Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 9, Issue 3, 1995

SA Flag

CAL, apartheid and economics education at South African Universities

Jason Probert University of Natal
Kathy Munro University of Witwatersrand


The legacy of forty years of apartheid education has had a serious impact on the tertiary education sector in South Africa, particularly in the disciplines of economics and management. Universities are faced with the challenges of rapidly increasing access to students from educationally disadvantaged communities while preventing the lowering of standards. In fact, the need for universities to produce graduates who will enable South African business to compete internationally and implement the government's development policies requires that academic standards improve.

The promise of CAL for improving educational productivity in the context of severe resource constraints, has led to a number of initiatives at various South African universities. Ineconomics, the use of the TLTP Economics Consortium's WinEcon courseware is increasingly being seen as a viable option.

This paper explores the nature of the problems in higher education economics in South Africa and evaluates some of the CAL projects implemented, focussing especially on the problems which have been faced. In particular, it examines the appropriateness of WinEcon as a solution to the challenges faced and suggests how the courseware could be repurposed for use by students and staff at South African universities.


Forty years of apartheid has had a serious effect on access to tertiary education in South Africa. Despite comprising over 70% of the overall population1, Africans currently make up only 43% of the 351 746 students enrolled at South African universities. Whites on the other hand, who make up less than 16% of the total population of the country, make up 42% of the student population.

Although there has been a 5% growth in the number of African students and a 5% decline in the number of white students registered at universities between 1992 and 1995, these student numbers are unevenly distributed through all universities. The largest registrations of African students remain at "historically black" universities (HBUs) and the former "ethnic" universities of the Western-Cape and Durban-Westville. Of all the HWUs ("historically white" universities) only the University of Natal has a white student population of less than 60%.

The increasing numbers of school leavers, the skewed age distribtion of the population and policy initiatives to improve access to higher education like the National Student Loan Scheme are likely further to increase the demand for access. Unfortunately, the neglect of mathematics and basic science education at secondary school has meant that the refelctive intelligence required of mathematics and the natural and economic sciences is often absent in disadvantaged students. As Mehl (1991) argues,

"All our research with disdvantaged students demonstrates that it is precisely these cognitive operations which they do not display. It is clearly not an automatic part of their cognitive repertoire. This is hardly surprising given the tradition of rote learning to which they have been exposed. So this is no value judgement on their capabilities"

This is the challenge facing South African universities - to increase access to students from very disadvantaged educational backgrounds while at the same time maintaining, and preferably raising academic standards.

Political and economic factors have meant that these challenges must be addressed in a context of severe resource constraints where the greater marginal benefits of investment in health, housing and primary education have steadily reduced the government's subsidy to higher education.

The effect of apartheid on economics education

The disciplines of economics and management face high failure and attrition rates and a shortage of post-graduates, especially amongst students from disadvantaged educational backgrounds. In June 1995 at the University of the Witwatersrand - which for the first time admitted more than 50% of its first-years from disadvantaged backgrounds, only 100 (of nearly 800 first-year Commerce students) passed all five courses. Frielich (1995) found that over the last five years the pass rate of African introductory economics students, whilst improving by nearly 15%, was still only 49.4% in 1994.

At the University of Natal's Durban campus - where white students now comprise only 20.5% of the first-year class, only 47% of nearly 1000 students passed the semester course in introductory economics in 1995. Of the 238 African students, only 92 passed.

Since introductory economics is a compulsory credit for all management and business courses as well as degrees like architecture and construction management, failure in introductory economics usually implies an additional year of study. Failure rates of this magnitude thus cost millions of rands a year to the student, supporting families, universities and the state. [5]

This is of particular concern if one appreciates the advice of the World Bank (1988) which notes that

"Africa requires both highly trained people and top-quality research in order to be able to formulate the policies, plan the programmes and implement the projects that are essential to economic growth and development....Of equal importance to Africa's future is its capacity to plan and direct the process of development. To achieve this capacity, Africa's institutions of higher learning must produce manpower trianed in the disciplines of the social sciences and management, conduct timely research, and provide advisory services in such fields as economic planning, finance (including debt management) and public administration."

