Public universities’ poor performance on gender transformation targets must be penalised – two leaders suggest

Published On: 30 August 2021|

The hearings that the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) has conducted in the last ten years in the university sector indicate that the absence of clear policies on sexual harassment at universities blurs the lines and hampers the progress of transformation in higher education.

Dr Nthabiseng Moleko (left), Deputy Chairperson at the CGE, made this statement during a transformation webinar commemorating Women’s Month on 12 August. She and a vice-chancellor in the audience intimated that non-performance on gender transformation must begin to attract penalties for offending institutions.

The webinar was the first in a series of three organised by Universities South Africa’s Transformation Managers’ Forum (TMF) and Higher Education Resource Services-South Africa (HERS-SA) to tackle burning transformation issues in the sector. The theme of the session was Gender Transformation: should we be asking new questions?

Among the issues that surfaced in the CGE hearings were scandals concerning sex-for-marks, slowed transformation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), and others (LGBTQA+ communities) and the low representation of women and persons with disabilities in senior management. At the centre of all of this was the absence of gender policies. Where sexual harassment policies existed, the CGE found that they were outdated and irrelevant.

Dr Moleko emphasised that universities needed to implement decisive gender employment equity measures to overcome this scourge.

“Sexual harassment, which we sometimes overlook in dealing with transformation in higher education, affects women in the workplace.” She said the transformation discourse often focuses on the slow pace of advancing employment equity.

She also cautioned that even though sexual offences against women are more predominant, men also experience sexual harassment. In the main, their hearings showed postgraduate students being at the receiving end of “sex-for-marks” advances, while female staff are blocked from advancement on account of gender prejudice.

“These issues need to be dealt with as seriously as employment equity and transformation because they speak to the patriarchal culture engraved in our society. There are requirements for a conducive workplace for those who are in the workspace.”

Dr Moleko went on to say that the CGE is aware of the under-reporting of sexual harassment cases because of fear of victimisation, backlash, and generally low confidence in remedial mechanisms within institutions. The CGE has also found that universities Human Resources departments and other decision-making structures are not necessarily empowered to respond adequately and satisfactorily to complaints.

Based on these findings, the CGE encourages universities to sensitise their staff and students to the recourse mechanisms available to address these grievances. “We also have to look at monitoring and evaluating this situation to effect change in our teaching and learning environment. We have to ensure that the environment is conducive to knowledge creation.”

By way of assistance to universities, the CGE has offered its expertise to institutions struggling to formulate appropriate policies. Dr Moleko said some universities have griped about the absence of a budget to address these issues and have therefore escalated the matter to the Department of Higher Education and Training for a solution. She said the issue is receiving attention at the DHET.

In Dr Moleko’s view, a shift in the perception of sexual harassment will require a change of mindsets from all stakeholders in the university sector. She added that transformation must aim beyond compliance and meeting operational targets. She concluded by saying that, to achieve truly diverse, inclusive, and conducive work environments for everyone within universities, vice-chancellors and those in senior management need to deal with sexual harassment and related behaviours critically. This, in her book, would result in a fully functioning society.  Her presentation triggered off audience reactions, some of which are captured below.

Professor Sakhela Buhlungu (right), Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Fort Hare, was the respondent to that day’s panel presentations. While commending Dr Moleko for her presentation and insights, he said the debates on gender transformation in the university sector date back to the apartheid era, even though they intensified with the advent of democracy. He said the plight of women in academia had further been highlighted in various publications since 1994 and cited among them the works of Zina, Magubane and Mabokela (Hear our Voices, 2004); Sithole (Unequal Peers, 2008) and Khunou, Phaswane and Khoza (Black Academic Voices, 2019). Professor Buhlungu said the more academics griped without any concrete remedial action, the more they validated the phrase: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” He surmised that “we sound like a broken record.”

Non-performance on gender transformation must attract sanctions to institutions

He said the most that South Africa had done since 1994 was to “police transformation.” The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training was policing the issue, and so was the DHET and the CGE.

