South African universities must do more to tackle staffs’ race and gender imbalances

At the advent of South Africa’s democracy in 1994, an overwhelming majority of academics in the country’s public higher education institutions were white men. Black South Africans (a group consisting of those designated as Indian, Coloured or African under apartheid) constituted 89% of the overall population. But they made up just 17% of the academic workforce.

The situation was similar for non-academic employees like managers, administrators, and service and technical staff.

The higher education sector, like everything else in South Africa, needed to change to reflect the non-racial, non-sexist values foregrounded from 1994 and enshrined in the constitution two years later.

The National Commission on Higher Education published a report in 1996 that outlined how such shifts could happen at the country’s 21 public universities (there are 26 public universities today). New policies and legislation were formulated to codify institutional change.

Nearly 30 years on, how has the staffing situation changed – or not – at South African universities? The Council on Higher Education, an independent statutory body which performs quality control assessments for the sector, wanted to find out. The council asked us to investigate this issue as part of a broader review of the sector (our submission starts on page 146).

Our findings reveal that staffing at public higher education institutions remains polarised in terms of race and gender. The composition of the workforce still doesn’t reflect the country’s demographics. White men continue to dominate.

The pace of change is frustratingly slow. There are a few likely reasons for this. One is that the higher education sector reflects many other parts of South African society, including the wider economy. Race and gender disparities are not unique to the sector.

It is crucial to address staff employment inequities in public higher education institutions. The sector’s political, social and economic value is fundamental in a diverse society that aspires to inclusivity.

Genuine diversity is critical for teaching and learning, too. Research has shown that students benefit enormously from being at universities with diverse teaching staff. They can learn both from those who share or have shared their social and economic experiences, and those who do not.

Key findings

The period under review was 1994 to 2019. Our findings were drawn from two data sets: the Department of Higher Education and Training’s South African Post-Secondary Education data, dating from 1994 to 2002; and Higher Education Management Information System data from 2003 to 2018. This was supplemented by secondary data and other information acquired through literature review and document analysis.

Here are some key findings.

  • There have been gradual increases in the numbers of all previously marginalised groups (women, black Africans, Indians and Coloureds) in academic staff. However, white men remain the dominant group, especially in the professorial rank. They account for 67% (2,086) of academic staff at a professor post level. The proportion of black African academic staff at the professor level doubled, from 8% (196) in 2000 to 19% (602) in 2018.

  • There have been significant shifts in the professional support staff category. In 2002, white people accounted for 67% in this group; black Africans accounted for just 22%, while the Coloured and Indian categories were 5% each. In 2018, the proportion of white professional staff declined to 35%, black African staff increased to 41%, Coloured staff increased to 16% (785) and Indian staff increased to 8%.

  • The non-professional administration staff workforce is the most transformed. For example, 66% of professional and administrative support staff are black African and female; [51% of](,households%20are%20headed%20by%20females) South Africa’s national population is female.

  • The black African majority are still under-represented within the executive and senior management echelons. Black Africans make up 37% of the people who hold executive and senior management positions despite constituting 80.9% of the country’s population. Of all the executive and senior managers in public higher education institutions, 45% are women, although women make up 51% of the total population.

By 2018 black Africans made up 58% of the total workforce in this category. The white population group remained over-represented at 20% while its share in the overall population of the country was about 7.8%. The representation ratios of coloureds (17%) and Indian (7%) in non-professional administration staff were also above their proportional representation in the overall population of South Africa, which is at 8.8% and 2.5%, respectively.


There are several ways to speed up the pace of change in university staffing.

Sector-wide mentoring programmes could provide support and guidance to early-career academics. This would help them to navigate the academic landscape and develop their skills. These programmes should be tailored to address the particular challenges faced by women, black African academics and disabled individuals.

Talent management strategies are needed to prepare emerging scholars. Promising academics must be identified and nurtured so they can advance to senior positions.

Universities also need strategies to attract and retain under-represented groups. This will help to improve gender and racial parity.

On paper, these strategies are already in place at many universities. But they have a fundamental flaw: they’re not intersectional. Racial and gender discrimination do not happen in a vacuum. They intersect with other forms of discrimination.

Mentorship, retention and support programmes at many South African universities tend to focus solely on fostering gender and racial equality. They may not adequately address the complex and intersecting challenges faced by individuals belonging to multiple marginalised groups. Meaningful, lasting change in the country’s university staffing structures requires a far more integrated approach.

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