Back to the future

It is worth remembering the maxim that history is the polemics of the victor.

There is no better example of this than the current convenient amnesia about past higher education reforms; these reforms have effectively erased memories of past events similar to what we are experiencing today. The difference between then and now is that, then, a tiny minority enjoyed these beneficial reforms.
And history was manipulated to engender ignorance. In reflecting on recent debates around issues of academic access, performance, through-put, standards and language in higher education, we are struck by a strange sense of déjà vu.

Much of what is under discussion today was experienced during the heyday of apartheid. And the solutions to those problems may shed light on current education reforms. And, perhaps more importantly, this retrospective view may help expunge the amnesia, self-righteousness and vestiges of presumed superiority that still linger in the hearts and minds of those yearning for the splendour of yesteryear.

What happened in the past that seems to have been forgotten in the current higher-education discourse?

Access to higher education for Afrikaners was a burning issue and had been pursued relentlessly for decades. Early 19th-century Afrikaner emancipation from British imperial dominion; the rural-urban migration accompanied by the urban squalor in white settlements at the dawn of the 20th century; sizeable “white poverty” and the demands of an industrialising economy; and the sense of discrimination experienced by Afrikaans-speakers in Anglophone universities—all of these were critical driving forces behind the need for increasing Afrikaner access to higher education.

As a consequence of growing Afrikaner power, especially after 1948, university enrolments began to surge. On the other hand, the 1963 Steyn Report found that only 55% of students entering the eight South African residential universities eventually succeeded in obtaining a first degree. Many of these were first-generation university entrants.

Particularly vexing was the high failure rate in the sciences. There was, interestingly, also no correlation between school and university performance. Only 62% of first-class matriculants accepted in science faculties succeeded in achieving a qualification. Various reasons were cited for the high attrition rate, including poor school preparation and the “weaknesses” of the university teaching and learning system. In an attempt to stem this tide, measures suggested included school-level quality improvement. Importantly, rather than restricting admissions, there was instead a call for a broader basis of screening as an alternative to the school-leaving matriculation.

It was evident that the suggestions did not require reducing, in absolute numbers, those admitted to institutions. There was no concern about standards having been compromised as a result of an open admissions policy; this was overshadowed by the need to increase success. If anything, funding was increased to correct the situation.

At the time, South Africa was sending a bigger proportion of its white population to university than any other country, and there was considerable spending on universities. The Steyn Report says that “if looked at in relation to the size of only the white population, it [university spending] has grown to be probably the most costly for any civilised [sic] population group in the world”.

Access was also accompanied by a political and economic imperative: it allowed more whites to become managers and supervisors rather than shop-floor workers. The Steyn Report opposed more stringent admission criteria, contending that by “putting up the standards, potentially good white university material might be excluded from a university training and ... thereby the much-needed, trained manpower in the country might be limited”.

If there is any doubt about the relationship between language and academic performance, one simply has to consider the virtual elimination of failures among Afrikaner learners over the last half a century, as a result of the establishment of Afrikaans-medium institutions. The relatively high incidence of academic distinctions here has less to do with innate intelligence than language comprehension, among other non-academic reasons.

Positive historical memory can also inform the present, as well as chart an upward trajectory for all. The Afrikaans expression, slightly modified, “die agter os moet ook in die kraal kom [the last ox must also get into the enclosure]” is apt.

Purposive memory loss serves no good except to feed denialism. It is akin to those who have experienced upward social mobility with the help of a ladder—who then withdraw it and deny it ever existed. They claim their achievement was due to self-exertion and superior intelligence.

Apartheid initiatives aimed at whites are an excellent example of policy commitment, buttressed by a sustained investment in resources, with a notable effect. Today, the difference is that access is motivated by inclusivity, nested in a democratic cultural ethos. Access is not just a moral issue but a fundamentally material one. National development imperatives depend on it. It will have a fundamental impact on national productivity and prosperity. Sobriety should be allowed to prevail so that the maxim “history is the polemics of the victor” is turned into “history is the polemics of democratic sensibility”.

Mokubung Nkomo is a senior research fellow at the Human Sciences Research Council and professor at the University of Pretoria. Salim Akoojee is a chief researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council. They both write in their personal capacity

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