A discussion of higher education in South Africa must begin with a retrospective look at how the university system was constructed, considering the powerful impact of segregation and Apartheid on the educational opportunities of South Africans at the tertiary level. The establishment of the South African College at Cape Town in 1829 for people of European descent marked the beginning of tertiary education in South Africa. During the nineteenth century, a number of secular and religious institutions of higher education were established in South Africa to serve the interests of the Europeans who resided there. The provision of higher education for Europeans was accelerated after the formation of the Union of South Africa to provide equitable training for both the English and the Afrikaaners. The University Act was passed in 1916, the same year the Joint Matriculation Board was established to design the matriculation curriculum and regulate examinations for entry into university. The board members were invariably drawn from among the white representatives of provincial, university, and other educational authorities. In 1918 the University of South Africa was established with its six constituent colleges.
Over the next 40 years new universities came into being, increasing the likelihood that Europeans would remain in power over the indigenous population, since the majority of university offerings were available only to whites. In 1955 control of European education was divided between the union government and the provincial legislatures, with the provinces governing primary and general secondary education and agricultural and teacher training colleges while vocational and technical training at the secondary level and higher education were placed in the central government's hands. The Vocational Education Act, also passed that year, placed tertiary education under the control of the Ministry of Education, Arts, and Sciences. In 1965 the University of Port Elizabeth was established, offering instruction in English and Afrikaans. Two years later, the Rand Afrikaans University opened. UNESCO figures from 1968 showed that after the United States, South Africa had the second largest number of white university students per 100,000 inhabitants in the world. At the time 30,000 students were enrolled in the segregated English language historically White universities alone while only 3,000 Africans studied in all the historically black universities put together. Before the demise of Apartheid, 11 universities in South Africa served predominantly white students. They were, as divided according to the language of instruction: five Afrikaans universities (Stellenbosch, Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Orange Free State, and Rand Afrikaans); four English language universities (Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Natal, and Rhodes); and two bilingual universities (Port Elizabeth and the University of South Africa). Several segregated colleges for advanced technical training also were created, mainly in the major urban areas, preparing students directly for work and offering a wide variety of programs in the agricultural sciences, commerce and industry, public service, military, and health sectors. Job reservation laws passed in the mid-1950s protected most of these professions for whites and ensured the employability of graduates of these programs.
The idea of higher education for Africans was first hatched around 1880 in the eastern Cape by James Stewart, head of the Lovedale Mission Station of the United Free Church of Scotland. Stewart was the first to forcefully articulate the need for an institution, run on Christian lines, that would provide university education for Africans. He garnered support for his idea from the churches, government, business, and some African leaders, notably John Tengo Jabavu (founder of Imvo zabantsundu, "African Opinion," an isiXhosa newspaper) and the Reverend Walter B. Rubusana. In 1916 the South African Native College at Fort Hare (across the river from Lovedale) was opened as the first university for Africans south of the equator. The college was subsidized by the government of South Africa. Like the secondary schools in the country that served as feeder institutions to the university, Fort Hare became a university of African leaders in east and southern Africa, producing in a single generation the heads of state of Botswana (Sir Seretse Khama), Lesotho (Dr. Ntsu Mokhehle), Uganda (Professor Yusuf Lule), Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe), and South Africa (Nelson Mandela). Many of the first cabinet ministers appointed after independence in Kenya, Malawi, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zambia had been educated at Fort Hare. Before 1959, all of South Africa's English language universities, referred to as the "open universities," had admitted in all disciplines a small number of African students and others who were not of European descent. In 1950, a medical faculty for Africans, including those of mixed and Asian descent, was opened at the University of Natal, becoming the only medical school to admit them following their exclusion from the other open universities until the segregated Medical University of South Africa was founded. The University of South Africa continued to admit an increasing number of Africans who could not raise enough funds or otherwise afford to attend a residential university.
Self-governing status was granted in the mid-1970s and early 1980s to the territories of the Transkei, Ciskei, Venda, and Bophuthatswana, and three new ethnic universities were built for these newly "independent countries:" the University of Transkei, originally a satellite campus of Fort Hare later taken over by Ciskei; the University of Venda, similarly set up under the University of the North; and the University of Bopthutswana. Vista University was established with campuses in South Africa's sprawling dormitory towns in the segregated African townships around Johannesburg, Pretoria, Benoni, Port Elizabeth, and Bloemfontein to accommodate urban Africans the government had wished to pretend did not exist.
Now that the Apartheid system has ended, the imbalances in tertiary education across racial groups created through the unequal education system of the Apartheid years are being addressed but will be difficult to correct. The official languages of instruction at the tertiary level, for example, are English and Afrikaans, the two principal languages of the European colonizers, yet many South African students speak an alternative mother tongue. Figures for the mid-1990s released by South Africa's Human Science Research Council (HSRC) showed that even with the demise of the Apartheid system, groups describing themselves as white accounted for 85 percent of all university graduates in South Africa, despite the fact that their proportion as a percentage of the population was no more than 15 percent. The impact of the segregated educational system established under white majority rule and the Apartheid years has been enormous. The HSRC survey indicated that by the mid-1990s the unemployment rate in South Africa hovered around just 2 percent for white graduates of tertiary institutions but was nearly 25 percent for black tertiary graduates.
Statistics from the Ministry of Education released in August 1999 show that a growing number of South Africans are opting to study at technikons rather than universities, a phenomenon that may be attributed to a variety of factors including the vocational nature of most technikon qualifications and the lower entrance requirements at the technikons. Between 1993 and 1997, enrollments at the technikons increased by 46 percent, while at the universities they increased by only 8 percent. Overall enrollments in higher education grew from 496,000 in 1993 to 594,000 in 1997. African students enrolling at historically white institutions of higher learning rose from 41 percent to 57 percent but enrollments at the historically black universities began to fall quite considerably, causing concerns over their future viability. Private universities also have siphoned students away from the historically black universities. Technical colleges also offer postsecondary vocational training in a wide range of subjects, attracting career-oriented students and adult learners interested in improving their qualifications in marketable skill areas.
In 1998 the Ministry of Education started a process that is continuing and will take a few years to complete, namely, to incorporate colleges of education, agriculture, and nursing into the higher education system. A number of such colleges have chosen to affiliate with specific universities, thus enabling their students to earn college credits toward university degrees. Articulation among the various sectors of education is improving in South Africa with the National Qualifications Framework and the South African Qualifications Authority providing growing opportunities for cumulative learning and continuing accreditation.
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