Current heat is forging a new university

In a speech delivered at Stellenbosch University in June last year, a leading academic and former principal of Unisa, Barney Pityana, told the story of how he, as a visitor and “an innocent passer by”, was caught up in a raucous Occupy Wall Street solidarity protest event in Perth, Australia.

“Somewhere in the midst of this protesting crowd stood a young man holding his banner. It had the words: ‘Sorry for the inconvenience. We are changing the world’,” Pityana said.

He might have been talking about what is happening in our higher education sector. Outsourced workers and students have, in their own way, been hoisting a metaphorical banner into the skies above each university saying: “Sorry for the inconvenience, we are changing the university.”

Unfortunately, they themselves, like their metaphorical banner, have long been invisible. Invisibility is especially true for the workers – the nameless people who stand guard at the gates, serve the food, mow the lawns and keep the toilets clean. They are in every corporate institution, almost always invisible. Outsourcing and labour-broking cements their invisibility.

This is a situation the workers will tolerate no more. For the past five years, at least, they have been voicing their discontent in various ways.

How astonishing that the fundamental change we are seeing in student funding and “insourcing” should have been initiated not by the government led by a liberation movement, not by the higher education ministry, not by the university councils, not by the management, not by the senate, and not by a Cosatu affiliated union, but by the outsourced workers themselves and students.

How did we end up here?

For nearly a decade now, there have been annual National Student Financial Aid Scheme strikes. But for as long as the universities affected were mainly the so-called historically black institutions, the unspoken consensus was that the problem could either be ignored or managed, often violently.

This itself is symptomatic of a country that has not been really ready to open the doors of learning.

Although most higher education systems, especially in the developing world, are elitist, South Africa’s higher education system took exclusivism and elitism to a ghastly level, reserving the best universities for whites, and eventually allowing a few “bush universities” for Indian, coloured and black people.

These categories and divides are no longer part of the official nomenclature. We now have national universities, comprehensive universities, universities of technology and the technical vocational education (TVET) colleges.

But these categories must not fool us. When it comes to resources, the new categories speak more to an ideal rather than to lived reality. The fact that universities absorb more students than the TVET colleges, when the norm should be vice versa, is a sign of the trouble we are in.

Apartheid-era fault lines and its legacies are still with us. Population participation rates, subject “choices”, failure rates, curriculums, endowment patterns, student residence populations and campus cultures, among other things, still reflect the legacies of a segregated system. These are some of the key symptoms of the problems that need to be confronted and fixed. Both the government and the private sector will have to come to the party.

Some progress has been made. The higher education system has almost doubled its intake since 1994. But this has not been accompanied by concomitant funding for staffing and research, for example. Nor have the racially skewed student participation rates, staff composition and seniority patterns been fundamentally altered since democracy.

My very real fear now is that an exclusively younger white male cohort may be replacing the ageing white male cohort of researchers who continue to dominate the South African higher education sector. If white males were to be removed from the system, our research outputs would be reduced by up to 70%.

The difficulty with this is not the race of those involved. Rather, what is of concern is the tragedy of a country that is unable to identify and unlock the full potential of all its citizens.

Academics themselves have struggled to find the language and tools with which to comprehend the new developments. Much of the post-apartheid academic discourse about transformation has revolved around the notions of academic freedom, the centrality of “the academic project”, the notion of a research university as the only model for a university, the jaded management versus collegiate debate, university autonomy, the bashing and ridiculing of all notions of Africanisation, the elevation of the notion of internationalisation and, more recently, knowledge production.

There is nothing wrong with these themes and topics. What is problematic is the tendency among some people to posit these hifalutin notions as sacrosanct and non-negotiable doctrines, without nuance, applicable in all situations at all times. More importantly, both the approach followed and the choice of topics South African academics have occupied themselves with have clearly not enabled them to anticipate, let alone get to grips with, the burning worker and student issues that have catapulted universities into the #MustFall movements.

Nor should the prominence of a few student leaders, some of whom happen to be members of student representative councils, mislead us into thinking that the SRCs have necessarily been on top of this new game either.

Consciously or unconsciously, SRCs have, rightly or wrongly, been seen by many students as part of the new establishment comprising the higher education ministry, university councils, university management and academia at large. Often caught between the competing demands of their political principals, a divided student body and university authorities, many SRCs have been paralysed.

The party-political nature of SRCs and their elections has not only divided the student body but may also be a contributing factor in the low voter turnout in the majority of SRC elections, which hovers between 9% and 15% in most cases.

With such encumbered SRC structures, it means student grievances, bottled up for many years, have had to find other channels of expression.

If academics have been caught napping by the changes we have seen, so have university management and councils.

In 2001, Adam Habib, now the vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, commented on the crisis that was raging at the then University of Transkei: “Council’s primary role is to monitor management and see that it operates within the framework of institutional and legislated policies … Currently management and in particular vice-chancellors have far too great a role in determining the make-up of their council. The result is that councils can become personal networks, which makes it impossible for them to check on management effectively.”

Habib hints at a problem that may still be with us.

But in the midst of all the problems we face, and in the throes of the raging battles, it would be a grave mistake to wallow in despair. There are many signs of hope that this country has what it takes to overcome the current crises and establish our higher education system as one of the best in the world. The innovativeness with which universities and the government are rising to the challenges so far is inspiring.

Out of this, a new type of university vice-chancellor is emerging. In times of crisis, the new vice-chancellors will not insulate themselves in air-conditioned offices. They will not step out only to receive the memoranda of striking workers or students but will install themselves right in the middle of the boisterous protesters, eyeball to eyeball, to listen, discuss, persuade and be open to persuasion.

This is precisely what the vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, Cheryl de la Rey, did on January 20. As one of the facilitators, I was privileged to observe as she and her management team stepped into the negotiation chamber after a week of angry protests. Her intervention led to a framework agreement on insourcing that promises to lead to one of the best deals for workers in any South African university.

How did she and her team do it? They listened patiently to all the presentations and all the speakers. And, when the time came for her to talk, she talked straight and did so with palpable sincerity.

Most importantly, De la Rey managed to persuade the participants to raise the level of debate from “what can I get for myself and my group?” to the level of “how can we, together, build a just and ethical university of excellence for ourselves and for future generations?”

This is the question that captures the nature of the revolution that is taking place in the higher education sector today. A new type of South African university is being born.

It is not fully here, the situation remains fragile and the government has to make its financial commitments clear, so there are many challenges ahead. But we have begun to visualise the new university – a just and ethical one of excellence in which the dignity of students, workers and academics is cherished equally.

On the face of it, the just and ethical university will be too expensive to run. In reality, an unjust, unethical and soulless university is much more costly. Maybe this is what Afrikaans-speakers mean when they say sometimes goedkoop is duurkoop – cheap is expensive.

Tinyiko Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTinyiko

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