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.
ATTITUDES TO THE EDUCATION SYSTEM
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.
VALUE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
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
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.
ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
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.
RESTRUCTURING HIGHER EDUCATION
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
- Mergers will result in improved qualifications and a standardised
approach to qualifications
- Merger between institutions will lead to a "cross-pollination
- 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.