Nov 1 2011

Education can reverse South Africa’s inequality, according to UCT Vice-Chancellor

In a recent LSE lecture, University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price showed how inequality remains prevalent in South Africa despite the end of apartheid in 1994.  

After decades of inequality for blacks* in South Africa under apartheid, there were high hopes of a reversal when the government led by Nelson Mandela was elected in 1994. Sixteen years later, have those hopes been fulfilled or dashed? Is inequality truly a thing of the past?

That was the theme of the lecture at LSE delivered by the Vice-Chancellor of University of Cape Town, Dr Max Price on Monday 24 October.

In terms of income equality, Dr Price revealed that whites are less wealthy relative to black people than they were during apartheid. However, intra-race inequality among blacks has increased.

The richest 10 % of the population continue to earn 60% of income, while the bottom 55% earn 8% of the national income.

More than 50% of people in that top decile are black as compared to a third in 1995. This movement is mostly due to modestly-educated people, formerly in the middle bracket, who have been able to move into roles restricted to them pre-1994. The Black Economic Empowerment policy of increasing black ownership of businesses could also be a factor.

However, those in the lowest deciles of South African society – mostly poor people in rural areas – have not been able to take advantage of the jobs that have opened up.

Post-apartheid South Africa has seen a dramatic increase in social grants handed out by the government, according to Dr Price. In 1993, government grants made up 10% of income, while by 2007, it had shot up to 73%.

These are generally awarded to means-tested individuals. Recipients of social grants are limited to single mothers, old people, the disabled and foster parents.

Social grants contribute to incomes all the way to the eighth decile, while in the first five deciles, social grants make up 50% of the income. The poverty line lies at the sixth decile.

In 1993, only a fifth of all households received social grants, in 2008, it was half of all households. For the government, there was 140% increase in real per capita social spending from 1997 to 2011. This compares with the per capita growth of 70%.

However, grants have not lifted people above the poverty line because even if one person in a household receives a social grant, there may be four or five others not earning anything so the per capita household income remains below the poverty line.

Elsewhere the government has spent huge amounts on education and health, pursuing an active pro-poor policy. However, there has not been as much investment in the housing sector, particularly in the rural areas.

The South African economy is desperate for people who are well-educated. Despite great investment, the quality of education has still not improved as much as it could have. Dr Price concluded his lecture by expressing the hope that LSE and UCT through their institutional partnership could work to improve the level of education.

During the eighties and nineties, the policies of the World Bank and many African governments led to an emphasis on primary and secondary education and, as a result, the standards of tertiary education declined.

“During this period of 1980s – 2000s, most academics left the continent and not many will return at this stage of their lives,” Dr Price told Africa at LSE.

LSE Director, Judith Rees and UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price

There has been an about-face on this policy since 2000 which leaves many universities on the continent facing a unique situation.

“The big challenge, everyone recognises, is to develop and raise the quality of academics,” Dr Price said.

“After the brain drain, there weren’t mentors and supervisors to educate the next generation.

“The big challenge now is to develop Masters and PhD programmes, especially PhD programmes, aimed at people who want to make a career in academia.

“That is where the partnerships and collaborations can help.”

UCT is widely regarded as the best university in Africa and over the past fourteen years, it has built collaborations with eight African universities including the likes of Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta University and Uganda’s Makerere University which features PhD sandwich courses, giving students at these institutions the opportunity to spend some semesters at UCT.

This scheme has already reaped some reward.

“So far, we have produced 50 graduates as faculty members,” Dr Price revealed.

“There is only one not working on the continent and almost all in their home countries.”

During his visit to LSE, Dr Price and LSE Director, Judith Rees signed an agreement for PhD exchanges.

This will give two PhD students at LSE each year an opportunity to spend a semester at UCT and vice versa.

“Extending the partnership to LSE is very valuable because for most students and faculty members, it is very important to get some international experience, to meet other academics and to form networks that will last them into their academic careers and research careers,” Dr Price emphasised.

“It’s being able to spend some time while doing their PhD or even doing a sabbatical at a place like LSE.

“It enriches the programme, it enriches them. They will also gain access to expertise that is otherwise not open to them.”

Watch Dr Max Price’s LSE lecture

*In his lecture, Dr Max Price  was keen to point out that race was being used in his lecture as a social construct. Therefore, the use of blacks in his lecture and this article refer to coloured, Indians and the ethnically black South Africans.
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