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MDGs and gender equity in higher education in South Africa.


Modern universities are no longer just another tier in the education system. Colleges and universities in the developing world are fast transmuting into agents and engines for development (Ismail, 2008), and not merely centres for higher education (Du Pre, 2009). Overall, they have become vehicles for poverty reduction, employment creation, and socio-economic development (Turmaine, 2009). However, South African universities' impact on gender-specific development at the local level is yet to gather momentum. As a measure of their influence within their communities, this paper proposes the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The authors specifically argue that universities of technology (UoTs) have the greatest capacity to stimulate community-driven development including gender parity. Moreover it is argued that UoTs' relevance is contingent on their support for the attainment of MDGs. The first part of the paper considers the concept of UoTs within the South African context. The second discusses implications of MDGs in gender and development. Finally, a conceptual framework illustrating the relationship between UoTs and MDGs is presented followed by discussions and concluding remarks.

The South African Higher Education Sector

The South African higher sector consists of 23 public universities (11 traditional universities, 6 comprehensive universities, and 6 universities of technology) and 94 privately registered colleges and institutes. Combined enrolment exceeds three-quarter of a million students (Council on Higher Education, 2009, 2009b). In the recent past, the sector has undergone rapid transformation (Du Pre, 2009). Of these the most notable is the creation of Universities of Technology (UoTs) (Council on Higher Education, 2009b; Higher Education South Africa, 2007).

Universities of technology (UoTs)

UoTs were developed from the mergers of various Technikons (or polytechnic colleges) and universities (Du Pre, 2009). In total there are 6 UoTs in South Africa, namely the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Central University of Technology, Durban University of Technology, Tshwane University of Technology, and Vaal University of Technology (Council on Higher Education, 2009b).

Despite their fewer numbers, statistics suggest UoTs as most active in addressing equality in the sector (see Table 1). According to the Council on Higher Education (2009b), UoTs come closest in achieving the South African population racial profile with 77% African, 11% white, 8% coloured and 4% Indian students.

Turning from racial equity to gender equity, UoTs also contributed significantly to increased participation of women in higher education (Turmaine, 2009.; Zeigler, 2001). In this regard, an initiative championed by UoTs was a shift in students' admissions policy, particularly the 'Recognition of Prior Learning' (RPL). Through RPL, universities consider non-university training and work experience as admission requirements in lieu of academic qualifications (South African Qualifications Authority, 2003; Zeigler, 2001). Consequently, RPL helped improve UoTs enrolment, especially, among women (Du Pre, 2009). In a society where women have limited formal education, RPL becomes a strong driving force for women participation in 'higher' education. One such example is the Tshwane University of Technology Business School; it admits candidates with a National Diploma (or Matric + 3 years' educational qualification) and minimum 5 years managerial experience into their MBA programme (Tshwane University of Technology, 2007). Such a move has increased women's enrolment at TUT Business School.

Overall, UoTs are skill-oriented and readily recognise the value of work experience. Thus from a developing nation's context UoTs are better equipped at dealing with gender parity and subsequently, poverty alleviation at local levels. Of all other institutions, they are most flexible, most receptive of new technologies and innovations, and most in touch with society. It is against this background that this paper argues that UoTs' relevance within their communities will be secured by aligning themselves to education related MDGs (Turmaine, 2009). In view of that, the next section discusses the MDGs within the context of higher education in developing nations.

Millennium Development Goals

In 2000, the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals as a framework for addressing world poverty as well as fostering peace and prosperity (United Nations, 2008). MDGs outline specific goals and objectives intended to be achieved by 2015 (United Nations, 2000). MDGs span across numerous themes, but this article focuses only on education related goals--MDG No. 2 and MDG No. 3 (Turmaine, 2009):

MDG 2: "Achieve universal primary education--ensure that children everywhere will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling."

MDG 3: "Promote gender equality and empower women"--and the subtitle: "Eliminate gender disparity in all levels of education."

MDG 2--Achieve Universal Primary "Education for All" and Higher Education

This goal encourages 'all' children to complete, as a minimum, primary education. The implication for the education sector, particularly at the primary level, is to provide an environment that not only supports learners to enrol and but to motivate them to complete their studies. The rationale of MDG 2 is that primary education is instrumental in various facets of socio-economic development (Turmaine, 2009). These as:

1. Primary education is a platform for further education.

2. Primary education addresses literacy numeracy skills (Harrison-Walker, 1995).

3. Discipline as well as good citizenship are influenced and subsequently formed at primary school.

But, what does all this have to do with universities? Everything. 'Higher education' is concerned with MDG No. 2 in numerous ways. Consider the following:

1. The education sector despite superficial differences (e.g., primary, secondary, or tertiary) is still one sector with one agenda--educating a country's population.

2. Primary and secondary schools' teacher training is the responsibility of UoTs.

3. University research has direct consequence on lower level education (e.g., Research conducted in the Faculties of Education).

