Institutional ethnography of race and gender equity matters in three South African universities
Almost two decades after the end of apartheid, the higher education system in South Africa remains marked by inequity at both staff and student levels. Current research in this area focuses on measuring inequity but does little to explain why and how it persists. This research explores gender and race equity in South African universities using three critical case studies of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, the University of Pretoria, and the University of Cape Town. Using Dorothy Smith’s Institutional Ethnography, broadly conceived, this research examines the daily practices, processes and discourses that give rise to inequitable institutions. The case study of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal revealed disjunctures between the push in commercialising universities, illustrated in the new managerialist approach and focus on research, on one hand, and the State’s goal to transform and redress, on the other. This tension was articulated in the incongruence between boss texts, such as the Employment Equity Act, and more local institutional texts that emphasised the employment of “productive” staff members. These competing national and institutional demands and pressures blunted the impact of equity policies and strategies. In the case study of the University of Pretoria, gender and racial inequity is maintained and reproduced through various practices and processes, some formal and others informal, both at institutional and individual levels. Students reproduced the racialism and racism that forms part of racial interaction in broader South African society. Despite having equity policies in place, there were significant enclaves of inequity, shown through the lack of female representation in some departments and in student politics, and importantly in the de facto segregation that continues in the student body. In the case study of the University of Cape Town, institutional structures and practices that both maintain and reproduce inequality were identified. In this instance, the formal arrangements and structures of the university were found to lead to the exclusion of and discrimination against certain groups of people. Examples of such institutional structures and processes include, but are not limited to: the concentration of power at middle management; the white-male domination in senior management; and the absence of an intersectional approach in equity policies and measures. Thus despite important progressive policies and ideals, the structural nature of the university served as one of the key obstacles to racial and gender equity. Together, the case studies carried out point to the objectified forms of consciousness and organisation that rely on and help create textual realities. The management of equity in South African institutions is characterised by disjunctures and competing interests and not necessarily by poor implementation, which has been suggested as the explanation by other researchers. The discourses of race, and gender that dominate South African society play an important role in informing how equity matters are managed and experienced at the local level. The local practices and realities of individual Universities should be understood as being framed and influenced by the ruling relations of higher education and the State.