Shhhh, we’re a university

Good show that we’re back. The summer break throws those of us in tertiary education into a humid hiatus where nothing happens. Apart from the bewilderment that greeted the media as the Department of Education and its watchdog over standards, Umalusi, reeled off their baffling National Senior Certificate speak, all was quiet.

But a sparse month later the staff are rioting, the policemen are shooting, the students are getting hit and the leaders are hiding.

All is as it should be.

Anyone involved in higher education would know that every day brings a good five or six (mostly defamatory) stories into our local media. What you might not know is that there are a horde of journalists out there who “specialise” in higher education. That’s how rich a vein higher education is for easy scandal.

If I were to anthropomorphise the South African university it would be a rotund old coloniser, full of whiskers and the smell of stale pipe, garrulously droning on about civil liberties and freedoms but who constantly gets caught with his pants down, about to commit some unspeakable act. And then on top of it loudly defends his right to carry on where he left off.

If only the universities would just keep quiet for a day or so.

Maybe they should take a leaf from their distant cousins, the further education and training (FET) college sector.

You hardly ever see a FET college in the news. In fact it looks as if there’s a media blackout of the sector.

Now in the United States there’s no such problem. The FET equivalent — community colleges — rub shoulders happily with the universities. Whether you want to be a fire fighter or a physicist, the choices are available and there is little social stigma about either.

Here though, there has been a historical battle to create an artificial hierarchy within the higher education band. And nowhere was it better reflected than in the desperate ploy to get the technikons renamed to universities of technology to distance themselves from technical colleges.

So what’s so bad about FET colleges? First off, they do smack of Blake’s “dark satanic mills” where the arcane arts of mechatronics or carpentry and roof work are carried out in remote areas like the CN Phatudi campus of the Sekhukhune FET College.

According to the department of education’s helpful booklet on FET colleges, if you complete a certificate in hospitality you can get gainful employment as a “waitron” or “housekeeper”. Yippee.

Also there’s so many of them.

Fifty merged colleges with numerous campuses occupy some of the most derelict, dusty corners of the country, with buildings designed by Broederbond apparatchiks back in the 1960s.

With the recapitalisation of the sector that has recently taken place they also have councils that determine the running of each institution. But this still hasn’t had an impact on a culture that sees the college as a mere instrument of the provincial government’s whim and the college chief executive as little more than a school principal.

For these and innumerable other reasons it’s easy to see why the universities see the FET sector as a useful — every engineer needs 10 technologists — but poor relation to their loftier pursuits.

Fast-forward to after the next elections when the vaunted ministry of higher education will come into being. Word on the street is that it will comprise both universities and the colleges under one new “higher education” sector.

If that is the case a disturbing picture begins to emerge. There has been some rattling of sabres among the incoming elite about the unresponsiveness of universities to the human resource development needs of the country.

Working on the erroneous assumption that it is our duty to produce graduates who can be deployed immediately into the service of the country, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and company are not convinced by our demands for autonomy and the like.

A new ministry, in which the FET component is already cowed into submission, can then start turning the screws on the “old coloniser”.

Universities blunder forward, in their state of undress, comforted by the notion that institutional autonomy is sacrosanct.

Not so. Government is faced with the long tail of last year’s financial crisis, rising unemployment and a continuing brain drain.

It will place increasing pressure on universities to replenish scarce and critical skills.

And if that means interfering in what a university teaches and how it operates then so be it.

Now is the time for us to be tjoepstil and, at least, look as though we’re cooperating.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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