The Education Sector is a holistic system that incorporates primary, secondary, and tertiary education

Many developing nations consider primary, secondary, and tertiary education as different sectors. But, these differences are superficial. There is evidence supporting a holistic system as universities are increasingly conducting adult literacy programmes (Gust, 2006), which were 'traditionally the domain' of primary or secondary education (Council on Higher Education, 2009b). Secondly, because the ultimate objective of education is to improve the welfare of the population, the different sectors are complementary and not necessarily disjointed. If one sector fails, the other sectors will also fail. Consequently, the quality of higher education is dependent on the quality of education at lower levels, the Council on Higher Education (2009b) explains:
   ... because of the poor quality of school-leavers coming into the
   system, universities are burdened by having to provide remedial
   teaching to address gaps in school level education and to develop
   basic literacy and numeracy skills.

While it may be necessary to demarcate the administration of the various sectors of education, the purpose and objectives of education still remain the same. In this sense, it ought to be considered holistically.

Teacher training is the responsibility of UoTs

School teacher training is the responsibility of higher education. In South Africa, the former Technikons or UoTs are charged with this duty. While on the one hand, the quality of school leavers has direct bearing on education at universities, the opposite is also true. In contrast, the nature of teaching at institutions of higher learning, for instances in teacher training programmes determines the quality of teachers and indirectly, their teaching at primary as well as secondary education. If teachers receive sub-standard training, surely their performance will most like be mediocre. This eventually leads to a vicious cycle of education mediocrity (Figure 1).


In order to break this vicious cycle, universities need to develop ingenious strategies. The implication, thereof is redirecting university research attention to addressing the most basic problem of primary "education for all."

University research has direct consequence on lower level education

University research has direct and indirect consequences on all educational levels. Prince et al. (2007) found that research supports teaching and the teaching practice. Numerous education related theories applied in education today, such as motivation, psychology, student psychology, and classroom management have been developed through university research. Likewise, research can also be directed at improving primary school teaching.

MDG 3--Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women: Eliminating Gender Disparity in All Levels of Education

In laymen's terms MDG 3 can be summarised by two common English axioms: (1) Educate a man and you educate an individual ... Educate a woman and you educate a nation and (2) deny a man education and you deny an individual ... deny a woman education and you deny a nation.' Due to discriminatory policies of yesteryear the black South African girl-child continues to suffer twofold; first, as a woman and second as a person of colour. Thus, the spirit of MDG No. 3, "Promote gender equality and empower women," seeks to redress this situation.

Evidence across the disciplines suggests strong correlation in socio-economic development and women upliftment programmes. For instance, microfinance programmes targeting women (e.g. Grameen in Bangladesh and SEF in South Africa) have proved to be more successful. Thus, if such initiatives were supplemented by a robust educational system, the potential for improvement would increase exponentially.

The traditional university system, however, has not fully recognised this potential. If a critical number of women acquire skills and education, they will invariably increase their participation in economic activities and wage employment. Subsequently, these women will in turn encourage their children to go to school; they will become more knowledgeable; they would increase their participation in self-development activities. Essentially, education stimulates virtuous spirals (Mayoux, 1999). Against this backdrop, therefore, universities may contribute to this MDG by (1) acknowledging the challenges faced by the girl-child, (2) designing programmes that are sensitive and appropriate to the specific needs of women, and (3) once educated, women increase their chances of securing employment in institutions of higher learning were they may spearhead programmes that promote gender equity.

Some Advances In Higher Education With Respect To Gender Parity And Women Development

Turmaine (2009) reports of 3 case studies in which higher education has made strides in gender parity and women Empowerment, with much success. These are Costa Rica, Zimbabwe, and Kenya/ South Africa. While the latter programmes were not initially designed to address MDGs, they very well may provide useful direction for incorporating MDGs. The following sections outline some of these initiatives.

Costa Rica

The Centre for Research in Women's Studies at the Universidad de Costa Rica developed a model that specifically addresses some of the challenges faced by women in Costa Rica. The university corroborated with various international universities in research aimed at designing curricula appropriate for women, whose initiatives included:

1. recruiting more women in the university

2. encouraging women researchers to participate in gender-based research

3. developing inclusive and non-sexist curricula

4. designing postgraduate programmes on gender and intra-family violence

The model has since served as a pilot programme for the Latin America region.


The Women's University of Africa was founded in 2002; the university enrols mostly women in both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes ranging from agriculture to reproductive health studies. Its employee recruitment policies favour women, and to date a number of key positions including the Vice Chancellor and Deans of Faculties are held by women. Because women are significantly represented in the student and staff populations, the university has contributed immensely to the welfare of the girl-child. Moreover, it has transformed the Zimbabwe's higher education landscape by stimulating gender parity through increasing access to higher education. With increased access to education, women will in turn be able to fulfil leadership, social, political, and economic roles (Mayoux, 1999).

