The intolerant and the illiterate

Parliamentary portfolio committees are, by their very nature, sneaky. Every time the vice-chancellors are dragged before the education committee to make a presentation, they find to their collective panic that the agenda has changed while they were taking their seats. The animal that is higher education is similar to a large octopus.
It has way too many tentacles just waiting to be cut off. The students aren’t very bright, the postgrads don’t stay, the academics are lazy or just about dead and the management is inert or corrupt.

When Theuns Eloff—as the head of the vice-chancellors’ association, Higher Education South Africa—pitched at the last sitting of the committee he was pretty much a sitting duck or, more precisely, a big squid.

Eloff, by all accounts, is at the top of his game. He was recently made the chairperson of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, he negotiated at the shaky table of Codesa and he has five years under his belt at North West University.

Before you could say “benchmark tests”, he found himself in the middle of a maelstrom. Soon the urbane arch-arbitrator was nattering on about the lack of preparedness of first-year students. He claimed that these students couldn’t read or write or comprehend. But, surely, if they couldn’t read? — But be that as it may.

That, of course, was like a red bull to Jonathan Jansen, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, who soon weighed in with portentous comments about everything being the fault of the school system. That soon escalated into much finger-pointing and the beating of each other’s breasts. Which is where—as is usually the case with this futile debate—it ended. The worst part of this recurrent fracas is that, for all the bluster and bombast, it’s sadly true.

Blade Nzimande, the minister for higher education, has made it clear that, in fulfilling his numerous pre-election promises, he needs to get as many historically disadvantaged students into the system as possible.

That means, at least, increasing the numbers in our universities to about one million in the next few years. The only way to achieve this is to let more under­prepared students into the system. That means an increase in the drop-out rate and, as a result, wasted NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) funding. This will create more unemployed out-of-school youths who are in greater debt and with little ability to pay it off because they can’t find jobs. And that’s because they have no qualification. You get the picture?

For those students who manage to stay in higher education, it requires that the university employs more temporary staff to do the remedial work. This cohort of postgraduates and lecturers turned into school teachers cannot survive on the pittance paid, the hours spent and the woeful return on investment from students who can’t concentrate because they haven’t eaten in the past 24 hours. So they emigrate, go into government or become disillusioned and ruthless criminals. And that’s just the lecturing staff.

As this scenario plays itself out, all that can ward off the coming deluge is tenured staff. Thank God for the vibrant, eager academia that will act as a ballast to the increase on one side and the depletion on the other. Sadly, that’s not the case. The majority of academics who have managed to achieve tenure are not interested in teaching those who, in Eloff’s terms, “cannot write or comprehend”. They want to teach only third-year students and beyond.

This is partly because of their age. