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CHE > Media and Publications > Kagisano Series > Kagisano Issue Number 9: The Aims of Higher Education
March, 2013


The focus of this edition of Kagisano, which is on the aims of higher education, might suggest that what follows is a detailed discussion of a series of self-evident objectives. Indeed, in the policy terrain, the aims of higher education in South Africa are clearly set out in Education White Paper 3: A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education, which states that higher education has “several related purposes”:

  • “To meet the learning needs and aspirations of individuals through the development of their intellectual abilities and aptitudes throughout their lives. Higher education equips individuals to make the best use of their talents and of the opportunities offered by society for selffulfilment. It is thus a key allocator of life chances, an important vehicle for achieving equity in the distribution of opportunity and achievement among South African citizens.
  • To address the development needs of society and provide the labour market, in a knowledge-driven and knowledge-dependent society, with the ever-changing high-level competencies and expertise necessary for the growth and prosperity of a modern society. Higher education teaches and trains people to fulfil specialised social functions, enter the learned professions, or pursue vocations in administration, trade, industry, science and technology and the arts.
  • Contribute to the socialisation of enlightened, responsible and constructively critical citizens. Higher education encourages the development of a reflective capacity and willingness to review and renew prevailing ideas, policies and practices based on a commitment to the common good.
  • To contribute to the creation, sharing and evaluation of knowledge. Higher education engages in the pursuit of academic scholarship and intellectual inquiry in all fields of human understanding, through research, learning and teaching”.

However, the contributions to this edition, on the contrary, suggest that the aims of higher education are far from self-evident. As Sioux McKenna points out in the introduction, there is “no clear consensus as to what a university is or what its aims should be”. This is not surprising. Higher education institutions, despite popular perceptions to the contrary, do not exist in splendid isolation from the societies in which they are located. They reflect, reproduce, and to some extent, shape the social, cultural, economic and political values and relations that are characteristic of the broader society. This results in and gives rise to a range of tensions that are inherent in differing interpretations of the social and economic trajectory of a given society and the implications of the latter for the development of higher education.

These tensions are alive in and continue to characterise the post-1994 policy discourse on the aims and trajectory of higher education in South Africa. This is reflected in, amongst others, the arguments about the appropriate balance between enrolments in the humanities and the sciences; between skills training and education for citizenship; between different types of knowledges and their relative value, between pure and applied research and above all, between different institutional types that straddle the continuum between teaching and research. Indeed, the central question arising from such debates and that remains unresolved in the South African context is the form our higher education system should take, that is, whether and how it should be differentiated. Although the answer to this question may be self-evident to some, particularly in the light of views that there exists a plurality of knowledge types and a plurality of roles and purposes for higher education, it is contested precisely because of the racial fractures of the past that continue to impact on the development of higher education in South Africa. Such fractures serve to make the resolution of such debates to inform policy in this context even more complex, yet even more compelling and urgent.

What is evident, and relatively uncontested, is that until and unless we are able to re-imagine the higher education system, in particular the form of the system and the institutional types that are necessary to address the social and economic challenges that confront South African society and which respond to the needs of the students, the transformation of higher education as envisaged will remain unfulfilled. It is against this background and the CHE’s commitment to contribute to and to facilitate public debate on higher education, that the CHE is publishing this edition of Kagisano on the aims of higher education, which brings together the papers presented to a series of Roundtable Discussions on key issues in higher education convened by Rhodes University in 2010.


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