We should not be seduced by transformation rhetoric

The policy proposals on the new institutional landscape in higher education have been correctly described as the most radical and far-reaching educational reform since Verwoerd introduced Bantu Education.

Many educationists and commentators have expressed serious reservations or even rejected the proposed mergers as a “too blunt” instrument to achieve the educational policy goals.

Although there are instances where mergers may be useful, no convincing case for mergers as a common strategy to achieve increased access, improved equity, enhanced effectiveness and efficiency as well as greater research capacity has been made. There is some concurrence that the mergers are more a reflection of political and economic pressures than the transformation goals in higher education. Historically black institutions especially are carrying the burden of the proposed changes.

It is for this reason that we need to encourage the present debates.
Very few opinions have been as provocative as Pretoria University’s Jonathan Jansen’s suggestion that it is time to close black institutions. This has since been dismissed as ahistorical and endorsing apartheid-created inequalities. According to this view, the malaise afflicting black institutions is a result of systemic under-development. An undeniable fact.

Expectations were that the policy proposals would be based on the transformation programme of the education White Paper of 1997. Instead, partly because of the changes in macro- economic policy, we have witnessed a policy shift away from the vision underlying the White Paper. The Council on Higher Education acknowledged as much in its annual report of 1998/1999. Redress and equity considerations have since been eclipsed by the discourse of market-forces—rationalisation, efficiency and managerialism. The mergers—despite assertions to the contrary—will have the effect of entrenching the stratification of institutions along racial, ethnic, linguistic, class and urban-rural lines. We need to ask, whose ideology is served by the mergers? The proposed measures do not seem to be in the interests of rural, poor students. According to the plans Limpopo and Mpumalanga will have to do with one comprehensive institution and no university, in contrast with a less populous province such as the Western Cape, which will have three universities. The Ministry of Education seems to assume that poor and rural people do not need universities (unless the students would be provided with the means and opportunities to study at Wits).

Given the macroeconomic policies pursued it should be obvious that future generations of African students will not receive tertiary education that is funded by the state at the same levels as it is at present. Increasing tuition fees is a trend both here and abroad, but unlike those overseas, the majority of our students do not have the opportunity to tap into the family’s financial reserves to meet the rapidly rising costs of higher education. We should not be seduced by the rhetoric promising transformation.

Historically black institutions will carry most of the burden of the restructuring while the mainly historically advantaged institutions enjoy “the comparative advantage of business as usual”. Unless these matters are addressed, African students will continue to be marginalised and the creation of a critical mass of black intellectuals and researchers will continue to elude the country.

To understand the reasons under- lying the present trajectory we need to situate the government’s policies within the context of the global economy. Two conflicting imperatives emerge in this regard. The first one declares that we have to submit to the logic of global capital and financial markets. This entails rationalisation, privatisation and decreasing public expenditure. In this world view greater marketisation leads to “trickle down” development. The second view argues that national developmental needs should be given priority.

The latter is not an isolationist approach, but allows for negotiating the terms and pace of interdependence with the rest of the global economy. It takes as its starting point the needs of the community and locates the university within the regional needs as a development university. It is based on a reconciliation of the interdependence implied by globalisation and the needs of the economically and socially powerless. This view takes seriously the demands of the poor rural and working-class masses. It situates the universities within the conditions and challenges in the disadvantaged communities surrounding them. Through integrated, community-oriented undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, research and community outreach, these universities can contribute to fulfilling the needs of social and economic reconstruction and development.

By reason of their locality these universities are well situated to be involved in “socially distributed knowledge” production. It would provide an alternative trajectory in higher education, keeping in line with the ideals of the liberation struggle by expanding opportunities rather than limiting them. By refocusing on empowerment of marginalised communities it would disentangle from the prevailing obsession with management issues and its selective approach to the use of data.

Annette Lansink is a senior lecturer at University of Venda’s school of law

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