Bright sparks or empty tins?

The high levels of graduate unemployment provoke a key question: What have higher education institutions done to involve students in quality assurance structures concerning their own studies? Revisiting the past may help to shed some light.

Under apartheid, students were kept on the margins of institutional operations and were confined to the role of learners. They were seen as empty tins into which vast amounts of knowledge had to be deposited, as Paulo Freire, the Brazilian philosopher and educationist, would argue. They were in other words the passive objects of attention in the classroom.

Though students had mouthpiece organisations such as the National Union of South African Students (Nusas, dominant in the 1950s and 1960s and mainly liberal and white-led), and the South African Student Organisation (Saso, a black consciousness movement formed in 1969 under the tutelage of Steve Biko), the focus of such organisations at tertiary level was on politics. This was the case even in the 1980s when the focus of the South African National Students Congress (it dropped ‘National” in 1989) was on political struggle against the apartheid state.

This is not to say that the political focus was not important: students faced different forms of oppression from their respective institutions. Student organisations created a culture of protest and resistance. A case in point is the student protests against inadequate food services at Fort Hare University in 1955 led by the students’ representative council (SRC). There were to be many such protests at Fort Hare and other institutions in years to come, which often led to their closure.

Over the years, SRCs found themselves resented by university administrators and often marginalised. Some of their members were expelled. Onkgopotse Tiro, for example, was expelled from Turfloop in 1972 after criticising the apartheid government. There was no love lost, and little cooperation, between university management and SRC structures.

But not all institutions were involved in protest politics. Afrikaner universities in particular were nursed by the state, especially after the introduction of the Universities Act in 1959, which divided institutions along ethnic and racial lines. On the other hand, as Fort Hare’s former vice-chancellor, Sibusiso Bhengu, said in 1994: ‘English universities — received major support from industry. African universities were to depend on the crumbs from under the master’s table [the state].”

With the dawn of the new era in South Africa in 1994 and the changing landscape in higher education, and particularly with the Education White Paper 3 of 1997, which set out principles for radically transforming higher education, the role of students in university matters has been more clearly defined. It is felt that they ought to be part and parcel of institutional governance.

But the fact remains that the student agenda is still largely political, and that this is the framework within which issues such as student debt and fees are discussed. The recent furore on these issues at the University of Durban-Westville, in which the SRC played a vociferous role, is a case in point.

The role of SRCs in the new dispensation remains unclear, especially because it is no longer possible to unite people under a common opposition to apartheid. Moreover, the leaders of ‘the people” now govern some institutions, especially black ones. As a result, the SRCs in black institutions find themselves in a dilemma: whether to wage war with their institutions as they did in the past, or to redefine their roles and activities in such a way as to engage with ‘the people’s” leaders, and so run the danger of reducing SRCs to a prefect-like role.

But perhaps, as mentioned in government policy documents, the time has come for students to dirty their hands by playing a role and involving themselves in issues affecting their academic lives on campus.

Most important in this case is student involvement in quality assurance issues. These include teaching and learning, which form the core business of a tertiary institution. Curriculum, assessment of lecturers and research also come into the picture.

South African citizens are no longer living in an isolated society, as was the case during apartheid times. The country is now competing globally in all spheres, including education. Sound education that measures up to other world education systems is essential. As one educationist puts it, low-quality education has left many crippled: ‘To a frightening degree all in South Africa have been educated for unemployment in the past.”

How students’ mindsets can be changed from focusing on largely political or semi-political issues to the core university business of teaching, learning and research is a serious challenge to the country. The situation calls for education practitioners at institutions to fully engage students in quality assurance structures in an effort to draw them into educational matters affecting their careers.

Brown Bavusile Maaba is a historian at the Steve Biko Foundation

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