Universities

Still waiting for varsity reform

Mncedisi Jordan

We need to consider transplanting some premier qualifications to disadvantaged universities.

In this, our 20th year of democracy, and as we commemorate the passing on of Nelson Mandela (Aah, Dalibhunga!), we can expect that liberation should by now have delivered tangible results. It should have changed the country's landscape and the demographic make-up of our localities.

Such genuine change, in my view, can only be reflected in the composition and complexion of our indigenous institutions. As an educationalist, I can best argue for a meaningful, visible reformation (elsewhere apologetically referred to as "transformation") of our educational institutions, starting with universities.

How has the University of Fort Hare organically changed since the dawn of liberation in 1994? Nothing has changed for the better. You experience the same student demographics, the same staff complexion, the same physical infrastructure, the same resources, the same everything.

Let me hasten to declare that I am using Fort Hare among historically disadvantaged institutions in the same way we used Mandela's name in the dark days of apartheid — merely as an instance of their oppression. 

After all, which mother would develop herself with complete disregard for her children — attending the universities of the Western Cape, Zululand, Durban-Westville (before its merger) and the North? 

And which grandmother would not wish the best for her grandchildren — the pre-merger universities of Transkei and Bophuthatswana, and the current University of Venda?

At Fort Hare, you still find an exclusively black student population. Even at so-called previously white universities, the white student intake invariably exceeds the demographic outer limits of the country, despite black students being in the majority. So it becomes discrimination in disguise when black applicants cannot be admitted on the grounds that the university is full. 

Therefore, my 2014 resolution is to guarantee that, within 10 years, Fort Hare will become the best university in South Africa. Deservedly so. 

I volunteer to join the liberation-loving compatriots (not only Fort Harians) who will be part of "the movement of the people" (in Bob Marley's language) or "pressure group" (in South African parlance) that makes this happen.

I say "deservedly so", because compare Fort Hare now with what it was in the struggle days.

Correctly, we speak admirably of Fort Hare stalwarts — those who were there when Fort Hare was first made. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Davidson Jabavu, James Jolobe, Archibald Jordan, Mandela, Zachariah Matthews, Robert Mugabe, CLS Nyembezi, Alfred Nzo, Walter Rubusana, Robert Sobukwe and Oliver Tambo are household names.

They were pathfinders and trailblazers. After them, as the apartheid apparatus tightened, many young women and men followed the beaten track created by these leaders and disappeared from class into the bush. I remember enquiring after a brilliant student in my class, Harry Sibanyoni, only to find he had disappeared into the smoky air of a volley of bullets and gunpowder. 

Thus Fort Hare virtually metamorphosed from an academic campus into a breeding ground for underground insurgents. 

Fort Hare may have contributed immensely to the liberation of this country, but is it receiving commensurate reconstruction and development, instead of merely the so-called "redress funding"?

The road map to making Fort Hare the best university in the country must centralise a rationalisation of course offerings or taught qualifications. 

I am not advocating that we duplicate qualifications across all or even at most South African universities, as is happening now. Our meagre resources do not have such elasticity. 

What is required and what will help, is a little clear thinking along the lines of transplanting some premier qualifications to historically disadvantaged institutions. 

Architecture could be transported from one or two privileged universities to Fort Hare. Quantity surveying could mainly be offered at the University of the North. 

IsiZulu languages departments could be hosted only at the universities of Zululand and the Witwatersrand; the former having location as an advantage and the latter in honour of the first isiZulu expert, Clement Doke, for instance.

All this in aid of what? 

First, funds follow function. There would be a massive injection of the government's education budget into these historically disadvantaged institutions, because some of the qualifications are costly to maintain. 

Second, demand always looks for supply. That's why rural people wake up every day to go to town. And universities are in the sellers' market. White students wishing to qualify in these disciplines would gravitate to where they are offered, leading to a cosmopolitan student body — unlike at present. 

Indeed, universities would become a microcosm of what South Africa should be and is yet not — a rainbow nation. 

Third, expertise hunts for exploitation. Professors who are passionate about their calling will apply for work wherever they can exploit their skills — and so a more demographically representative staff complement would emerge. 

Fourth, there would be a natural magnet attracting private investment as captains of industry seek to secure finely finished interns on graduation. 

Fifth, we would witness a more even spread of university applicants across all our universities. Unlike at present, where premier universities contend with about 75 000 applicants when they can only admit about 30 000, this spike would be flattened somewhat. And historically disadvantaged institutions would also admit the cream of the crop, rather than wait for rejects from somewhere — much to the disruption of their year plans. 

Finally, for Fort Hare in particular, there will be a revival of the university town of Alice. 

Had our African liberators north of us inherited countries with the number of national universities we have, they would have adopted this model. This I glean from the 

enthusiasm with which they empowered their indigenous institutions from the day of their independence. 

So, black man, you are alone! However, "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves".

Mncedisi Jordan is a former professor of accounting at the University of Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University. He is currently a researcher in indigenous cultures

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