South Africa & Kenya

The South African and Kenyan case studies follow-up to the Gender, Education and Development project, whose aims were to investigate effective and efficient education-related poverty alleviation strategies. The two countries were selected as case studies. The scope of the project included consultations with stakeholders (government, primary schools, NGOs, churches, and other public entities).

While examples are numerous, these three appear to be the most successful in the context MDGs. Now having discussed UoTs and MDGs separately, the discussion turns to how UoTs can better participate in MDGs.

The Model for UoTs' Participation in MDGs

Evidence presented hitherto suggests that there is room for MDGs in higher education. As already indicated, MDGs present an interesting opportunity for UoTs (Du Pre, 2009; Turmaine, 2009). By aligning themselves to the specific education-related objectives, UoTs could develop a niche that ultimately may define their relevance both locally and globally, today and even beyond 2015. In this paper we have developed a model that potentially may define UoTs' participation in the MDGs, as depicted in Figure 2 below. The elements of the model directly stem from the constructs of UoTs.

Revisiting the concept of a university of technology, three fundamental and unique aspects emerge. These are (a) industry, (b) community engagement, and (c) technology (Du Pre, 2009; Higher Education South Africa, 2007). A careful balance of these three results in an interesting convergence point, which Shambare and Nekati (2009) call an ecosystem (Figure 1). The concept of ecosystems is adapted from biological sciences, in which an ecosystem denotes a "biotic community within a specified physical environment to stimulate both synergies and symbiotic relations. These relations ensure the flow of energy and life (Pickett & Cadenasso, 2002). Transposing the latter to a university setting involves combining learners and experts from diverse disciplines in order to stimulate learning and the flow of knowledge, which includes forming partnerships with industry and the community (Shambare & Nekati, 2009).


In the context of MDGs, UoTs leverage networks among industry, technology transfer, and lower level education (Fig. 1). By including women in networks, UoTs may prove instrumental in women empowerment as well as gender parity. Consequently, the following implications apply to various departments of universities:

Faculties of education and teacher training

If teachers are not well and adequately trained and if the training programmes are not adequately designed, lower level education suffers, which ultimately affects the entire sector. Therefore, students and faculty should be encouraged to direct research into the specific needs of their communities. Overall, cooperation between universities and lower level schools must be enhanced.

Faculties of Engineering

Engineering schools can be solicited in the development of ICT-based products that fit the needs of basic school children, help teachers, and for the improvement of the learning environment.

Faculties of Social Sciences

These faculties could also be engaged in research in the practice of pedagogic, which might also assist adult literacy programmes.

The above may assist the attainment of the objectives of universal primary education and gender equality. With increased UoTs' participation in the implementation of education-related MDGs, gender parity as well as women empowerment can be stimulated. With increased research, discussion in the area will be stimulated by providing a forum for sharing best practices in education. Above all, because of their adaptability, UoTs present themselves as collaborative partners for attaining education-related MDGs, which will ultimately stimulate poverty alleviation and socio-economic development.


Council on Higher Education. (2009a). Higher education in South Africa. Pretoria: HESA.

Council on Higher Education. (2009b). The state of higher education in South Africa. ZA: Higher Education Monitor.

Du Pre, R. (2000). Universities of technology in South Africa: Position, role and function. Johannesburg: Vaal University.

Du Pre, R. (2009). The place and role of universities of technology in South Africa. Bloemfontein: Durban University of Technology.

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Higher Education South Africa. (2007). Technology transfer and diffusion: Capacity and potential in South Africa's public universities. Pretoria: HESA.

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Pickett, S. T. A., & Cadenasso, M. L. (2002). The ecosystem as a multidimensional concept: Meaning, model, and metaphor. Ecosystems, 5(1), 1-10.

Prince, M. J., Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2007). Does faculty research improve undergraduate teaching? An analysis of existing and potential synergies. Journal of Engineering Education, 96(4), 283-294.

Shambare, R., & Nekati, B. (2009). Knowledge ecology and knowledge ecosystems at a South African university. IAABD, Kampala; Uganda.

South African Qualifications Authority. (2003). Criteria and guidelines for the implementation of recognition of prior learning. Pretoria: SAQA.

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Turmaine, I. (2009). How should, could higher education be better involved in education-related MDGs? International Association of Universities.

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Zeigler, B. (2001). Some remarks on gender equality in higher education in Switzerland. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 21(1/2), 44-49.

Richard Shambare, Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa
Table 1. Enrolment by institution type

                African    Coloured    Indian

UoT             107,581    11,004      5,065
Comprehensive   233,214    18,569      25,152
Universities    135,973    19,496      22,379
Total           476,768    49,069      52,596
                (63%)      (6%)        (7%)

                White      Total

UoT             15,188     138,912
Comprehensive   73,314     350,624
Universities    91,961     271,554
Total           180,463    758,896

Source: Council on Higher Education (2009b)
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Author:Shambare, Richard
Publication:International Journal of Management and Innovation
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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