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Transformation impossible: policy, evidence and change in South African higher education

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A quarter of a century after South Africa’s transition to democracy, the rhetoric of ‘transformation’ remains firmly ingrained in its higher education policy and discourse. In many of the reviews, reports, proposals, and frameworks on the transformation of the South African university system, one thing stands out: an oversupply of rhetoric and a dearth of empirical data. This article is a direct response to how infrequently data has been used and seeks to reveal the actual quantum of change, albeit with a focus on an admittedly singular element on the transformation spectrum but one which nevertheless preoccupies South Africans: equity (or race). The evidence presented in the paper shows that the absence of a clear articulation of transformation, accompanied by a lack of indicators and targets to track progress over time, hinders the progression of the discourse to equally important dimensions of performance such as efficiency, success and productivity—all of which are critical in determining the university’s role in national development. The paper goes on to show that based on the data available, the public university system in South Africa is transforming given the increases over time in the number of black students and staff. However, without a clearly articulated idea of what constitutes change, one cannot claim a transformed system, and the political narrative of no transformation is likely to prevail.

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Source: 2010–2016: CHET; 2017 & 2030: Presentation by DHET to Parliamentary Portfolio Committee, 20 August 2019

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Source: HEMIS micro-data (2019)

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Source: HEMIS micro-data (2019)

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Fig. 6

Source: HEMIS micro-data (2019)

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  1. Note that data on population size is included only to illustrate that the rate of growth for public universities has kept pace with population growth; this is not to suggest that the public university system should mirror the country’s population demographics. In fact, public universities are a relatively small sub-component of the larger higher education system, with other sub-sectors growing to absorb larger number of the country’s young population.


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The authors thank the Department of Higher Education and Training for making available the HEMIS data which were used for the analyses in this paper.


This work is based on research supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (grant number 91488).

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Correspondence to François B. Van Schalkwyk.

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Van Schalkwyk, F.B., van Lill, M.H., Cloete, N. et al. Transformation impossible: policy, evidence and change in South African higher education. High Educ 83, 613–630 (2022).

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