Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

Time for black women to lead in higher education

Time for black women to lead in higher education
File photo: University of Cape Town graduates. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The fact that females now comprise more than half of all doctoral graduates cannot, as a metric on its own, be considered ‘transformation success’ if African female participation in particular remains low.

The recent release of the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) report on recruitment, retention and progression of black (African, coloured and Indian) South African academics by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has opened a window of opportunity for the higher education sector and the country as a whole to have honest conversations about transformation. The report has pulled together interesting insights on key aspects of higher education including building (or lack of) a pipeline of black researchers, the academic staff and rank profile of each university, conditions of service and progress in terms of institutional and sectoral strategies aimed at equity and redress. 

However, the key insight, which the MTT noted as its most important observation and recommendation, was the extent of racism and sexism in higher education and its effect on alienating black women in particular. It stands out for me because black women must overcome societal patriarchy and socioeconomic barriers just to progress in higher education and once they’ve “made it”, they still have to overcome racism and sexism. 

It is tempting to berate the higher education system, but before we start making proclamations it is important to look at the contextual detail and draw meaning from the MTT findings with particular focus on African and female representation and progression in higher education.

African and female participation in higher education 

The MTT notes a significant increase in African and female doctoral graduates over the years. In 2017, females made up 53% of all doctoral graduates and this aligns to national population demographics as women make up 51.1% of the total population. However, there is an obvious misalignment in terms of race as Africans, for example, account for 80% of the population but only accounted for only 34% of all doctoral graduates whilst white people make up 7.9% of the population but accounted for 50.3% of all doctoral graduates. 

What this reveals is that although we should be happy with progress in terms of female participation at doctoral level, it appears that it is mainly white females who are showing a substantial increase in participation at this level over the years. Data collected five years earlier by researchers at the Centre for Higher Education Trust (CHET) and the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) shows that the proportion of African doctoral graduates increased from 8% to 17% between 1996-2012. Despite this substantial increase in African graduates, the national participation rates of Africans at doctoral level remained very low when one uses another metric – the number of graduates per 100,000 of the population of those aged 30  to 49

If one uses this metric we find that in 2012 there were 3.61 African graduates per 100,000 for the 30-49-year-old population category compared to 63 white graduates per 100,000 of the same age category. This means although African doctoral graduates increased substantially from 1996-2012, white participation at doctoral level was 17 times higher than that of Africans. When you dig deeper and look at females in the same age and population category, participation for white females was 50 times higher (100 graduates per 100,000) than African females (2.37 graduates per 100,000).

We now know from the MTT, CHET and CREST  datasets that the proportion of African graduates increased from 17% to 34% between 2012 and 2017 but we don’t have comparative data over the same period on participation rates (number of graduates per 100,000 of age-relevant cohort) across race and gender as MTT didn’t use this metric. However, unless there have been major population changes in the share of African males/females and white males/females groups in the 30-49 year population category over that period, then African and female doctoral participation rates are likely to remain comparatively low despite increases in African and female doctoral graduates over the years.  

The fact that females now comprise more than half of all doctoral graduates cannot, as a metric on its own, be considered “transformation success” if African female participation in particular remains low. We need to understand the increases in female doctoral graduates over the years in terms of their relative proportion to the total population in terms of race and age-relevant cohort. This is important because if transformation has progressed well in terms of gender representation, it must translate to higher participation rates for the dominant population groups (African, coloured and Indian) in the country. 

Interestingly, the MTT report also found that the dearth in participation of black females at doctoral level translates to the post-doctoral and even professorship levels. In 2019, females comprised only 34% of National Research Foundation (NRF) rated-researchers, with white females being the dominant race group within the female rated-researchers’ category. When one looks across all five NRF rating categories across race and gender, the pattern is bleak; white males dominate most rating categories, followed by white females and then black (African, coloured and Indian) researchers crop up at the lower end of the rating spectrum. It is almost as if change in the post-1994 era means the baton passes from white males to white females and then (eventually) to black males and females. 

White dominance of academia

In short, white academics continue to dominate higher education. In 2017, white academics made up 47% of instructional and research staff despite making up less than 8% of the total population. The percentage share of white academics is particularly high in former white-only institutions such as Stellenbosch University, University of Pretoria and Rhodes University (where white academics comprised 77%, 76% and 70%, respectively) with the opposite being true for former black-only universities. When we look at gender, white female academics account for approximately the same percentage (25.3%) of instructional and research staff as African, coloured and Indian female academics combined

Furthermore, if one looks at rank, over 50% of white academics have professorship whilst around 48% of African academics were junior lecturers with less than 20% of Africans being professors. Similarly, coloureds had the lowest proportion share of professorship, with the majority of coloured academics holding positions of junior and lecturer positions. In terms of gender, nearly 60% of all males are professors whilst only 30% of all females are professors.  

What this data tells us is that we have a dual challenge: increasing the participation and progression of black academics generally, but equally if not more important the participation and progression of black females in academia. 

How should higher education address this dual challenge?

The MTT makes a number of recommendations, including the development of “fit-for-purpose” financial packages to recruit, retain and progress black and female academics This is very important as workload and insufficient time to conduct research remain the biggest barriers to the successful advancement of black academics. Junior lecturers, who are likely to be black and female, have the burden of high teaching loads, which prevent them from pursuing and completing doctoral degrees (which in turn gives them the licence to advance and be respected as academics).   

Transformation targets are also particularly important for former whites-only institutions. However, without a conducive culture for change, transformation targets are unlikely to be met and if they are, exclusionary practices will still remain. Without a conducive environment, it will always remain difficult for black and female academics to succeed in academia. As such, the MTT’s recommendation around punishing or penalising institutions that don’t meet transformation targets is very important. However, we need to learn from other sectors of society; the “naming and shaming” of private sector companies, for example, has not really changed the demographic make-up of senior management in that sector. 

As such, we need to link transformation targets to institutional funding just like we link research outputs, enrolment and graduation targets to funding. We need to introduce incentives for institutions that set transformation targets and meet them and the opposite should happen for those who don’t meet the targets. This can include the introduction of a “transformation incentive grant” (based on recruitment, retention and progression of academics in relation to race, gender and disability and other indicators) into the current norms and standards of funding and this grant should carry sufficient weighting in the state subsidy component. If we don’t do this, transformation will be at the whim of the same institutional racism and sexism that the MTT highlighted as predominant in higher education. 

Furthermore, transformation cannot only be viewed from an access lens; transformation goes beyond just access – it encompasses progression of black and female academics to senior academic rank and leadership of universities. We have seen a gradual change in the race profile of vice-chancellors (VCs) at some historically white institutions such as the universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Pretoria and Johannesburg, but only one of these VCs is female. We need to give black females who have excelled in their fields of research leadership opportunities, but even more importantly we need to build the cadre of black female academics so that the pool is much wider for females to take over leadership positions in academia. 

As the MTT rightly notes, we cannot hope that transformation will “just happen”. It has to be intentional and targeted. The report provides a defining moment for higher education to cross the Rubicon and let Black females lead in higher education. DM/MC

Khaya Tyatya is an education practitioner and a PhD candidate in the education faculty of the University of Johannesburg. Views expressed are his own.


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