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Vista: S. Africa's university exclusively for urban blacks

The rolling hills that surround this tree-lined capital city will soon host South Africa's first university designed specifically for the country's urban blacks.

Government education officials were asked to suggest names, and decided on Vista University. ''It will open up new vistas for our black people,'' explains a spokesman for the Department of Education and Training.

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Yet many educators here find Vista to be a disturbing aspect of government education policy. It suggests, they believe, renewed government commitment to racial separation in schooling at a time when educators are strongly urging that such barriers be relaxed.

This is particularly true at the university level. South Africa has separate universities for blacks, whites, Indians, and Coloreds (people of mixed racial descent). But university officials have increasingly urged less government-forced segregation in higher education.

In practice, the trend has been toward less segregation. Statistics gathered by the Department of Education and Training, which is in charge of black education, show a dramatic jump in black enrollments at white universities. The number of black students at nonblack universities doubled between 1980 and 1977.

Still, the practice of permitting blacks to enter white universities remains subject to government discretion. The official criteria for allowing a black into a white university is the inability of the student to find classes necessary for a particular field of study at the university catering to his or her own racial group.

A thorough study of South African education just completed urges greater freedom of choice for students and parents in education matters. It specifically recommends that universities decide for themselves what their enrollment criteria should be.

The report followed a year of study by a multiracial group of leading South African education experts, and is generally regarded as the most comprehensive assessment of this country's educational system ever made. It was conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council, something of a government-funded think tank , at the request of Prime Minister P.W. Botha.

But the ink was barely dry on the report before the government took exception to the suggestion that schools and universities should gain more autonomy over enrollment policy. The government reaffirmed its policy that ''each population group should have its own schools.''

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Underscoring that policy, Vista University was created at the same time the education report was made public earlier this month.

The government has not detailed the cost of setting up the university. What is envisioned is a university with remote campuses or facilities in or near black urban townships at various locations in South Africa. Pretoria would host one of the facilities and the administrative offices of the university.

Vista is designed to cater to part-time, nonresident students on the theory there are large numbers of blacks that want to study but cannot afford to give up their jobs.

Vista has come under fire from opposition politicians and university officials. While conceding that urban blacks need greatly expanded educational opportunities, critics of Vista argue those needs could be effectively met at a much lower cost by existing institutions if racial barriers were removed.

The government acknowledges that one of the biggest problems facing Vista will be a shortage of qualified black instructors. Professors at established universities may be called on to teach at Vista.

Studious, soft-spoken Dr. J. G. Garbers, president of the Human Sciences Research Council, says there is no doubt that the demand for college-level education among urban blacks is high and rising. ''In terms of numbers, Vista is needed. But to make it acceptable will be difficult,'' he says.

Vista, he worries, will represent to blacks the continuation of apartheid in the field of education.

A key recommendation of the new education report is that the government unify its own educational bureaucracy. Right now there are 18 government departments involved in education, which are separated along racial lines and handled by three Cabinet ministers.

The report urges a single ministry of education, and beneath that a multiracial South African council for education.

Dr. Garbers says the root problem with education in South Africa is that nonwhite racial groups, lacking full political representation, have an inadequate voice in educational policy. The South African council for education, which he says must have ''complete credibility,'' is intended to give all racial groups equal influence on South African educational policy.

The government's response to the education report - reaffirming its ''separate schools'' policy - sparked some of the report's authors to charge the government with an attitude that ''inclines to the past rather than to the future.''

Others involved in the study were more optimistic. They noted the government had in principle accepted the rest of the report, which included 250 pages worth of recommendations aimed at achieving equal standards of education for all South Africans.

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