In a context in which the challenge of addressing the legacy of apartheid is urgent - both through providing increasing access to students who have historically been disadvantaged, and producing economists and managers for the government's Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) - the challenges have become critical.

The widespread adoption of affirmative action policies in both the private and public sectors places further pressures on universities to produce graduates who can perform effectively in an increasingly internationally competitive market place.

CAL as part of the response to the challenges?

Universities have long sought solutions to improving the academic performance of disadvantaged students, very often through academic support programmes which concentrate on first-year students. Such programmes were useful when 10-20% of students were from disadvantaged backgrounds, but as registrations from African, Indian and coloured students begin to rise dramatically, a radical review of teaching methodologies, course structures and textbook design is essential. Furthermore, as senior posts in universities are filled by black intellectuals the call has been for the HWUs fundamentally to transform not only their governance but also their educational approaches.

It is not unsurprising that in this context the educational productivity gains believed to be possible though CAL are being closely examined by academic departments. The promise of individualised, active learning environments which have been shown to both reduce the time needed for students to learn and raise examination scores 6 as well as the increasing demand on universities to produce graduates with approapriate technological skills, is one which makes the use of computers in higher education economics very attractive. [6]

There are a number of projects involving computers in economics education in South Africa:

The Frikaans-medium Pretoria University has used Question Mark to implement frotnightly computer-based tests for their undergraduates with the objective of using it to assess subject mastery.

According to Harmse et al (1993), since introducing the strategy they have been able to improve standards by condensing the syllabus from 3 to 2.5 years and introducing more practical work. They claim that the most significant advantage is their capacity to develop courseware which not only tests students' cognitive knowledge of the text, but also the level of normative insight into the dynamic interaction between markets in the South African economy.

At the University of the Witwatersrand in 1995 a pilot CAL initiative7 was run with 60 educationally disadvantaged students. The six-week course using Lotus 1-2-3 aimed to identify the practical problems involved in using computers in courses, and the level of computer expertise among students. The course instructor concluded that a CAL package would be "a positive addition to the teaching of first-year economics courses....". It would give tutors, staff and undergraduate students an introduction to much-needed computer skills as well as supporting economics teaching in the context of disadvantaged backgrounds and stretched teaching resources.

Next year, the University of the Witwatersrand plans to network the courseware, Economics in Action8 for first-year students and distribute the disks to those with their own computers. At the University of Natal, Graphecon9, has been used for some years as a supplement to lectures and tutorials. Despite the limited interactivity and age of the package, it has proved to be popluar with students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds struggling with the course. [10]

Due to the inability of PCs on the student network [11] to run Windows, more creative approaches to the use of computers have also had to be used. Some success has been achieved by posting detailed feedback on formative assessments on the net work and more recently, notes, course outlines and other curriculum resources have been distributed electronically.

An investigation into students' pre and post test behaviour (Probert et al, 1995) found that on average, 55% of students used Graphecon before writing a test and 28% used it again afterwards. 56% made use of the electronically distributed test feedback - compared with only 33% who re-read their textbook.

The recent upgrading of the student network has, however, finally allowed Windows-based packages to be used. At the start of this semester a programme of computer practicals, supervised by third-year students, using the beta release of WinEcon12 was implemented. The computer practicals are proving to be popular with students, with attendance often greater than at convetional tutorials, however, the level at whcih most of the material has been directed is proving to be a limiting factor.

Nonetheless, the success of integrating technology into the curriculum has led to plans to use spreadsheets and the World Wide Web in undergraduate economics teaching and to develop a core course in Computers in Economics for the honours year which aims to develop student expertise in autoring software, geographical information systems, presentation packages and general equilibrium models as well as econometrics software.

