An opportunity that will not come again

All South Africans who care about our future are committed to the broad principles of transformation in the higher education system, but there is strong disagreement on how transformation should be accomplished.

This continues to be the biggest challenge facing our universities today. The disagreements are potentially catastrophic and threaten to divide and even destroy our universities if careful attention is not placed on addressing them in a more constructive way.

‘Transformation” in this context is not formally defined anywhere but there is a general understanding of the need for racial and gender redress; increasing access for all especially the previously disadvantaged; changing the university culture to make it more inclusive; and responding to the multilingual nature of our society.

There is also widespread agreement on the need to strengthen the culture of human rights as enshrined in our Constitution; make the academic curriculum more relevant to the South African context; create more academic support for students; and make university systems work more optimally.

As we embark on the process of change, we need to ask: what kinds of higher education institutions are we aiming to create, what goals underlie our aspirations and what dangers are there in how we’re currently going about it? I would like to explore the changing climate that South African universities find themselves in and ponder our future by considering first the broad background of university culture and the fragility of intellectual life.

The evolving nature of universities
A casual glance at universities around the world quickly reveals that universities are not at all as universal as the term ‘university” might imply.

Universities show enormous differences in ethos, standards, cultures, systems, reputations and so on. I think that it is difficult to create two near identical universities, because of the complexities of such organisations, but mostly because of the traditions of autonomy and independence that lie—or should lie—at the heart of the academic endeavour. (One should be wary of university franchises if such things do indeed exist.)

Worldwide one finds liberal artstypes of universities (focusing on independent, critical thinking) and engineering and technology types of universities (focusing on practical skills) and a vast range of institutions in between, and even institutions that—at least to my mind—hardly meet the criteria for being called universities. It is useful to explore the enduring qualities of good universities.

The founding principles of universities are critical in determining their evolutionary path and future direction and development. Universities are not unlike living organisms that need to adapt to the changing environment in which they find themselves. This means that good universities are always evolving as they try to redefine themselves. Universities are constantly in a state of flux and this is ongoing and internal in nature.

The wide variation in universities can be traced back to the unique local and sometimes idiosyncratic conditions that exist within universities. Variation among universities is a very natural part of the evolutionary process of universities and is in fact probably essential for the wellbeing of any educational system.

Competition also breeds variation as universities strive to establish particular niche areas that strengthen their ability to respond to a multitude of external forces. Universities are also shaped by the social, cultural and political environment in which they are immersed and they are now increasingly being influenced by commercial interests.

Universities are vulnerable to political upheaval and economic turmoil, which often create shock within the system.

The fragile state of universities
Universities are rather fragile places. It can take many decades to build a ‘great” university—in a reputational sense of the word—but only a little while to cause reputational damage to an institution.

Some universities enjoy advantage because of their reputations, whereas others don’t seem to get the recognition they deserve despite their efforts, however laudable. Reputation and public perception are harsh realities that universities must deal with and good universities work hard to earn their reputations.

Universities with good reputations are able to attract the best staff and students and they are able to bring in private funding, such as endowments. Their graduates are sought-after. Universities find it difficult to recover from a damaged reputation.

Despite university restructuring plans and vast sums of money thrown at some universities, history shows that it is difficult to change the course of a failing university. Beyond the bricks and mortar, there is something ethereal about a university—it is the culture of the place.

University culture helps create a stable framework within which universities operate. Stable university systems are so necessary for the optimal functioning of universities.

Universities develop traditions over time and each university is unique in its traditional ways. It is because of their traditional ways that universities are often construed as being conservative places. Universities are often accused of being inflexible to change.

And yet it is precisely because of the security afforded by stable academic environments that free intellectual thought flourishes and new ideas emerge, ultimately for the advancement of society.

Universities are delicate and complex in this way as they are paradoxically conservative cultural places of lateral and even radical thought.

The importance of collegiality
Disagreements develop quickly within university settings because independent thinking encourages questions and counter-questions, arguments and counter-arguments.

Dogmatic views are quickly thwarted and dictatorial attitudes are hastily shunned.Collegial relationships and mutual respect are vital in the decision-making processes within universities and this ensures that the university holds together despite disagreements, no matter how fundamental these disagreements might be.

Scholars rely on the independent views of their peers to help make decisions. Peer review is based on academic expertise and deference to the body of experience vested in the professoriate. No single individual holds unlimited power.

Universities operate in ways that cannot be more different from the commercial world. Ideas and decisions emerge from cogent, logical and consistent arguments within an open, transparent and democratic ethos. Ethical behaviour and impartiality in judgment are the basis for university deliberations.

Universities are principled places and are guided by the pursuit of the truth rather than by expedience. Academic freedom ist he constitutional right accorded to academics to pursue the truth in an unfettered way.

These basic elements distinguish intellectual discourse from political discourse, which are often at variance with each other. Perhaps this is why it is so important that good universities strive to be essentially autonomous and apolitical in a democratic state.

The changing terrain of universities.
In attempting to address the historical legacy of South African universities the government has passed several pieces of legislation, formulated guidelines and set up regulatory bodies and systems to change the course of our universities and this has ushered in the period of transformation in the higher education system in which we currently find ourselves. This has created a unique opportunity for institutions to rethink the kind of university they wish to be.

The founding principles of each restructured institution will forever determine its future trajectory. It is therefore critically important that careful thought be given now to the manner in which change is being managed at each institution. This opportunity will not offer itself again. Increasingly, powerful university managers find it convenient to foist change on their institutions in autocratic ways.

The crass use of power trumps intellectual discourse as political rhetoric and populist beliefs increasingly hold sway within our universities. Democratic systems are being bypassed by technical and legalistic procedures and the university environment has become a highly litigious terrain.

Increasingly, universities are being run as corporations. Business-like governance structures are being inappropriately imposed on universities, which are still principally publicly funded institutions. This is threatening the core functioning of the university.

Ruling by decree might be a quicker means for change and also politically more expedient, but I seriously question whether this is a longer-lasting basis for meaningful change and I worry about the long-term impact this is having on the fragile intellectual life at our universities.

I believe that the path to transformation is as important as the end goals of transformation and that we should pay as much attention to the means as we do to the ends or else we will destroy the very basis of the university.

Need for democratic ideals
As we embark on our journey of change, the principles of university autonomy must still largely apply and government must resist every inclination it might have to intervene directly in the affairs of the university.

Yet, this comes with the all-important proviso that the university adheres strongly to the principles of academic freedom and good governance that are critical for the success of the institution.

Universities need to return to democratic values or run the risk of entrenching an anti-intellectual culture that threatens the very idea of the university. Change will take firmer root within our institutions if all affected parties actively participate in the process of change.

Variation in our higher education system is important and each university should be given the latitude to evolve freely and independently within the broad parameters set by the goals of transformation. We cannot possibly have a ‘one-sizefits- all” solution to the many different and unique challenges facing each of our universities in South Africa today.

Each university should be given the chance to develop its own traditions and culture within the democratic principles afforded by our Constitution and to be more competitive among one another.

In the end those universities that will stand tall among all South African universities will be those that have taken the goals of transformation seriously, and have effected change by democratic means and worked tirelessly to protect the intellectual freedoms that are the basis of the university.

Nithaya Chetty is an associate professor of physics at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity

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