Have our education institutions reached a tipping point?

Did you know that the number 23 is not only a prime number but also the tipping point in the birthday paradox?

In probability theory the birthday paradox holds that in a group of 23 randomly chosen people there is a greater than 50% chance that a pair of them will have the same birthday.

And if that’s not spooky enough, 23 is also the number of higher-education institutions in South Africa. Oh, and the clincher, 23 is the number of sector and education training authorities (Setas) in existence. But they also have something else in common.

Under the umbrella of academic freedom in the case of the former and in the confusion that has always surrounded the latter, these 46 institutions have quietly gone about building their own empires.

Call them ivory towers or skills fiefdoms, the similarities across the occupational-educational divide have created mirror images of themselves.

Now the ministry of higher education and training has to accommodate these egotistical bedfellows. The warm-up to this ‘congress” makes for spirited times in higher education.

No wonder Jonathan Jansen, that garrulous old tattler, has a weekly column in the dailies. Not only can he chart the daily wings and roundabouts of Blade (Nzimande) and Angie’s (Motshekga) latest exhortations, he can also use the space to defend himself against that open letter penned by Jesse Duarte.

That the spokesperson of the ANC has the time to pen open letters (and rebuttals against rebuttals) to minions like Jansen is amazing, but to do so with such vitriol and veiled threat is disproportionate. If she were to respond to every gaffe made by our vice-chancellors she would have to employ an erudite cadre of writers to deal with the backlog.

The Jansen affair could be forgotten as just another day in robust political absurdity, if it was not compounded by her somewhat sinister claim that the ‘UFS [University of the Free State] is not a private institution, but one subsidised by the ANC-led government”.

An argument given clarity by Neels van Rooyen, who promised ANC interference if transformation of the UFS didn’t proceed in the way that the ANC saw fit. This sorry tale, with two other elements, point to a storm growing within higher education.

The first is apparently innocuous and concerns the resignation of Cheryl de la Rey from the Council on Higher Education (CHE) to take over as vice-chancellor at the University of Pretoria. That the astute De la Rey managed only a little over a year at the helm of the CHE suggests that the politics there was more intense than the prospect of leading the University of Pretoria.

Or was it simply her sense that she could not advise the minister on any one aspect of the higher education system because the system exhibits all the signs of deterministic chaos? And as a psychologist she had no hope of solving problems that were properly the domain of physics?

The second sign is not a qualitative change, but rather a quantitative shift. It was telling that the big news from the department of science and technology this month was Naledi’s (Pandor) promise of R50-million to fund research chairs, which was a touching bequest to her former department.

During the same period comrade Nzimande was firing left at the centre and right. Nzimande made calls for ‘more inclusive higher education” with recognition for prior learning. He wants a student bank set up.

He is determined to turn further education and training (FET) colleges into places where students would actually want to go if they had a choice. And then he’s on record as saying that the curriculum should be changed to become revolutionary, as opposed to liberal or, even worse, neoliberal.

What the study of revolutionary epigenetics would look like is anyone’s guess. Be that as it may, these statements are building a certain momentum that is more than populist rhetoric and offer us signs of the immense power that is taking shape in the department .

Once the FET colleges and Setas are in the fold and once the minister has access to the national skills levy, he will head a behemoth capable of crushing anything in its path.

While this big department flexes its muscles, while the ministry of economic development and planning bevears away at the solution for unemployment and development, I wonder whether the 23 universities and 23 Setas have reached the tipping point and are already on the other side of autonomy and freedom, academic or otherwise.

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