Prospects for CAL in South African economic education

The successful implementation of CAL in South African universities will be determined by three key factors, none of which are unfamiliar to universities elsewhere in the world: firstly, staff resistance to CAL initiatives must be overcome; secondly, institutional investment in appropriate hardware and software needs to be won and finally, the development of appropriate localised courseware needs to become a priority.

Staff attitudes

The British and American bias, behaviourist pedagogy and limited interactivity of much of the courseware distributed with the leading economics texts has drawn criticism since none of these can be customised to meet the needs of developing countries like South Africa.

However, the pressure of expanded access to university places, the demand for the improved relevance of course content to the African environment and pressures to increase academic productivity in the face of rationalisation has led to a less pleasant working environment for South African Academics. They face higher student:staff ratios 13, a greater time commitment to undergraduate teaching at the expense of (more rewarding) postgraduate teaching, reduced time for research and decreasing salaries relative to comparable private and public sector employment. In this context, the epistemological concerns about the effects of computers in higher education found in many industrialised countries are to some extent outweighed by lecturer's needs to maximise their personal utility functions.

Many staff are concerned, however, that educationally-disadvantaged students will find computers difficult to use. Fortunately, this fear has proved unfounded. Student opinion surveys at all institutions have accepted CAL enthusiastically.

At Natal University, the popularity of CAL is reflected in the high number of users. A Witwatersrand University Academic Development Centre survey revealed strong support from students who completed their pilot course. Although certain logistical problems were experienced, students found the on-line tutorials easy to understand and agreed they provided an interactive alternative to course notes. Their experience with using spreadsheets suggests that some time must be spent teaching basic computer skills before actual economics can be introduced. Howeever, according to the course coordinator the use of a CAL package such as WinEcon with a far shallower learning curve would be more economical in terms of contact hours. This is borne out by the experience at Natal, where students who have never touched a computer before were navigating through WinEcon within half an hour.

As Mehl (1991) has pointed out, "It continues to be striking how easily students from the most disadvantaged back grounds in the Cape Peninsula (such as Crossroads and Khayelitsha) adapt to the use of high technology. Any fears of a cultural backlash are completely unfounded."

Institutional support

It is possibly at an institutional level where the least support seems to be forthcoming. Integrating CAL into courses with over 1000 students requires a substantial investment in courseware, hardware and support staff. At the University of Natal, 120 PCs service the entire undergraduate computing needs of the faculties of both Humanities and Economics and Management - some 4000 students! At historically-black universities conditions are even worse with colleagues from the Vista University complaining about the lack of computers for staff members.

Courseware development

More critically, there is very little support for the development of localised courseware in South Africa. The Multimedia Research Group at the University of Natal has been developing courseware for Biology, Medicine and Computer Science with the aid of a small university grant, and there are enthusiastic individuals at various universitites developing courseware for their courses. However, no co-ordinated programme of even a fraction of the scale of TLTP exists. Of the 75 papers presented at the South African Association for Academic Development's annual conference last year only two dealt with the role of technology in education [14] and financial and promotion incentives remain skewed away from teaching and courseware development.

Nonetheless, prospects are encouraging with signs that the impact information technology is having on education in other parts of the world is filtering through : A CAL in Developing Countries conference was held in South Africa last year, a Computers in Training and Tertiary Education conference is being held in April next year and local interest groups are beginning to emerge at various universities. [15]

The most serious problem for the development of CAL at South African Universities is the lacked of skilled courseware designers. The advent of authoring packages like Authorware and ToolBook has made the cost-effective development of local courseware possible, but few computer science departments teach their students these and other authoring packages. 16 The increasing number of visits from overseas colleagues will hopefully act as a stimulus.

Future directions?

Despite the many problems which hinder the effective development and implementation of CAL in higher education economics there is a strong commitment to its use. Because of its scope and depth, there is widespread interest in WinEcon in particular. However, it cannot be effectively utilised in South African departments without certain modifications.

