I, too, am human: South African reflections on race, “I, too, am Harvard” and other cries when being black is not enough in higher education

I, too, am human: South African reflections on race, “I, too, am Harvard” and other cries when being black is not enough in higher education

By: Gcobani Qambela* and Thoko Sipungu**

“… Indeed, when you are a marginalised individual who graduates from a PWI [Predominantly White Institution], resilience is arguably what you actually majored in.” – Aaron Talley.

In today’s society, most people would undeniably agree that higher education places one at a peculiar vintage point with regard to employability, earning potential and the subsequent lifestyle associated with working individuals who possess advanced higher education. In his Bokamoso article “ Alternative Approach to Global Ranking Tournament: Viewing South African Higher Education through a Service Lens”, Reuben Dlamini takes on the problematics of the “internationalization” of higher education as institutions of higher education vie to be ranked “world-class” and amongst the “top 100 universities” in the world.

Dlamini contends that the problematic global ranking system is not suited for the South African context because “there is no clear evidence that participating in the ranking tournament addresses any of the pertinent challenges students are faced with such as student retention, graduation rates, skills development and cost of attending universities.” According to Dlamini, because “The global ranking tournament” focuses primarily on prestige as opposed to “transforming the student experience” this system has the effect of reinforcing injustices, especially for students historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Bokamoso articles thus far on the theme of education in Africa have looked at a number of multiple stresses that affect the attainment of education for many young people at a primary and high school level including teenage pregnancies, mental health issues  and of course inability access higher education.  This week we want to reflect on race in higher education in South Africa in particular in reference to the ‘I, too, am Harvard’ and ‘I, too, am Oxford’ initiatives and how these relate to the on-campus experience for black students in higher education in South Africa.

Recently, some of the most highly ranked universities in the world garnered international attention for all the wrong reasons. This was started by a student-led photo campaign at the world’s current “no. 1” university, Harvard University titled ‘I, too, am Harvard’ which sought to highlight the experiences of black students at the Ivy League school. This campaign quickly inspired similar campaigns by black students in other prestigious and equally ranked universities such as Oxford University (‘I, too, am Oxford’) and Cambridge University (‘I, too, am Cambridge’). The common denominator in all these institutions is that they are predominantly white institutions and ranked in the top 10 global universities in most global higher education rankings.

I, too, am Harvard notes on the tumblr for the initiative that their voices as black students at Harvard often go unheard. They proclaim:

“Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned—this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.”

We choose to read these initiatives as showing the problematic aspects of international rankings and how they do not support students, as argued by Dlamini, but rather work to protect institutional prestige at a great cost to minority and non-white (and often poor) students.

While we celebrate 20 years since the attainment of political freedom, the Higher Education South Africa (HESA) presentation to the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training (5 March, 2014) on “South African Higher Education in the 20th year of Democracy: Context, Achievements and Key Challenges” remarks that although there have been remarkable strides taken to provide the opportunity of access to higher education for all South Africans, there have also been many challenges linked to the racialised history of higher education in South Africa.

HESA notes that in 1993, although blacks (encompassing “African”, “Coloured” and “Indian”) made up 89% of the total South African population, African South Africans made up just 40% of enrolments, while White South Africans (comprising 11% of the population) made up 48% of higher education. Moreover, at 43%, there were, in addition, imbalances in higher education attainment along gender. HESA remarks that “These statistics, taken together with the patterns of enrolments by fields of study, qualifications level, and mode of study, reflect the relative exclusion of black [people] and women South Africans in higher education in 1994.”

There have been significant changes that have been made since then. According to the Council on Higher Education (CHE) in South Africa, by the year 2011 black students in South Africa comprised 81% of the student body in South Africa. Yet, despite the strides taken, there are still challenges as HESA notes:

Enrolments at historically white institutions continue to reflect a lower proportion of black representation than their demographic representation, and white students remain concentrated at historically white institutions. Conversely, the historically black institutions remain almost exclusively black. Social class is a factor at play here: if access, opportunity and outcomes were previously shaped by ‘race’, they are now also (perhaps largely) conditioned by social class.

The 2012 Green Paper for Post-School Education and Training by the Department of Higher Education and training further acknowledges higher education in South Africa despite the gains made, still continues to reproduce and produce harmful inequalities along especially race and gender in terms of “access to opportunities and success.” In the 2008 Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) policy brief “High University drop-out rates: a threat to South Africa’s future”, Moeketsi Letseka and Simeon Maile express worry about some of these inequalities especially evident in the high university drop-out rate. They comment that South Africa’s university graduation rate of only 15% is one of the lowest in the world and reproduces racial inequalities for the graduation rate for white students is more than two times that of the black graduates. They state “black students are under-represented at universities, a demographic reality that promises to reproduce racial inequalities well into the future [and that] broader steps to tackle poverty and inequality are needed to address these disparities in higher education [so that lower-income students are better supported].”

What I, too, am Harvard and the other initiatives springing up from it teach us, is that top global rankings of institutions do not necessarily translate to a pleasant student experience for minority students especially those who do not have widespread racial and economic representation at the institution. The reoccurring debates about affirmative action policy at the University of Cape Town, racial aggressions at the University of the Free State and microagressions experienced by Black students at Rhodes University inform us even though these are undeniably prestigious universities; many black students struggle to make a home in them, especially those coming from low-income family backgrounds. Top rankings in the South African context would appear to benefit the already privileged while greatly disadvantaging the already marginalised who then have to be kept out to protect this prestige.

