Ignoring local realities

Transformation in Higher Education: Global Pressures and Local Realities in South Africa edited by Nico Cloete, Richard Fehnel, Peter Maassen, Teboho Moja and Trish Gibbon (Juta)

The editors say this book is “the product of a collective effort of tracing and examining the twists and turns taken by processes of change in the South African higher education system in a context of profound societal and global transformation”.

While the justification for this effort on the part of the authors may probably be found in the long and complex partnership some of them have enjoyed as a set of higher education policy-wonks and the continual search for “relevance” that besets those in this occupation, the results of this effort are a lot less interesting and amusing.

Unsurprisingly, they find “… the equity objective in the post-1994 period was not met … while the complexion of the elite had changed, the gap between ‘those with’ and ‘those without’ higher education had not decreased … For historically black universities the new South Africa was a disaster. The policy intentions of institutional redress and an increase in capacity did not materialise …

“The consequence was that the gap between the historically black universities and the historically advantaged institutions widened. Viewed from a statistical and funding perspective, it would appear that the new South Africa benefited not the black institutions, but the historically Afrikaans-medium institutions …”


Where does the fault lie? In Chapter 13 we are presented with three possible arguments. “The first is a kind of conspiracy theory: it argues that global capitalism was never going to make an equitable transformation possible and so the source of the widening gap between institutions must be found in globalisation, the Washington Consensus and the ANC government which ‘sold out’ the ideals of the anti-apartheid struggle.

“The second line of argument is that the new bureaucracy did not have the experience or capacity to implement the over-ambitious, complex policy proposals initially developed by intellectuals outside of the bureaucracy.

“The third, and we hope more enlightening path that we wish to explore, concerns the intricate and often contradictory relationships between South Africa’s entry into the global world in the post-1994 period, the problems of forming a new state, the growing interaction between higher education and society, and the responses of higher education institutions firmly rooted in certain traditions and social contexts.”

The authors of chapter 13, Nico Cloete and Peter Maassen, adopt the usual argumentative manoeuvre, namely to caricature everybody else’s argument and then present their own supposedly nuanced and subtle Aristotelian midway. And so the explanations offered for failure, although basically sound, are not very enlightening.

In asking why institutional redress policies have failed, the authors point to differences within the higher education community and disagreement between political actors within the new government, but hold that “arguably the most telling factor was the government’s macroeconomic policy … With Gear, efficiency took precedence over redress …”

Few would disagree with this conclusion but I hoped to put down the book with an understanding of how the growth, employment and redistribution (Gear) strategy came to be embodied in the workings of “institutional forums”, senates, admissions policies, department closures, research orientations and so forth. I wanted to know which intellectuals, unions and student activists had opposed or hastened this process.

This is important because no matter how many abstract policy documents with which the authors are able to display some familiarity, it is the concrete reception of these policies that really requires investigation. There is an important history for anyone truly interested in “local realities” that this anthology ignores.

If this is not enough, we are glibly told, for instance, that the unbannings of 1990 meant for intellectuals “a shift from critique to policy deliberation”. This statement ignores powerful trends, which existed at universities such as the Western Cape, Wits, Vista and Durban-Westville (UDW), that pointed to the dangers of universities (and intellectuals housed there) relinquishing their semi-autonomy even to a democratic government.

If the past is done no justice, what does the book make of the future? What are the solutions? Most answers lie in the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) report of 1996. Any reviewer is duty-bound to point out that not all the editors can be described as independent witnesses to the credibility of this forum, however, since two of them were movers and shakers on the NCHE.

Having said that, it is relevant that the NCHE report is praised for having suggested “a national consultative forum consisting of two parallel councils, the first composed of stakeholders, the second of technical experts”. The rejection of an “expert forum” was, in the expert authors’ opinion, the wrong option. What happened in practice was that the minister of education set up “a committee weighted from the financial sector rather than the education sector …”

While I agree that the intrusion of the logic of capital into tertiary education is a shame, I am not so sure that I am an adherent of a recurring theme in the book: to leave transformation to the experts (read lucrative consultancies) and all will be well.

It is precisely the interventions of many of these experts, during moments where transformation at particular institutions might have taken a more egalitarian tack, that harnessed intellectuals, departments and stakeholder organisations to the process of state-(re)formation. Now that those in control of the democratic state have made common cause with big business, the credentials of these same experts as custodians of the academy are rather thin.

Is there any merit in the book at all? It contains a wealth of empirical detail captured in graphs and tables. But it has no great theoretical muscle. So it isn’t suited to those looking for intelligent historiography. This is ironic because the work is thereby rendered required reading perhaps mainly for the very bureaucrats at whom the authors, one gets the impression, sneer.

Although it comes in for some criticism, it is precisely the centrality of the market that ultimately leads the authors entirely to obscure other actors in tertiary education. Students exist in the book only as customers: there is no trace of an educational demand that defines critical capacities rather than skills immediately linked to the labour market.

The recent mass struggles against the marketisation of universities, such as at UDW where a student was killed, get no mention. This is because “resistance” is excised from “transformation”, creating a binary opposition that is largely ideological and normative. The world of university labourers, a world of retrenchment, precariousness, denial of basic rights and struggle is largely represented through graphs, tables and statistics.

The best I can say is that this book will be an aid to alerting different constituencies to the already occurred consequences of accepting a model of the market-driven university, with or without formal privatisation, where the state and private consultancies cooperate in linking funding to technical forms of performance assessment and standard evaluation.

This is the brave new world where access to resources is increasingly dependent on the success of marketing efforts aimed at selling the university-corporation to a global audience of students and funders. In this context, as Bill Readings writes, words like “standards” and “excellence” lose contact with the content of what is taught at universities or with its intellectual relevance, and they rather become “disembodied currency units” in the global market for grants and research contracts.

This is not a book of critical reflection, posing possible strategies for a way out of the ongoing disembowelment of our universities. It cannot be if one looks at the people solicited for their reflections. All of them, bar one, are management figures. Interestingly, neither Minister of Education Kader Asmal nor his director general are listed under those asked for reflections, although the former Bengu administration is given much airtime.

A while ago C Wright Mills wrote about “crack-pot realism” — so labelled, as John Bellamy Foster was later to put it, “because of its narrow conception of reality and its mere acquiescence with the main drift of political events”. The book often gives the impression of being in this vein.

A critical reflection on higher education focusing on global opportunities and local possibilities, and how these were denuded by consultants (some with sound anti-apartheid credentials) acting as the handmaiden of increasingly right-moving state agenda, awaits its historian.

Ashwin Desai’s latest book, We Are the Poor: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa, is published by Monthly Review Press

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