Varsity equity study torn to pieces

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UKZN Howard Campus INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS File photo: Gcina Ndwalane

Durban - A high-profile study, authored by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s vice-chancellor, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, and UKZN’s dean of maths and statistics, Professor Kesh Govinder, measuring the pace of transformation in universities using a mathematical formula, has come in for scathing criticism from three Cape Town academics.

In commentary pieces, published in the most recent issue of the South African Journal of Science, the formula, known as the “equity index”, was described as mathematically flawed and of “questionable” intent.

 

Touted as the first simple and unbiased means of assessing transformation, the findings of the study were made public last year.

At the time, Makgoba, who also chairs the ministerial oversight committee on transformation in public universities, and Govinder said universities were a long way off from representing the country’s racial demographics, and that it would take “extraordinary measures” to transform “entrenched white privilege”.

At the current “unacceptably” slow rate, it would take the top five research universities up to 382 years to suitably transform their staff and graduate profile, the findings read.

But, in their critique, actuarial scientists Tom Moultrie and Rob Dorrington, professors at the University of Cape Town, argue that the index is “poorly conceived, applied and interpreted” and branded the study as being of “questionable mission”.

On Thursday, Moultrie reiterated his concern that, while the transformation of higher education institutions was a national imperative, it was too complex to be reduced to a single index.

In a second commentary, entitled: “Mathematical errors, smoke and mirrors in pursuit of an illusion: Comments on Govinder et al”, UCT statistician Professor Tim Dunne criticised the authors as having a “sublimely narrow notion of equity”.

 

While the residues of apartheid were “indisputably terrible” and suffering in South Africa indeed had a racial and gendered face, he believed true transformation was “a matter of the heart” and an issue of complexity which warranted “authentic scholarship”.

On Thursday, Makgoba and Govinder said to The Mercury that, having read the “criticisms”, they stood by the formula and its usefulness as a tool to measure transformation.

They said they were working on a response to the commentaries, which would be submitted to the journal.

“We believe that science (and society) is better served by an academic, peer-reviewed, debate in scientific journals before such discussions are debated in the media. We reiterate our stance that a premature public discussion will serve only to confuse matters.”

Professor Jonathan Jansen, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, has previously expressed his misgivings over the use of “racial formulae” to measure and monitor transformation in universities.

Last year, he said that anyone who thought that the complexities of institutional transformation could be reduced to mathematical indices “clearly did not understand the human, social, cultural, legal and political processes which underpinned educational change”.

The Mercury



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