical analysis shows that black and white universities were constitutive parts in the formation of the colonial, then the apartheid and, currently the democratic political discourse. Each of these discourses has, and continues to be, shaped by global pressures. In this process, academics with subject positions that also arise from their institutional authority (Foucault 1974: 50-55); dialectically, diametrically and persuasively construct the intellectual discourse. In the current context of political transition and its attendant instability, the intended policy reform of deracialisation, could have the unintended effect of a reracialised and in fact, polarized discourse. The latter assumes significance in the context of market-like behaviour and heightened competitiveness, which internationally is contributing to much instability and uncertainty in the academic profession (Enders 2001: 20).

44By way of conclusion, there exists an enormous intellectual policy challenge to unhook the binaries creating a South African institutional environment and culture in which a new generation of scholars across colour, gender, class and nationality can feel welcome. The ultimate test is when outcomes of decisions regarding the best candidate for the job and promotions are seen on their own terms rather than being linked to these identities. Similarly, there should be scope for thriving research partnerships that can critically and scholastically rise to the challenges of a global knowledge-based society.

Haut de page


Asmal (K.), 2000, Putting passion back into academia, Sunday Times, 5 May.

Altbach (P.), 2003, The decline of the Guru: The Academic Profession in Developing and Middle – Income Countries, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Anthias (F.) and Yuval-Davis (N.), 1992, Racialized Boundaries: Race, Nation, Gender, Colour and Class and the Anti-Racist Struggle, Routledge, London.

Badat (S.), Barron (F.), Fisher (G.), Pillay (P.), Wolpe (H.), 1994, Differentiation and disadvantage: the historically black universities in South Africa, Cape Town: Education Policy Unit, University of the Western Cape (EPU, UWC). Report for the Desmond Tutu Educational Trust, a joint project of the University of the Western Cape and the National Education Co-Ordinating Committee.

Badat (S.), 2005, Transforming South African higher education, 1990-2003: goals, policy initiatives and critical challenges and issues, In: National policy and a regional response in South African higher education, ed. by Nico Cloete et al. Oxford: James Currey, pp. 1-50.

Centre for Science and Development, 1992, Workshop on Research Cultures in the historically black universities, Workshop Report, Education Policy Unit, Cape Town.

Council on Higher Education, 2001, Annual Report 2000/2001. Pretoria.

Council on Higher Education, 2004, South African Higher Education in the First Decade of Democracy, Pretoria.

Davenport (T.-R.-H.) and Saunders (C.), 2000, South Africa, A Modern History, 5th ed. Macmillan, London.

Department of Education, 1997, Education White Paper: A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education, Pretoria.

Department of Education, 2001, National Plan for Higher Education, Pretoria.

Enders (J.), 2001, Between State Control and Academic Capitalism, in Academic Staff in Europe: Changing Contexts and Conditions, J. Enders (ed), Greenwood Press, USA.

Foucault (M.), 1974, The Archaeology of Knowledge, London, Tavistock.

Jansen (J.-D.), 2004, How far have we come? Mail & Guardian, 13 August.

Liebenberg (B.-J.), The National Party in Power, in CFJ Muller (ed.) Five Hundred Years, A History of South Africa, Academica, Pretoria.

Mabokela (R.-O.), 2000, We cannot find qualified blacks: faculty diversification programmes at a South African University, Comparative Education,36 (1): 95-112.

Murray (B.-K.), 1990, Wits as an ‘open’ university 1939-1959: Black admissions to the University of Witwatersrand, Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 16, p. 649.

Nattrass (N.) and Ardington (E.), 1990, The Political Economy of South Africa, Oxford University Press, Cape Town.

Omer-Cooper (J.-D.), 1987, History of Southern Africa, David Philip, Cape Town.

O’Meara (D.), 1983, Volkskapitalisme 1934-1948, Ravan Press, Braamfontein, South Africa.

Oosthuizen (G.-C.), Clifford-Vaughan (A.-A.), Behr (A.-L), Rauche (G.-A.), 1981, Challenge to a South African University: The University of Durban Westville, Oxford University Press, Cape Town.

Philips (H.), 1993, The University of Cape Town 1918-1948: The Formative Years, University of Cape Town Press, Cape Town.

Philips (H.), 2003, ACaledonian college in Cape Town and beyond: an investigation into the foundation(s) of the South African university system, South African Journal of Higher Education, 17 (3): 122-136.

Sehoole (T.) (undated) Building Research Capacity in Universities, unpublished paper, Education Policy Unit, Cape Town.

Seepe (S.), 2004, Colouring the evidence. Mail & Guardian, 13 August.

Scott (P.), 2003, Challenges to Academic Values and the Organisation of Academic Work in a Time of Globalization, Higher Education in Europe, 28 (3): 295-306.

Thaver (B.-M.), 2003, Deracialising universities: reflexive conversations, South African Journal for Higher Education, 17 (3): 144-151.

Wolpe (H.),1995, The debate on university transformation in South Africa: The case of the University of the Western Cape, Comparative Education, 31(2), 275-292.

Haut de page


1 The terms white and black remain in current usage in the policy discourse in the first decade of democracy, this time with a lower case. When used in the upper case, the terms denote official classification as per the Population Registration Act of 1950. The author does not agree with these apartheid labels, but nevertheless uses them for the sake of clarity and out of necessity to refer to the different ways in which the state designated social groups and how these labels take on the form of identity markers under democracy.

2 In the reconfigured landscape, each of the remaining four universities was merged with the old institutional type referred to as Technikon.

3 This project is part of the Education Policy Consortium Research Project, an initiative funded by the Swedish and Dutch governments.

4 Comprising three historically white (two English and one Afrikaans-speaking) and one historically black (coloured) university.

5 The term black in the lower case (as per the Employment Equity Act of 1998) is used in the generic sense to refer to black/African, coloured and Indian.

6 Such as the Mines and Works Act of 1911; the Black Labour Act of 1911 and the Land Act of 1913.

7 For example, the Native Urban Areas Act of 1923 that had laid down the principle of residential segregation and the Mines and Works Act of 1911 that is also referred to as the Colour Bar Act.

8 This comprised of five structures for the category Black and one for each of the categories Coloured, Indian and White.

9 Under democracy, the higher education sector includes universities and the old institutional type called Technikons. This article only focuses on the originally established university sector.

10 See Footnote 2.

11 Historically White University.

12 Historically Black University.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Beverly Thaver, « The Reform of the Academic Profession in South Africa in the Context of Historical Legacies and Global Pressures », Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs, 5 | 2006, 147-168.

Référence électronique

Beverly Thaver, « The Reform of the Academic Profession in South Africa in the Context of Historical Legacies and Global Pressures », Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs [En ligne], 5 | 2006, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2012, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

Haut de page


Beverly Thaver

Faculty of Education, (Acting) Director, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Western Cape, South Africa.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme