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This article is taken from the September 2002 Phatlalatsa newsletter


Public Perceptions of higher education

S&T partner Matthew Smith is one of South Africa's leading education researchers, and reports here on some recent research projects he has been involved in.

Higher Education institutions are seldom out of the news at present. If it isn't one camp within an institution suing another camp, then it is certain groups within the sector decrying the Minister of Education's latest plans for the system. Those not directly involved in these skirmishes may well be wondering what is happening to higher education in this country and what effect this will have on South Africa's ability to continue to produce quality graduates?

In order to begin to get a sense of what the public really think about the system at present, S&T was commissioned to conduct 5 Focus Groups for the Washington-based American Council of Education and the Pretoria-based Centre for Higher Education Transformation.


South African society, as suggested by the focus groups, clearly values higher education and feels strongly that the system should be given more support than it currently receives. Indeed, the focus group findings suggest that South Africans are not as unhappy with universities and technikons as the popular press would have one believe. The discussion below focuses on what participants feel about the value of higher education, explores some of the perceived weaknesses of higher education and what the participants feel government should do about these problems, and finally summarises what participants had to say about the Minister of Education's proposed plans to restructure higher education in this country.

Olsen argues that globally there is a growing disenchantment amongst the public with regards to higher education. In particular he has noted that public support for higher education (in terms of both political and financial support) has declined, largely as the result of a perception within society that the quality of the outputs produced by the higher education system are not what they used to be. All in all Olsen paints a grim picture of how relations between higher education and society have soured to such an extent that the system should not be left to its own devices. Higher education is no longer seen by society as autonomous and is now seen as playing an important role in providing services to contribute to economic growth in this country.

Whilst there is no denying that restructuring of higher education in this country is a reality, and significant changes have happened in the system since 1994, to this long-time observer of South African education, there has been a significant decline in support for education over the last five years. The focus groups support what Olsen and Gumport (cited in Cloete 2002) have found internationally, namely that higher education is perceived by much of the public as an industry; one which sells products which customers are either satisfied with or not.


Higher education is perceived by many, especially the community, as the solution to a number of social problems: job provision, the eradication of poverty and ultimately of crime, and a preventative method against the spread of AIDS. Business people maintain that tertiary education undoubtedly enables people to think and approach things 'differently' and equips people with the tools to develop themselves further. Despite this, there is a concern that higher education is unaffordable to the majority of South Africans.

Students feel very positive about the quality of the education they are getting in South Africa, pointing out that the quality is as good as anywhere else in the world: 'if you draw comparisons, we are using the same textbooks as the Ivy League Universities in America'. They also feel confident that they are well-equipped to take up employment anywhere else in the world.


Major weaknesses in the system, according to participants, revolve around the poor school system, and the failure of the system to prepare students adequately for the 'world of work'.Lecturers feel that it is becoming increasingly difficult to teach, as school-leavers do not have the skills that lecturers expect they will have.This is partly because many institutions are now committed to catering to previously disadvantaged students and thus are allowing access to increasingly weaker students. Business people concurred with this view, and believe that efforts should be made to improve the overall quality of education at school level in order to better equip students for tertiary education.
Many felt that because studying further was all about acquiring market related skills, university degrees are regarded as too theoretical, with not enough emphasis placed on the practical side, whereas technikons are perceived to be more 'balanced'. Some community members were of the opinion that technikons are more specific to a particular vocation (e.g. plumber or electrician) whereas at university (BA degree for example) you 'focus on sitting behind a desk'.

Social problems were also seen to have impacted on higher education. Students do not always feel safe on campus, describing it as 'dangerous' and mentioning theft (particularly of cell phones) as a problem. Community members made a direct link between poor quality education and kids turning to crime. Parents feel that if they were somehow more directly involved in the running of higher education institutions they could exert more control over rebellious students, and that the social life of students should be more closely monitored.

Business people, who maintain that they have developed close ties with tertiary institutions, feel that the quality of graduates is poor and that many of them are not equipped with skills that industry requires. It was suggested that universities be more selective and stringent about entrance requirements in order to address this problem.


There is a strong sentiment (particularly amongst the community and business people) that the government is not doing enough to educate the people of South Africa. It is regarded as the responsibility of government to firstly, spend more money on education and secondly, create the jobs so that people can utilise their qualifications. Government corruption was identified as a major obstacle to the provision of education to all.

Another policy issue that the groups focused on was the role of HDIs in the system. Many were of the opinion that it is the responsibility of government to ensure that HDIs "catch up" with the more "reputable institutions". The community were also of the opinion that HDIs served a useful purpose, primarily because 'a number of black professionals, such as teachers, doctors and lecturers, have emerged from such institutions, hence promoting the image of black people as competent professionals'. Business people were more sceptical about the role of HDIs, being concerned about the 'quality' and 'calibre' of graduates form HDIs, they felt that graduates from these institutions are in no way comparable to other more established and better resourced universities. On this particular issue, council members felt that this perception of poor quality has come about as a result of a government that has not fulfilled the expectation that HDIs would be supported as part of the broader transformation process currently ongoing in South African society.


Not surprisingly, the Minister of Education's proposed plans to restructure higher education generated much debate. Students and the community understand the motivation for wanting to merge (efficiency and cost-effectiveness) but, because people do not know enough about exactly what the mergers will entail, they are sceptical about the outcome. There is an enormous amount of uncertainty generally surrounding mergers as people do not know what to expect.
In summary, arguments against restructuring were as follows:

  • Rationale for mergers unclear
  • Institutional identity and academic quality will suffer, which will ultimately lead to "Academic drift"
  • Human costs (e.g. job losses) will be high
  • Financial costs to merge multiple institutions into a single school will be high
  • Mergers should only happen when everyone agrees, otherwise 'one is really talking about a hostile takeover not a merger'

And summarising arguments for restructuring were as follows:

  • Brings resources together
  • Mergers will lead to a better balance between the practical and the theory
  • Mergers will result in improved qualifications and a standardised approach to qualifications
  • Merger between institutions will lead to a "cross-pollination of ideas"
  • Merger institutions will be more efficient
  • Mergers will lead to more funds available for fewer institutions


The above supports the global view put forward by both Olsen and Gumport that many in society view higher education as offering an important service to industry. Whilst participants, were generally satisfied with the delivery of the services by the system, they felt there were several areas that the system could improve. In most people's eyes they felt that these improvements could come about if government were to drive these improvements. Interestingly, a healthy higher education system was seen by participants as important for contributing to the alleviation of many of the current problems in South Africa including both HIV/AIDs and poverty. Higher Education, whilst often maligned in the popular press, is clearly still seen to be of enormous value to society in this country.


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