Bra Blade was exasperated. It was four in the morning and he and a comrade were still poring over old policy documents looking for an answer.
‘Whatever we do,” said Gwede ‘to fix higher education, it must look as if it follows existing legislation. The boss wants it and what the boss wants, he gets.” But the two were flummoxed. Blade lit up a smoke for the umpteenth time that evening.
The battle for the heart of the South African university goes as far back as the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) in 1996. Written by a few neoliberals and disciples of Gibbons’ Mode 2 knowledge production, the report shifted the debate firmly on to a sector that had to compete globally and one that was hard-wired into technological advances.
Only a handful of South African universities could imagine that kind of future. The NCHE report imagined a 21st-century solution to institutions still mired in the 1950s. And yet this ideology seeped into The White Paper on Higher Education published a year later. It was also the ideology that permeated the Size and Shape Report that the Council on Higher Education (CHE) released for comment in 2000.
In that report the uneasy conclusion was reached that an optimal size and shape would see the black universities and technikons reduced to bedrock teaching institutions –‘backdrop institutions” — whereas the white universities would go on to become internationally competitive. ‘Listen to this,” said Gwede, thumbing through Cosatu’s submission to the CHE report in 2000.
‘We believe that higher education should be geared towards fulfilling the economic and developmental needs of the country and Southern Africa. We’ve been saying the same thing for years.” ‘It’s been going on forever,” sighed Blade, ‘the vice-chancellors just don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing.
The university is a factory for the production of a labour force. That’s its function. I nearly lost it at that University of Johannesburg debate last week. They refuse to understand that autonomy is conditional.” ‘Don’t worry, higher education’s time is coming,” said Gwede.
The outcome of the size and shape document were the mergers. It was intended to deliver a beating to an unresponsive higher education. But it also made ludicrous gaffes such as twinning the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education with the former University of Bophuthatswana.
It also nearly made another one when it turned the University of Fort Hare into a satellite of Rhodes. Apparently no amount of ministerial task teams that Minister of Education Naledi Pandor has put in place during her time at the helm makes any difference to the way that higher education acts.
The sector seems impervious to the dark mutterings afoot from the incoming cohort. Not only the new ministry of higher education, but the promise from president-in-waiting Jacob Zuma that every province will have a university and the call for the dramatic acceleration of participation rates.
It’s clear that government has high hopes for higher education. It’s just a matter of how. ‘Got it.” Gwede leapt to his feet, his finger jamming a line in a yellowing document. He read slowly. ‘The ministry will commission an investigation into developing an appropriate model for establishing a National Higher Education Information and Applications Service — that should be in operation by 2003.”
Blade saw the potential immediately. ‘We could control applications like a tap. We could flood them.” ‘Or starve them,” piped Gwede. ‘And once we control who goes in, we could shape what students study —” ‘And link it to the critical and scarce list.
At last we could get real bang for our bucks. We could call it the Central Applications Platform. You’re brilliant Gwede!” ‘Well, they don’t call me secretary general for nothing.”