UNITY IN DIVERSITY: A GLIMPSE INTO THE SA HIGHER EDUCATION SYSTEM

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UNITY IN DIVERSITY: A GLIMPSE INTO THE SA HIGHER EDUCATION SYSTEM

UNITY IN DIVERSITY: A GLIMPSE INTO THE SA HIGHER EDUCATION SYSTEM

The South African higher education system bears the scars of a broken system that was essentially inequitable and distinguished along the lines of race and ethnicity. The period between 1948 to 1993 was characterised by legalised, unequal, and separate education, fashioned along the ideology of apartheid and unfortunately this scarring has continued into the new dispensation. Section 29 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa,1996 as well as the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997 have stressed the need to transform higher education into an all-encompassing system. In this regard, the Education White Paper, of 1997 provides a framework for the democratisation of higher education by “creating an equitable system that allows for all to have access to higher education” thereby eradicating all forms of unfair discrimination, especially in respect of the marginalised poor. Although significant progress has been made regarding access to higher education, accessibility does not necessarily equate to equality and in many cases, the programmes offered at higher education institutions may not essentially have changed to be more reflective of the “new diverse student cohort.” It is therefore imperative that in providing “genuine” equal opportunities for all students, that consideration is given to diversity-related challenges in planning future programmes by inter alia being mindful of the diversity of today’s student cohort and ensuring that the programmes offered are inclusive and responsive to student-specific needs.

What is diversity and why is it relevant in higher education?  Concepts such as equity and diversity are derived from the attempt to redress the imbalances of the past. Diversity is about acknowledging and managing differences to attain multicultural institutions in which there is no form of discrimination’. Within the higher education sector, several aspects are linked to student diversity such as ‘full-time versus part-time students, language, academic disadvantages, first generation, gender, race, culture, socio-economic status, religion, learning disabilities as well as LGBTIQA group.’There is a general misconception about the definition of diversity in higher education where it is believed that the concept applies solely to political and social issues. The concept goes beyond just being a black and white issue. The word diversity originates from the Latin word “diversus” which means “various”. It refers to the multitude of differences that exist amongst people. Diversity is the ability to recognise that each individual is unique with individual differences. A general understanding of diversity revolves around an awareness of different groups and individuals where one embraces one’s differences and similarities in an effort to live in harmony. Within the higher education system, diversity is fast becoming a major opportunity and challenge to our institutions.

Notwithstanding the different forms of diversity, there is a general consensus that it is by its very nature an inclusive concept that respects and celebrates human differences, and helps in the construction of a participatory, contributory and all-inclusive environment. In an effort to eradicate stereotypes about different groups, it is important to promote a positive nature of diversity where intergroup relations and equality are prioritised through expression. The increased enrolment of minority and international students has seen such students bring their backgrounds, language and culture to our classrooms. Despite challenges in recognising such differences, there is an ethical and educational duty on educators to embrace such cultural diversity in the classroom. It is imperative that in providing “genuine” equal opportunities for all students, that consideration is given to diversity-related challenges in planning future programmes by inter alia being mindful of the diversity of today’s student cohort and ensuring that the programmes offered are inclusive and responsive to student-specific needs. Key to transforming the mind and accepting our differences is the ability to embrace and understand diversity. It is a social imperative to create an environment that acknowledges differences, values them, and embraces the lived experiences of others. Some of the benefits of embracing diversity in higher education include creating a workforce that can respond to the diverse needs of the country in terms of changing demographics. Students tend to perform better and become active participants in the real world in instances where their learning has taken place in a racially and ethnically diverse environment. Their experiences and interactions with different groups helps prepare them better for interaction with a broader, global society A diverse student population furthermore leads to greater interaction and exposure to different viewpoints and perspectives.  For the students, an environment that promotes diversity can only lead to better critical skills, improved communication, openness, personal development and empowerment.

South Africa is known as the “rainbow nation” a nation characterised by its pluralistic nature where ethnicity, gender and class epitomise differences and diversity in all its glory. South Africa has made giant strides in terms of transformation, more so since those dark days of apartheid but there is no doubt that many South Africans have still not transformed “their mindset”. Transforming the mind is crucial to promoting diversity in higher education. Section 9 (3) of the Constitution of RSA emphasises the ground that no one should be discriminated against on grounds such as ‘race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language, and birth’. It is crucial that students be made aware of these constitutional rights. It is also imperative that in providing actual equal opportunities to today’s student cohort, higher education institutions be sensitised to the needs of today’s diverse student needs. Only then will higher education be instrumental in policy reform to address issues of equity, redress, and development.

Dr L. Ramaccio Calvino

Dr T. M Matadi

Prof D. Iyer

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