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Farewell the hallowed ground

Bowed down by race legislation in the old South Africa, higher education (HE) appears to be taking a political beating from the many, many demands of the new, as this personal anecdote illustrates.

A month ago, a distraught student threatened to drop my honours class. The reason? Family circumstances had suddenly deteriorated and funds intended for support at university were being siphoned off into the family budget.

As I grappled with a possible solution, my thoughts returned to a paper written in the early 1990s. In it, the country’s most distinguished historian pointed out that money to sustain the studies of promising students was supporting extended families. Many, myself included, ignored the message. Political change, we believed, would resolve issues like this because the greater burdens of HE would be taken on

by the state.

What politics has produced the past in the present?

The earliest responses to transformation were met by a managerial

fad — a rash of mission statements swept across the country. In endless — often quite mindless — platitudes, these proclaimed the goal of service to all South Africa’s people, promised future academic excellence but never conceded political misdemeanours of which, given apartheid and the Cold War, there were many.

Lasting political pressure was being brewed elsewhere, however. As the banalities proliferated, little attention was paid to how the goals of HE could be achieved in the light of global shifts in macroeconomics.

The hope of a golden future —called ‘massification” by the forced and plastic jargon of HE technical speak — was contingent on the promise of the Reconstruction and Development Programme: very little account, alas, was taken of the impact that a policy like the growth, employment and redistribution strategy would have on HE in South Africa, notwithstanding that neo-liberal economics had entirely rearranged HE across the world.

Was this the result of the sector’s isolation from the rest of the world, or the hope that attended the ending of apartheid?

Difficult to say, really.

Given this initial let-down, it is not surprising that the politics of HE in post-apartheid South Africa has been a clumsy pas de deux: a government unwilling to spend more money, and an HE sector that has had to manage endless pressures from staff, from administrators, from students, from parents, from alumni.

If this was not a difficult enough balance to maintain, under the codes of democracy calls for openness have made the public near-voyeurs in the day-to-day affairs of higher education — a condition decidedly different to what institutions faced in the old South Africa when the principle of autonomy often stayed the public’s interest, though seldom the apartheid government’s hand.

As things unfolded in the late 1990s, relations between government and sector were increasingly strained by mismatched styles. So, as goal-directed management took root, especially on Minister of Education Kader Asmal’s watch, HE institutions found themselves at the sharp end of policy directives. Not only was the news — especially over redress funding — from the government badly received, it also jarred with the labyrinthine committee system that still characterises management routines in HE institutions.

If, however, misunderstanding and its maladministration twin, miscomprehension, strained the dance between the state and HE institutions, it was a succession of catastrophic appointments to the senior management of institutions that tipped the balance — certainly in the public’s mind — away from the importance of institutional autonomy, towards the acceptability of a more intrusive government policy.

Credence was added to this shift by a series of strategic interventions in the policy discourse: especially important were those that developed around the threat that globalisation was said to pose to local institutions. This had two effects on the future of the sector.

It strengthened a view — first advanced by labour — which held that HE in South Africa should serve instrumentalist rather than academic ends. This in turn fortified a belief that local tensions, especially over resources, could be dissolved by economies of scale. This brought an idea that had been tried in other parts of the world into the policy frame — institutional mergers.

Ignoring the shifting balance between the government and the institutions, South Africa’s HE cognoscenti predicted a calamity for the government’s merger proposals, and yet — surprise, surprise — 18 months after they were first tabled, the manoeuvre seems to be proceeding deliberately, with both dispatch and direction.

Does this mean that the conflicts over mergers have been resolved? Has a modus vivendi finally been reached between the government and the sector? Is this to be the beginning of more graceful ballet? These are all difficult political questions. Take the first.

Merging HE institutions is like trying to integrate countries — loyalties are fierce and furious, stereotypes are often entrenched and unshakeable, and blood and guts are often preferred to plain commonsense. As the recent fracas in the European Union between the Germans and the Italians shows, almost 50 years on, the work of merging sovereign entities never seems to be done.

Given their countries’ divided past, this outcome may still be possible in the merger process. For all they have currently come to share, South African universities, certainly, have traditionally regarded themselves to be within quite distinct cultural cocoons. This, of course, was intentionally shaped by the very essence of the famously named Extension of Universities Education Act of 1959.

What South African institutions have been asked to do is abandon history by carefully orchestrating new public personas in the name of the common good. This is a test not only of the power and force of rationality in political discourse but, more interestingly even, of nation building itself.

Assuming all goes to plan, does this signal agreement between the government and the HE sector?

Certainly, the ground between the two has shifted. The merger process signals the end, in South Africa, certainly, of the campus as hallowed ground — to use the famous appellation of a one-time president of Harvard. South Africa’s HE institutions have sanctioned a remarkable degree of state intervention — a

situation that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

This has happened because the cultural politics that anchored the discourse over higher educa-tion in the old South Africa has yielded to the idea of the primacy of

economics as the basis for all social relations. As a result of this transaction, tertiary education has been turned away from the free, rational advancement of knowledge towards the production of professionals to build a competitive economy.

Many in traditionally strong HE institutions argue that this turn has corroded excellence — a word that has largely been absent from the HE conversation in recent times. The only acceptable route back to excellence, they hold, is through the production of first-rate, internationally competitive research.

But here the politics of resources and of racial transformation have reappeared with some vengeance. To secure excellence, the HE sector will require a massive increase in funding — a fact confirmed by a recent study that suggests that the most productive research cohort in the country are white males over the age of 50. There are, however, not enough resources allocated to research to continue the current level of output, let alone correct the race and gender imbalance.

The return to the idea of excellence, however, suggests that while the mergers may have given South African HE a sense of direction, much remains to be done. The issue facing the redoubtable minister and his increasingly experienced team, then, is: What next on the political agenda of HE?

Both compassion and sheer common sense suggests that they should begin where things hurts the most — HIV/Aids. South African students are dying from the pandemic but, amazingly, no one seems really sure of how many are infected.

Increasingly heroic efforts by the South African Universities Vice-Chancellors Association and the Committee of Technikon Principals to regularise both policies and procedures over HIV/Aids throughout the country face many obstacles — institutional rivalry, bureaucratic obstruction and that new (but very old) problem, money.

As students first falter and then fade from the classroom, it seems obvious to university people that more should be done. A complicating issue, the government’s obdurate approach to the politics of HIV/Aids aside, is that privileged attention would raise a cry of elitism — why should students be treated differently to the rest of society?

Deadly serious and complex as the HIV/Aids issue undoubtedly is, the paramount political threat to HE, embarrassingly, lies close to home: the flight of young and talented professionals. Poorly paid in a country (and a world) that is organised around the primacy of economics, the best and the brightest academic minds are heading for greener pastures.

For HE in South Africa, the long-term effects of this may be terminal. Unless the issue is tackled — and soon, too — the country may have to import personnel to stock an HE institution for each of 21 years — this will simply keep each one of the country’s 21 newly minted institutions afloat. It certainly will not deliver the excellence necessary to meet global competition — the point that clinched the merger argument.

Faced with this prospect the sector’s recent politics — the mergers included — will seem a little trivial.

Peter Vale is Nelson Mandela Professor of Politics at Rhodes University. Between 1999 and 2001 he was vice-rector for academic affairs at the University of the Western Cape. Recently, his new book Politics and Security in South Africa has been published by UCT Press .

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