Inclusive higher education in South Africa: not just a policy project but also an ‘ethical project’

By Professor Ruksana Osman, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Wits 1As the recent GEM Report paper showed, equitable and affordable higher education remains elusive to the majority of students from working class backgrounds.  Any deliberation about higher education policy is at once local and global – facing the twin challenge of needing to be responsive to immediate demands for educational improvement and social transformation as well as sufficiently competitive with the edge on quality and innovation.

Working here at Wits University, where protests first began in the now-globally known #FeesMustFall campaign, I offer a South Africa perspective on the story. When the country reimagined its post-secondary system, it held out the promise of access and equity for students into a differentiated system offering mobility and opportunities previously denied to the majority by apartheid. This policy reform process has proven to be a huge task generating some success but also much disappointment in different sectors of society.

Where have we come from?

Wits 2 Lynda MurrayAfter the 1994 democratic elections, South Africans adopted a progressive stance in education policy, poised to overcome the inequities of the past and lay the basis for an inclusive and globally competitive future. It is worth noting that changes in higher education policy and practice emerged in a context of wider social transformation as a whole. In addition to redressing inequities, policymakers introduced the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) aimed at validating all forms of skills and learning from a variety of sites of practice, both in the classroom as well as the workplace or community. Essentially the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) facilitated an integrated approach to education and training – a framework that was meant to overcome the deliberate knowledge and skills divide nurtured by apartheid.

These two factors – namely, a progressive policy stance coupled with a progressive qualifications framework — provided the basis for high expectations around educational access not just to higher education but also basic education. The net effect has been the doubling of the number of students into higher education from around 500 000 students in the year 2000 to approximately one million students today. One sees a similar upward trend in access to basic education. So on the score of access to education and higher education, we have done well.

Where are we now?

In recent years it has become clear that despite the progressive education policy on paper, the road ahead to realise the goals of equitable and affordable education for all is long. Some have argued that most education policy making in the post-apartheid period has been idealistic and symbolic and that the new government policy has not managed to effectively address substantive questions of equity, inclusion and educational success.

Government , in particular, still has much work to do in order to provide inclusive and affordable education. For inclusion, we need to question the pedagogical choices that we make in universities; we need to understand the instructional dynamic in different contexts and in so doing, make sure that no students are left behind in higher education in South Africa.

Instead, we see that large numbers of students graduate from secondary school with low scores, and yet all aspire to enter the best university. Options are limited; disappointment is widespread. And once they get to campus, young students are challenged by systemic and institutional defects. For example, Black students continue to struggle with learning degree outcomes, staying enrolled from year to year, and persisting through to graduation.

This strikes me as the heart of the big issues about the nature of an inclusive and good quality higher education. For instance, are the normative conventions used by us in evaluating educational outcomes based on middle class environments the only way to understand education for working class and rural communities – who are the majority of our citizenry?

Secondly, the relationship between language teaching, economic class and power needs to be made explicit. This relationship between the three is sometimes taken for granted in policymaking.  There is little doubt that the language of power in post-apartheid South Africa is English. The question is whether this fact in and of itself implies that English is enough? What are the implications of this belief for democracy, development and inclusion?

Can learning about learning level the playing field?

Wits 2What is similar across all learning contexts is the probe inside the instructional dynamic – educational research that sharpens the focus in education rather than only on education.  This means highlighting the critical roles that research and learning play in studying and understanding access and how it plays out when we admit students into universities, or when we support students to succeed in our classes.  In fact, instructional research can level the playing field and can inform and reform education in a deeper way at the structural level, something that policy cannot do by itself.  The GEM Report reminds us too about the importance of leveling the playing field so that all students have a fair chance at access and success.

Where to focus our attention next

Is this not the moment to be thinking about different ways to reframe the cannon? The recent student protests have brought to the fore not just affordable education but also decolonized education.  Mbembe as early as 2001 alerted us that the philosophical bases of what is taught in our institutions remain locked in a discourse that stubbornly refuses to open up space for new and much needed Afro centric epistemes.  Others have argued that changing the colour of university participation and representation without making the content that students learn more inclusive flies in the face of policies aimed at access.  ‘Access to what?’ is the question that many ask.

I am inspired by the policy driven approach to educational access to higher education. However, it is not enough.  In order to really move our policy forward, we need to understand what is happening on the ground – in university classrooms.  The GEM Report recommends that policies have to be reviewed regularly, and that legislative frameworks are vital for ensuring equity. We are doing well on this score. However, for government to be sufficiently responsive to the growing demands for a good quality affordable and decolonized higher education, it will require more than just good policy – it will require taking a serious look at curriculum, teaching and learning.  Inclusive higher education is a social mission, too. Inclusion must go beyond a policy project and be tackled head on as an ‘ethical project’ by governments if no one is to be left behind.

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5 Responses to Inclusive higher education in South Africa: not just a policy project but also an ‘ethical project’

  1. TCI says:

    Thank you for the excellent article. We often think of greater access to education as being important to economic growth and workforce development. These are real and important issues. However greater access to education is also an important factor for increasing political inclusion and for creating a more constructive social and political dialogue in the society. We have seen in several countries, and recently lately in the USA, the divisive effect that a significant segment of the population that has not benefited from educational resources can have on the political situation and a country’s international stature. With national educational levels being of increasing importance to the ability of the state to compete in a globalized world, local differences in access to education also give rise to different world views among the population. Improving access to education is a state’s responsibility to its communities, its national interests, and its international neighbors.


  2. Lillian C. Boit says:

    This comment is so very true, not only from the South African point of view but perhaps across the African Continent. When inclusivity is not practiced across the country, the economy makes three steps forward and two backwards. The ethics of inclusivity must be the driver for education policy creators in every country.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Inclusive higher education in South Africa: not just a policy project but also an ‘ethical project’ — World Education Blog | COMOSA Connect - Share your Open Schooling practice

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