Deeds, not words for higher education

Former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Njabulo Ndebele tells Primarashni Gower of his concerns about higher education at the end of hisfour-year term as president of the Association ofAfrican Universities

What are your major concerns about higher education in Africa?
My first major concern is that the role of higher education in Africa is talked about so much but the affirmation remains largely verbal and is yet to assume clear policy realities, leading to concerted implementation.

Governments and heads of state in the African Union have emphasised the importance of higher education in the development of modern Africa.

In this regard the African Union has declared the Association of African Universities (AAU) the leading organisation in the implementation of AU objectives on higher education in Africa.

What bothers you about universities in Africa?
Many African universities lost confidence in themselves when government intervention in their activities increased with the onset of military regimes.

They became either dependencies or an irrelevant presence as a line item on the national budget, fulfilling a utilitarian function of producing graduates for the civil service.

Their prestige declined. To turn this round university leadership, academics and students must take collective responsibility for restoring the university to its rightful place in contemporary African society.

That means projecting a confident attitude when negotiating with government and focusing on a considered agenda of institutional contribution, and how they plan to pursue it with requisite government or private sector funding.

There is no other way to win back self-confidence and public esteem. We underestimate the importance of well-run universities in securing public support and esteem.

How do you stem the academic brain drain from Africa as well as create a new generation of scholars?
We need a massive institutional and infrastructure renewal. The reality is that most academics go into the field not to become millionaires, but because they have a passionate interest in teaching and producing new knowledge.

It is the responsibility of the university to ensure that people who come into the vocation of teaching, learning and researching ar adequately supported with good salaries and facilities.

This results in graduating students valued by employers and peer recognition through published work and more research funding. It is this that produces young scholars fascinated by their teachers and wishing to emulate them.

It is from such students that universities recruit the next generation of scholars. Beyond that, postgraduate education must take place with collaborating African universities working together to train master’s and doctoral students. Graduates from such programmes are more likely to stay in Africa.

What should Africa be doing to address problems such as access and poor infrastructure?
First, we must aim to achieve high quality teaching and learning environments in our public institutions. We must ensure adequate teaching, library, laboratory and recreation space. We must aim for good teacher:student ratios, reinforcing them with information and communication technologies that encourage and enhance selflearning.

Second, we must allow the growth of small to medium-sized private institutions, regulated and accredited for quality. Public institutions cannot be the sole providers of higher education.

Third, we must experiment with the vast possibilities of new technologies to enhance public participation in higher education.

Every African government must aim to saturate the learning environment with connectivity. That means we cannot afford to have countries with chronic power outages, fuel shortages, low internet bandwidth, poor civil service delivery.

Fourth, we must allow greater mission differentiation. Together these conditions should open up access to Africa’s higher education infrastructure, which represents the greatest strategic investment that governments can make to the future of Africa.

What concerns you about the South African higher education system?
For a start, it lies on a poor primary and secondary school base.

This situation cannot be allowed to continue. The seriousness of this issue prompts me to be so bold as to say that at this moment, for the next 12 years, the lower levels of education in South Africa represent the greatest strategic need in our national life.

This is in recognition of the fact that we cannot approach the lower levels of educational reform without a strategic focus and grounding on the transformation of community life across South Africa.

Schools are integral to how local communities create and reproduce social value. That is why a disembodied focus on schools without a concomitant focus on community restoration will not produce the required results.

Given the great deal of turbulence in our country in the past 15 years, my impression is that our
higher education system has emerged relatively stable and intact, particularly compared with the rest of the continent.

We do not sufficiently appreciate this fact. We should shy away from the mentality that we are somehow starting from scratch. The system has been ably consolidated since 1994 with a policy framework to allow for transformation to occur over time. It represents one of the achievements of our democracy.

During my tenure as vice-chancellor at the then University of the North, now the University of Limpopo, I used to say the university had nothing to lose but its past.

I would say the same for the entire higher education system in South Africa. This statement immediately imposes limits to my view of the system as one of our democracy’s successes.

Constituent parts of the system still have to shed their received identities. In this we must pursue mission differentiation with vigour as a strategic imperative.

Assuming mission differentiation, we must make access affordable for students of ability from any social background. The numbers of excellent private universities must increase to supplement the public system.

Does the government lean sufficiently on the South African academy for advice on issues or does it look outside for solutions?
It has not done so.

Relatively few South African academics have been let into government confidence on a variety of key national challenges.

The irony is that experts our government have tended to bring from outside have been challenged by their own governments for solutions.

So they have grown with the challenges of their countries. Although none of this takes away the right of government to source the best advice, our government has subtly conveyed an attitude of low confidence in its own system of higher education.

Treated almost as an ‘untransformed” adversary to be changed, the system became debilitatingly self-critical and insecure. It all led to a situation of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some universities made an effort and sought collaborative ventures with government ministries. Few such initiatives resulted in any lasting activities.

If the government does not bring its higher education system into its strategic confidence, while unrealistically expecting it to behave according to the articulated strategic goals of the government, it will get the universities it deserves: institutions that seek excellence in the dark, making hits and misses instead of sustained hits; institutions lacking in confidence because the national project has been horded by government, which then blames the universities for not being committed to it.

Many are the times South African academics have watched the government having consultations around the table at weekends with foreign experts addressing crucial national problems that we only read about.

This must change. South African universities have numerous talented academics thus far under-challenged and under-utilised.

What has also contributed to some sort of siege mentality in the higher education system has been the tendency of government to magnify problems of individual institutions on to the entire system.

If one or two institutions are not able to manage their resources, legislation is passed to place limits on all other institutions that have a proven record of prudence and accountability. There is an opportunity with a new government to move beyond this situation.

What pleases you about the South African system?
It has been successful within the parameters within which it was allowed to work. The inventiveness of the system across many areas in science and technology is above average.

Whatever challenges still need to be addressed, it is to the credit of the government that universities have a large measure of autonomy. I’m proud that academic freedom is protected.

The government has in the main been faithful to the principle of non-interference. Where intervention was unavoidable, it occurred within a regulated framework.

The system has remained intact despite changes and mistakes, such as some of the mergers of institutions that occurred. But none of these was enough to bring the system to its knees. The system’s proven resilience should be seen as a strategic asset.

What is your advice to the new education minister?
The South African higher education system is a resource with enormous potential. Help to bring the leadership and top researchers of the system genuinely into government’s confidence with regard to key strategic goals.

Such an approach would promise the sustainability of the system and the deepening of its impact over time.

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