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Dragons are lurking

Despite the recent teachers’ strike, things have gone well for Naledi Pandor, the Minister of Education; in the tertiary sector, she seems not to have put a foot wrong. Plainly, she has charmed the country’s vice-chancellors, who believe that her sympathetic ear and easy style provide a welcome change to that of her two predecessors.

But surely these two gentlemen — not to mention the bureaucrats around the redoubtable Nasima Badsha, Deputy Director General for Higher Education — will have told Pandor that dragons, far more fierce than some vice-chancellors, lurk in the gloomy waters around South Africa’s universities.

Believing that forewarned is forearmed, here are strategies to deal with six of them.

  • First, recognise that everything in higher education begins with new ideas. If these are absent the intrinsic purpose of both teaching and research die.

    Unfortunately, there are many indications that intellectual creativity is on the wane. The minister must surely know that it wasn’t always thus: apartheid ended because South African and other intellectuals asked searching questions and were able to deliver cutting-edge research, social and other.

    Today, alas, the instrumentalist purposes of higher education dominate the national agenda. Evidence for this is to be found everywhere. Consider, for example, the number of students who choose to study economics rather than philosophy or politics, anthropology or sociology.

    Indeed, the absence of questioning is to be found within the very study of economics where, with few exceptions, the mathematical and the practical are chosen above any appreciation of the discipline’s deep philosophical roots.

    Elsewhere, this same drift towards the simplified and the practical end of knowledge proceeds apace, even in the natural sciences where an interest in theory is hard to maintain. As the popularity of the applied postgraduate qualification — most often at the master’s level — has widened, most academic disciplines have crossed the theory/practice divide in order, by admitting more students, to strengthen the discipline.

    Unfortunately, the opposite happens: as knowledge slips its theoretical moorings, it drifts towards an organisational rote that leans ever more on management studies. Drawing on all the help she can, the minister has to help the country get the right mix between the intrinsic purpose of higher education and its instrumental function.

  • Ironically, the binary divide that existed between the universities and the technikons once offered a way to manage the relationship between the intrinsic and the instrumental — technikons delivered the journeymen engineers, say; the universities, the scientific ones.

    However, the collapse of the divide may well have produced what some are calling a marriage made in hell: the fallout from this may visit itself upon the higher education system for decades to come. Given that there is no going back, the minister’s political (not to mention her pedagogic) challenge is to ensure that if there is to be drift — and many think this is inevitable — this will be upwards towards the traditional universities.

    Here, of course, the minister will have to build strong partnerships with the professional bodies that, ironically, have been considerably weakened these past 10 years: they must be given a role in certification and in determining a judicious mix between journeymen and scientists — not only in engineering, of course, but right across the professions.

  • Find ways to ensure that South Africans continue to write the national script. There is only one sure way to do this: increased incentives must be found for local scholars to publish serious academic books.

    Within the new funding formula, in which publications contribute to the income of institutions, the publication of books remains a murky area: it is very difficult to administer. With journal articles this is easier because a tabled list of so-called ‘international approved journals” exists but, notwithstanding new proposals to determine the intellectual weighing of books and so rewarding their authors, it is still uncertain how much an individual book will yield. What will count for more: a weighty tome written by an internationally acclaimed historian, or a book of case studies for use in a business school?

    If the minister fails to provide leadership here, the country faces catastrophe. South Africa’s story will increasingly be written by outsiders who will rely not on local sources of knowing, but on caricature.

    This has happened in Iraq, where policy language, written in self-styled think-tanks, has morphed into a political outcome that has been determined by the market and the expectation of further mayhem.

  • Growth in higher education must be controlled. Mercifully, the illusory ideas of massification belong to a distant past, but the minister will know that political pressure on this kind of issue seldom wanes.

    If the higher education system grows slowly, the country can be certain that the most important targets of any higher education, its excellence and competitiveness, will be enhanced.

    However, if the system is grown too fast, the school system — which some say will take two generations to fix — will fail to keep pace with places in higher education. If this happens, and university funding remains linked to student numbers, the number of unemployed graduates will grow while standards decline. The costs of producing this outcome aside, astute politicians also know that the unemployed (or unemployable) graduate is among the most dangerous of creatures.

  • Although this has been stated ad nauseam, South African higher education faces certain collapse unless academic salaries improve. A good place to start this campaign would be to champion the cause of South Africa’s universities among the minister’s Cabinet colleagues.

    This sounds crazy, to be sure. However, the gossip mill upon which academe feeds is awash with stories that the government has no appreciation — some say, no understanding — of South Africa’s universities. And almost too bizarre to be true, surely, is the anecdote that the highest office in the land looks backwards — some even say nostalgically — to institutions such as Dar es Salaam and Kampala’s Makerere University which reached their heyday in the 1960s.

    If these stories are true, then the minister has her work cut out explaining to the country’s great and the good that South Africa has some very fine institutions, and some extraordinary, innovative and internationally competitive scholars, but to retain even this narrow edge will require more funding.

  • Finally, whatever the bureaucrats advise, do no further harm. In the past 10 years South Africa’s universities have experienced the most torrid and sustained period of interference since the founding, 175 years ago this year, of the University of Cape Town. In perhaps the most famous case of this process, the one at the University of the Witwatersrand, the most ambitious reorganisation in this institution’s 75-year history was mounted by a vice-chancellor who departed these shores halfway through the process.

    In other places, three-way mergers — some of which have been necessary — have left academics and their leaders shocked and bewildered; in some institutions, decades might pass before serious scholarship begins again.

    Is it any wonder then that the idea of further changes to the system will be greeted, not with the resignation that has marked transformation these past 10 years, but with utter disbelief that more intervention can possibly build better higher education? — Peter Vale is Nelson Mandela Professor of Politics at Rhodes University

    This article was extracted from Beyond Matric — a Mail & Guardian supplement

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