The idea that we are all free, the same and thus we should then strive for international excellence flies at the face dominant white culture in these institutions. This notion also fails to realise that the formerly white institutions “cater to individuals who academically meet white-created standards, such as high grade point averages and standardized test scores who have culturally assimilated into mainstream society, and who possess the financial resources to pay for the rising cost of education”. We thus agree with Dlamini, that South African and African higher education institutions should have a student focused orientation not with international rankings, but rather offering a full educational experience to all students.

*Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here

**Thoko Sipungu is a regular Bokamoso contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here.

Gcobani Qambela

Gcobani Qambela is a Graduate Student in South Africa with an interest in African masculinities, HIV/AIDS research and public health in general.

4 Responses to I, too, am human: South African reflections on race, “I, too, am Harvard” and other cries when being black is not enough in higher education

  1. i think it’s a difficult topic gentlemen. I agree that in a country where the majority of people are black, universities should natuarally have more black students. So it is an anomaly that this is currently the status quo in South Africa. But I think the solution does not solely rests on the shoulders of universities. the universities cannot just accept students just to reach the quotas. the universities have a duty to produce highly qualified graduates who will be able to meet the challenges of an ever changing, global society. technology is advancing at a faster pace, and science is becoming advanced each day. social sciences and legal sciences etc have to solve big societal challenges that are becoming gigantic each day. So in order for universities to produce the quality, it has to accept people who can meet the demands of higher education and who have potential to succeed. therefore training before university is crucial and I think in South Africa that is where the problem is. our students are not properly trained to meet the demands of university and we cannot blame universities for that. it is sad and shameful that the majority of black south africans are the ones who do not get proper schooling as a result of many issues, such as poverty etc. the universities do not accept the white students because they are white but because they have gotten exceptional marks as a result of going to good schools.
    whether we agree or not, the way things are currently, global rankings are what many use to gauge the quality of the graduates of each university. So the rankings are not just important to universities but are used by potential employers in their search for employees. so to put the blame squarely on universities is a bit unfair and they also find themselves in the corner. so it is the whole system that needs to be changed and goes deeper than just being owned up by universities. having said that, we cannot shy away from the fact that quality of the products of the universities remains a crucial factor. it is also important to understand the ranking systems used – they take a look into a wide variety of issues such as quality of research produced by academics, innovation in sciences and technology, quality of student body, employerbility, how many of the graduates go on to contribute to the society etc. Though the system is not perfect, i think we are oversimplifying the issue in the article.
    So let’s deal with the root causes that limit black students from entering institutions of higher learning. Also, as you rightly say, the African system is different, so what we experience here is completely different from the minority experience in the US or Europe. So the experience and challenges of a student in an Ivy League institution is different (Ivy league graduate myself). Lastly, I think we just need to encourage the culture of hard work among black students, who will be successful in their chosen careers, have a voice and open doors for others. It’s about generational investment. and you penning this article is a step on the right direction.

    • Thank you for this comment Abongile.

      I think for the most part we are thinking in the article. I cannot speak for my co-author, Thoko, but certainly I think we’d he’d agree that we wrote this primarily concerned with the experiences of black students when they are already enrolled at institutions of higher learning, especially predominantly white institutions.

      What “I, too, am Harvard” and other initiatives similar to it show is that often even “hard work” is not enough for many black people/people of colour at white institutions of higher learning. So we can fix the barriers to entry, but what we’re arguing is that the *experience* when black students attend these institutions also matters. There are often multiple other issues that affect black students (as comment below by Ritsie shows) which includes racism in marking, financial and academic exclusion and so on.

      Ultimately, I think we are calling for more support for black students as we tried to show many are often unsupported as they deal with a multivariate of issues (that often white students do not go through) in attaining their higher education.

      I do hope you will “write-back” through Bokamoso. It would be interesting to read a fuller article with your experiences as a black person (I assume) who attended an Ivy League university (and I presume excelled). What type of social/academic/economic support services did you have? How did you deal with racism (should you have encountered it)? And so on.

      Ultimately here we are exchanging ideas, and clearly from your comment you are also pro-assisting black students also get the necessary support to not only survive but to excell in higher education.

      I thank you for reading and the extensive comment. I look forward to (hopefully) reading a full response from you on the BLF blog. I think it’s important to also share the positive experiences other black people/people of colour have had in higher education and how they navigated “the system.”

      Thanks again.

  2. Hey

    Thank you for this piece. I agree that international bechmanrks for excellence really negatively skew redress and equality issues in many PWI. My class of 2004 had 65 students (90% Africa students) and graduated 42 students. The rest were academically/financially excluded. So enrollment and graduation. Nuances neglected.

    • Thank you for reading, and the comment Ritsie.

      Those are the type of issues we were hoping to uproot, and we are glad you found resonance and truth in it (to also speak for my co-author, Thoko).

      The discrepancies between addition numbers of black students in predominantly white institutions point to an urgent need to address holistic support of black students in these spaces because issues are often not just academic, but as you mention also include financial exclusion, alongside racism and racist microaggressions.

      We hope as the theme develops more people will “write-back” and hopefully we can start devising and contributing ways in which black students can also be supported, and I dare also say “loved” in higher education.

      Thank you again for reading and the comment.

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