Wits can be a model for Africa

Eddie Webster suggests that Wits University academics would do well to look at other African universities for some hints on how to handle change

IN his insightful article on his alma mater (“Wits — Barometer of Change”, Weekly Mail & Guardian 24-30), Anton Harber concludes that Wits “has become a model of poor change management”.

He concedes that it faces a “tough task” but this is “made worse by the fact that it is run by academics with limited management skills”. He is especially harsh (but not unfairly so) on “those who trash the campus” for giving “the administration the opportunity to deflect the issues with a new round of finger-

This last comment gets to the heart of the matter; our failure to progress in discussions about the long-term future of the university. The need for concrete discussion on the future of the university in Africa was brought home to me sharply last week while on a visit to Dakar in Senegal.

I had been invited to a workshop of African scholars organised by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria). I also visited the Sheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, the oldest university in West Africa, established by the French in 1958. Universities in Africa face two central

Firstly, there is the dramatic decline in resources available to universities. The results of this fiscal crisis were all too clear at the Sheikh Anta Diop University. The university is badly run down. It was designed for 12 000 students but currently houses 20

The result is over-crowded residences with as many as 20 students to a room. Academics earn miserable salaries (in the region of R500 per month). There is little funding for research and virtually no books.

I visited the library. None of the journals vital in the field were available and the library seemed to have stopped ordering books in the 1970s.

Unlike South Africa, protests were being led by the academic staff association. Last year, they went out on a month-long strike over an attempt by the government to unilaterally restructure the university.

That the university needs to restructure is accepted by responsible academics; what they objected to was the process — a top-down instruction from management. The result is that they lost the academic year through strike action.

After our visit to the library, I asked my host what they intended doing about the lack of resources in the library. Without much enthusiasm and a question mark on his face, he said. “Go out on strike again?”

The second issue facing universities in Africa is more fundamental. There are powerful interests who do not believe that universities have a function in Africa. The World Bank blueprints revealed at the 1986 Conference of African Vice-Chancellors in Harare stated that Africa did not need university education. According to this argument, Africa cannot afford universities and we should limit our resources to providing primary education.

On the surface, this argument is quite plausible; primary education is more cost-effective and in countries with limited funds, the higher education budget should be the first to be cut.

Few would quarrel with the proposition that rewards to academics need to become more performance-linked. But what this argument misses is that a workforce able to participate in the new global economy requires flexibility and adaptability. This means increased investment in human resource allocation, especially at the higher level, if Africa is ever going to compete.

Instead of developing this vision, many universities in Africa are stuck in a struggle for university autonomy and academic freeom against authoritarian states.

In Kenya, for example, academics from four universities have been on strike over registration of the Universities’ Academic Staff Association (Uasa). At the centre of the strikers’ demands are issues that call into question the role of the International Monetary Fund’s and the World Bank’s structural adjustment programme in the shaping of Kenya’s education system.

Most alarming of all is the random assassinations of academics by Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria. The professor of sociology at the University of Algiers, for example, has been forced into exile in neighbouring Tunisia, in fear of his life.

In his book, Algeria: The Challenge of Modernity, he attributes the vulnerability of academics to the failure of intellectuals to structure an autonomous environment during the period of national liberation. Instead, they reinforced the tradition of consensus, content to work as specialised technicians in service of the movement and later the state. The name of the game, he said, was not freedom, but social mobility.

It was out of this dual threat to universities — the fiscal crisis and state authoritarianism — that academics have discovered their own weakness and isolation. Universities could find neither alternative funding sources at a time of shrinking state budgets, nor effective allies in their struggle for autonomy.

In the words of Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani: “Driven into a corner, they discovered the local communities that had hitherto seemed no more than a natural setting and were compelled to look at themselves from the standpoint of these very communities. Against growing odds, they came to discover their own oddity: universities seemed to have little relevance to communities preoccupied with day- to-day questions of survival. Whether viewed as potted plants of questionable aesthetic value, or simply as mere anthropological oddities, academics were hard put to justify the priority of their claims.”

Paradoxically, many South African universities have been ahead of their colleagues to the north in developing links with community organisations. In the 1970s and 1980s many academics developed close links with the new social movements that emerged in the workplaces and townships in the anti-apartheid struggle. They set up research institutes and service organisations designed to help these movements through applied research.

In fact, Wits University sponsored a research project in 1985, Perspectives of Wits, designed to undertake precisely what Mandani is pleading for.

Today, many of the key policy directions of the new government are being shaped by the policy research done by these academics and institutes.

This is the kind of activity that will ensure the long- term future of universities in Africa. It would be a great tragedy if, as African scholars to the north of us start to look to us for a lead, we became preoccupied, in Harber’s words, “in playing a strategic game with students activists, outwitting them and isolating militants, rather than ensuring that the process of change is kept on course and is moving ahead despite the day-to-day disruptions and conflicts”.

I sense a reawakening among our colleagues to the north. Donors, especially progressives ones such as the Ford Foundation and belatedly even the World Bank, have come to recognise the role of independent research and critical thinking in African universities. More importantly, academics are starting to organise collectively in defence of their vocation and their right to teach and research under favourable

But they are expecting solidarity and guidance, not political point-scoring, from their better-off colleagues from Africa’s newest democracy. The best way of providing this guidance is by making the transformation forum — an ideal put foward first by the students and the Union of Democratic University Staff Associations (Udusa) some years ago — work

This would make Wits a model of a new type of university governance, not a symbol of the past.

Eddie Webster is professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand

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