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Transformation tensions in higher education: equity, efficiency, and development

Author: Social Research

HIGHER EDUCATION IN SOUTH AFRICA SINCE 1994 is braided into the bargain struck by President F. W. De Klerk and prisoner Nelson Mandela--both in terms of the baggage it carried and the promises it offered. When the new government came to power in 1994 on the basis of the "implicit bargain" (Gelb, 2001) reached between the National Party and the liberation movement led by the African National Congress (ANC), there was consensus in the government of national unity that higher education needed transformation. Not as clear was the nature of the tensions implicit in the compromises that had to be made and how the trade-offs would be negotiated.

In the course of 2004 many reviews of the first decade of South African democracy were published. They can be classified into two main categories: self-congratulatory eulogies reluctantly conceding a few "challenges" that need to be addressed in the next decade, and condemnatory critiques of the new government's readiness to sell out to Washington-led neoliberal globalization in order to promote nonracial class formation. In an attempt to avoid such position taking, this review aims to show that a combination of the politics of macro social and economic processes and historical legacies in higher education led to the emergence of a number of "transformation tensions." In this paper we identify some of these tensions and argue that problems have arisen because the tensions were not anticipated during the initial policy-making process.

Two related sets of tensions in the higher education sector are identified and discussed later. The transformation of higher education and the policy decisions taken to effect it fall predominantly within the tension lines of equity and development, and equity and efficiency. These are not the only tensions; there are other very important pressures such as the tension between leadership (steering from the top) versus participation, but these will not be the subject of this article. The tensions discussed do not imply a choice between the good and the bad because all the tension points are important. The real challenge is to prioritize and pay attention to what seems most urgent while not ignoring the other end of the tension line.