Higher education in South Africa in crisis
One legacy of apartheid is an educational system that is not able to meet the needs of the country's changing situation quickly enough. Linkages between South African universities and Dutch institutions including the WAU are being developed in order to improve this situation
South Africa is a very dynamic country, full of paradoxes. The transformation from a repressive regime to a democracy is full of problems, and I find it very exciting to work towards finding solutions. This statement came last week from both Wout van den Bor and Marla Naidoo, two people sitting at opposite ends of a 2.5 million guilder educational development project set up by three universities in South Africa, and two in Holland. Van den Bor, professor of Agricultural Education at WAU, heads the project management team. Naidoo is one of two recipients of a MSc scholarship offered by the project to provide higher training for South African university staff
The initiative for this project came from the University of Zululand, which was set up under the apartheid regime as an historically black university to serve the Zulu population in the east of the country. Although such products of apartheid are now being dismantled, and all universities have become open to all ethnic groups, the quality of education in the historically black universities still lags behind historically white universities in terms of quality of programmes, as well as staff development
In spite of our move away from a divisive university system, it is still very difficult to attract high quality staff to the black universities, tells Dirk Rezelman, director of the University of Zululand's Bureau for Development & Public Relations. Rezelman was in Wageningen last week to develop more community project links here
Rezelman finds that higher education in South Africa is in crisis. The current government's educational priority leans towards improving literacy and primary school capabilities. As a result, South African universities and colleges are struggling with reduced subsidies, worsening an already difficult period of transition. Rezelman explains that while the educational policies under apartheid kept historically black universities from producing graduates with strong managerial and technological skills, universities are now having to completely reverse this situation. Brain drain is another problem: Many potential teachers are either moving to higher-paid jobs in the government, or are emigrating to other countries where conditions are better.
Learning institutions in South Africa are also having problems coping with general transformations taking place. Naidoo: When I entered the University of Zululand to study for a BSc in Animal Science, all research was based on large-scale commercial farming. The concepts were very abstract for most students who came from the surrounding area, which is generally poor. Students were just looking for a way out. Van den Bor explains about rural transformations, A new phenomenon is developing: the middle class black farmer and businessman. Under apartheid, two extreme types of farms existed - the large-scale, commercial white-run farms and small-scale black subsistence farms. Universities need to find ways to help the new middle road grow. Also, appropriate learning packages need to be developed because existing agricultural textbooks no longer reflect the South African situation
Affirmative action, sometimes referred to as positive discrimination, is one policy adopted by the University of Zululand in order to reverse the lack of black higher educators. Under this policy, a black person will be hired if there are equally competent black and white candidates. But Rezelman points out one of the dilemmas of affirmative action: Is it better to hire a black person from Nigeria over a white person from South Africa? A university should remain universal, after all, he maintains, especially to avoid xenophobia.
Although Naidoo has an Indian background, she chose to study at the University of Zululand, whose main campus is in a remote area about 150 kilometres north-east of Durban. People were very surprised when I told them I was going there. They just assumed that I would go to the historically Indian university in Durban, but I wanted to go to a rural university, and it was closer to my home. At that time there were three Indians studying there, but now there are about twenty. Naidoo plans to work on developing new learning and teaching packages there after completing her MSc
Corrie du Preez, originally from Cape Town, teaches Home Economics at the University of Zululand. Five weeks before classes started in Wageningen, she heard that she'd been accepted for a MSc scholarship at the WAU. It's a privilege for me to be here. I didn't think it would happen because I'm white, but I was willing to come at very short notice. I think the fact that I've been teaching in historically black institutions for eleven years was an important factor. She adds that this chance will probably never come up again. I would have accepted it completely if a black South African had been chosen.
Multicultural setting may increase harassment
Because every culture has different attitudes and boundaries concerning behaviour, the lines between what is acceptable and what is not become blurred in a multicultural group,states Martie Wagenaar. She is one of the WAU's three personal intermediaries, along with Tineke de Boer and Henk van den Broek, who are trained to deal with confidential problems including sexual harassment or discrimination
In some cultures it is not acceptable for a man to put his arm around a woman, but being in a new setting, a woman may not dare to voice her discomfort at such an action. This is often a question of misunderstanding about the meaning behind being touched, but if a person does not feel able to speak up when s/he finds a form of behaviour unacceptable, it may lead to a problem later on, Wagenaar continues. Situations have also arisen in Wageningen where a person such as a lecturer or a student takes advantage of another person's confusion about culturally acceptable boundaries, and behaves in a more assertive way than normal
Tineke de Boer, Dean of International Students, is convinced that international students are more reluctant than Dutch students to complain about harassment, partly because it may not be as acceptable in their culture to talk about it. What we actually find out about is only the tip of the iceberg, de Boer maintains
The intermediaries are able to provide a good sounding board for complaints. Often people just need to talk about their experience, and to be taken seriously, van den Broek explains. If a situation of intimidation gets too out of hand, an intermediary can help find solutions, like approaching the offender, or in extreme situations recommending expulsion. De Boer adds, It's a real problem when an incident disturbs your work or studies. Some people end up avoiding a certain class because of a fellow student or a particular lecturer. But avoidance is not a solution. Contracts are made with permanent staff which state that the WAU does not tolerate certain behaviour. But, as Wagenaar points out, The danger lies on the margins - guest teachers or researchers may not be as careful about keeping to the rules because they are only here for a short time.
However, an offence as serious as rape falls outside university jurisdiction, and the police should be approached instead. If a person has become psychologically traumatised by harassment, then the university psychologist will be recommended
For more information, look out for the leaflet Sexually harassed? around the University