He added, in that context, that every year, universities, as publicly accountable institutions, submit their annual reports to the DHET.  Yet, he was not aware of any institution’s report being turned back with a reprimand that “you have not performed on transformation.” He, therefore, posited that the answer did not lie in building additional layers tasked with exercising oversight over universities and transformation. The University of Fort Hare’s Vice-Chancellor said policing transformation ad infinitum “will not get us anywhere… especially policing by institutions that cannot impose sanctions to ensure compliance.”

Even though Dr Moleko did not discuss national performance indicators on gender transformation, South Africa’s National Policy Framework for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality does provide key performance indicatorsand guidelines in Chapter 6 to ensure movement towards gender equality.

Professor Buhlungu’s advice to the CGE and the sector was to get out of the complaining mode. “Even ministers complain, but they have the instruments and levers of power in their hands. By complaining in perpetuity, you are almost disarming yourself”.

The Fort Hare Principal firmly proclaimed that none of the 26 universities was complying with national transformation imperatives. Yet “the Block Grant, every year, lands in our bank accounts from DHET – not affected by the fact that we are not compliant. For as long as that is the case, we are going to go nowhere…. Non-compliance must pinch. It must result in some pain for institutions. That is the only way.”

Question: Are any actions taken against universities that are not responsive to these issues?

Dr Moleko: When our recommendations are not implemented, there is no punitive action on universities’ decision-makers. We’re facing a similar challenge with employment equity. There is no consequence for universities failing to comply with the national targets. Instead of only looking at the throughput rates and the number of people completing their Masters or PhDs as budget determinants, why not include employment equity in these indices? If diversity is a national imperative, why are we not including it as a subsidy incentive? We need to look at ways in which the various factors influencing subsidies are calculated…mainly to ensure that universities feel the pinch when they do not perform well in this area.

Question: How is a sex-for-marks offence proven when, in most instances, it is the student’s word against the lecturer’s?

Dr Moleko:  In issues of gender transformation, institutional role players must know what sexual harassment is. The definition is usually captured in the sexual harassment policy. Once the victim identifies the offence as such, they should know what action to take. How this offence gets proven lies in a complaint investigation mechanism, where the victim is interviewed, and the alleged perpetrator is also engaged, and then a determination is made. Although I am not a lawyer, I understand that common law applies from listening to complainants. The investigators apply the probability test…Human Resources managers lacking the capacity to conduct these investigations must be able to outsource this task.

Asked to comment on the need to penalise institutions non-performing on gender transformation, Dr Linda Meyer (right), in her capacity as Acting CEO of USAf, responded as follows:

Transformation within tertiary institutions is a legislative and ethical imperative. USAf has several projects targeting meaningful gender transformation. It is common cause that women leadership is significantly underrepresented in senior executive, management and academic positions in most universities. Active measures must be implemented to increase the representation of women in these positions. Universities must hold themselves to a higher standard and lead the way in accelerating gender transformation in a society where 51% of citizens are female. The 1997 Higher Education Act provided for the establishment of institutional forums at universities to promote transformation. It stands to reason that universities must take gender transformation seriously and be held accountable for their slow or non-performance in reflecting the South African race and gender demographic, especially in their senior staffing structures. Gender diversity, equality, and inclusion are in the interest of every South African, and we need to do more to ensure that gender transformation initiatives are accelerated.

Dr Moleko was one of four panellists who spoke at the inaugural TMF-HERS SA series. Other speakers were Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Engagement at Nelson Mandela University; Professor Thidziambe Phendla from the Higher Education Transformation Network and Mr George Mvalo, Chair of USAf’s TMF and Director: Social Justice and Transformation at the Vaal University of Technology. Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Fort Hare, was a respondent.

Additional perspectives that were shared during the Women’s Month webinar series will be shared on this platform. The next in line is Dr Thandi Mgwebi’s perspective on Gender Transformation: should we be asking new questions?

The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.