Inefficient efficiency

A significant tension — if not downright contradiction — is at work in the on­going transformation of South Africa’s university system. Under the singular name of transformation, two projects with distinct and largely opposed political intentions are at work in changing the ecology of higher education. Current policy is stretched between the pull of democratic redress and the push of neoliberal reorganisation.

One dimension of transformation is essentially democratic, and has as its goal the replacement of the racially differentiated university system (the legacy of the apartheid state) by a racially representative one. No one is likely to question this as an ideal, though many significant challenges remain to be addressed regarding its realisation, both conceptual (how to enable a system of redress that does not somehow end up reinforcing the divided and racialised identities it is seeking to dissolve) and practical (not least that of successfully addressing the disaster that is the provision of primary and secondary education, the real sine qua non of effective redress in higher education). Here there is a general agreement that a real start has been made as black student participation in higher education has risen from 32% of total enrolment in 1990, to 60% of the total in 2000, and continues to rise.

But at the same time, and alongside this (or perhaps better, concealed within it), a less remarked but much more complete form of transformation has taken place, and one that is authoritarian rather than democratic in both purpose and practice. This transformation is that represented by the introduction of the ”new managerialism” into South Africa’s universities. And though less attention has generally been paid to it by the public mind, it is slowly becoming clear that it amounts to nothing less than a revolution in what the university is and stands for. The new managerialism has engaged a fundamental reconfiguring of the relations of power and authority within the university.

For the past 200 years — since, say, the founding of the University of Berlin in 1806 — the university functioned in what was known as a collegial fashion, with administration performing an indispensable but essentially cooperative and enabling function alongside the core activities of teaching and research. In the past decade or so, this cooperative and collegial structure — essentially a horizontal one — has been replaced and a new structure imposed. It contains the same three elements — teaching, research and administration — but with these now ordered and operated as a hierarchy, with administration — or, as it is now renamed in institutional taxonomy, ”Leadership and Management” — standing at the apex of authority.

It’s somewhat disturbing that the first visible effect of the new managerialism (aside from the quite predictable increase in senior managerial salaries, from twice that of senior lecturers in the late 1980s to four times as much by the late 1990s) was the emergence of a new thought crime: that of questioning or criticising university managements, and thus ”bringing the university into disrepute”.

That, at a gut level, such charges represented insults to both academic freedom and freedom of speech is increasingly obvious, and a matter for recent debate; but what I want to address here is something different. I want to suggest that the adoption of managerial perspectives works to distort academic reality, and that the damaging long-term consequences of this distortion are already becoming visible.

Any choice of focus tends to centre some things and place others at the margins of attention. The focus of the new managerialism is above all a certain idea of efficiency: financial efficiency, as understood and practised in the world of the production of goods and services in a competitive economy. Applied to (what then becomes) the business of higher education, its central concerns are financial: in the rhetoric of the new managerialism, the watchwords are ”value for money”; ”doing more with less”. But just how transferable are these slogans to the actual economy of teaching and research? The danger is that the financial focus marginalises and indeed makes invisible what most academics agree in seeing as the real substance of the academic transaction.

From the perspective of efficient financial management, teaching seems above all a question of the efficient transmission of knowledge and information. Understood in the most brutal terms — and the new managerialism prides itself on always adopting these — this means a focus on the size of classes, and an obsessive concern with the student-teacher ratio. Efficiency in the managerialist perspective is largely a matter of ensuring a good student-teacher ratio, with ”good” understood as the more students to lecturer the better.

But what the adoption of the managerial perspective has meant in is, almost literally in some universities, the disappearance or marginalisation of what most academics see as the key form of university teaching, the seminar. While the lecture form may be a matter of the transmission of information in way that managerialists can understand (lecturing to 500 students would always be more efficient than lecturing to 100 students), the seminar works differently, and there is reason to believe that it — rather than the lecture — would be a better form for understanding the reality of excellence in teaching which has become a part of the rhetoric of university marketing.

For what is most often said to differentiate university instruction from all other forms of teaching is its dialogic nature: its grounding in the actual practice of argument and counter-argument, in the to and fro of analysis, interpretation and disputation that the space of the seminar — and the space of the seminar alone — allows.

The analogy here is with just about any kind of sport. Of course, a textbook can successfully give you the necessary information for becoming (for instance) a world-class batsman. But only playing the game — and preferably being coached in the game — can make you a good player. The university is — or should be — the space in which you engage in the practice of knowing under the supervision of a good coach.

What may be lost in the managerial determination to end the small-group teaching common to most universities is the defining feature of higher education as dialogic in a tradition whose founding figure is Socrates. If the recognition of university teaching of dialogue is indeed lost, then all claims to excellence in teaching are hollow, though in ways that only those who understand the difference between knowledge and information can perhaps recognise.

Is it too far-fetched to suggest that from the perspective of the new managerialism in higher education such a distinction is impossible to make? The damning conclusion is that the most significant result of the application of managerialist principles to higher education is an unintended consequence in the extreme: the inculcation in students of a profoundly anti-educational passivity, coming through in immediate experience as the tremendous rise in plagiarism which is everywhere apparent. If this is so, it may well be the case that good management requires finer discriminations than the blinkered perspectives of managerialism allow; that good management turns out to be administration after all, and precisely the opposite of managerial leadership.

For good management involves the hard work of investigating the real, rather than merely forcing a template on it. It implies all the difficult and modest work of horizontal democracy (talking to the people involved, asking what the problems are, applying all the collective resources of intelligence and expertise to solving them), rather than the easy option offered by the hierarchical structures of this excellent new managerialism, which all too often appears to rest content in its power to order a recalcitrant reality to obey.

John Higgins is a professor in the department of English language and literature at the University of Cape Town

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John Higgins
John Higgins works from San Francisco USA. Media Studies, U. of San Francisco, Fulbright Scholar, Cyprus, Storytelling, Street Puppeteer, Prez: AFT/CFT Local 6590 @usfptfa John Higgins has over 283 followers on Twitter.

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