It requires:

  1. Global changes to its discourse and pedagogy to make it appropriate to South African students - most of whom only speak English as a second language, lack a fundamental grasp of the mathematical concepts used in economics, have poor learning skills, and are studying in a degree structure in which they do not specialise from year 1.
  2. Additional modules on basic concepts not covered in WinEcon, and on the issues and problems facing the South African economy.
  3. South African data, case studies and graphics.
  4. Training in the use and development of the courseware for lecturing staff.

To this end a programme to design a South African version of WinEcon is currently being discussed. The programme has been informed by the beliefs that courseware can only be truly effective if it is designed for the needs of its users, and that the most efficient development approach is to adapt existing courseware. It thus aims to include both HBUs and HWUs in a collaborative development process which will drive a curriculum restructuring process reexamining texts, teaching methodologies and content.

The adaptation of a package of the scale of WinEcon not only requires a substantial investment of time, money and personpower - it also needs investment in hardware for both students and staff. There is no shortage of departments who have expressed a keen interest in development. What is currently lacking are the skills and the funds with which to proceed.

Table 1: Enrolment at South African universities - 1995





152 237
143 020
28 601
22 888

351 746

Source: Feldman R (1994)

Table 2: Racial breakdown of students
at historically white, coloured and
Indian universities in South Africa - 1994

Western Cape
Rand Afrikaans
Cape Town
Port Elizabeth
Free State

Source: Institute of Race Relations (1995)



  1. Central Statistical Service, South African Demographic Statistics, 1993
  2. see Table 2
  3. According to the 1991 Census, 44.2% of African population is under 18 years old
  4. 315257 students successfully completed school in 1994, Feldman (1994) estimates that, based on current population patterns, and given the new emphasis on redressing past imbalances 564823 students could pass in the year 2000 - an increase of 79%. He estimates that student enrolment could be 429471 - an increase of 22%
  5. On average, a year of study at an HWU costs the student approximately R7000 for tuition and an additional R10000 in accomodation fees. Universities receive a state subsidy in the human sciences of R7900.
  6. Kulik and Kulik (1991) conducted a meta-analysis of 254 controlled evaluations of computer-based learning and found that the computer required as an average two-thirds as much time as required by conventional teaching methods and that computers raised examination scores in a typical study by 0.3 standard deviations.
  7. by Andre Noor of the Department of Economics, School of African and Oriental Studies, University of London funded by the Overseas Development Agency
  8. Invisible Hand Software, distributed with Parkin and King, Economics, 2nd edition, Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1995
  9. Olvey LD and Golden JR, Graphecon, Addison-Wesley, 1988 a courseware package supplied with Parkin and King, Economics, 1st edition, Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1993
  10. In the first two months of the academic year Graphecon was accessed 3644 times. Quattro Pro, the resident spreadsheet was accessed 5305 times
  11. Until July 1995, students only had access to 40 386SXs and 40 XTs - all without hard-drives.
  12. TLTP Economics Consortium, WinEcon, 1995

  13. Both the University of Natal and the University of the Witwatersrand have 15 lecturers and aproximately 2000 undergraduate students
  14. Dizdar, D Technology in modern mathematical education: challenging educational trends Nel, CM Utilising technology in academic development

  15. A Computers in the Arts Group has been formed at the University of the Witwatersrand to promote computer-based learning in languages and a CAL interest group meets regularly at the University of Natal
  16. an exception is the University of Natal where Honours students develop courseware for the Medical School as their project
  17. Apart from the recent visit of Andre Noor, Simon Price of the University of Bristol will be touring South African universities conducting workshops on WinEcon, CAL and authoring in ToolBook in September 1995 funded by the British Council. Gary Littlejohn of Bradford University is also involved in coolaborative CAL work

The authors may be contacted at the following address:

Jason Probert
Computing in Economics Department of Economics University of Natal King George V Avenue Durban 4001 SOUTH AFRICA

Ph: +27 31 260 2577
Fax: +27 31 260 2587


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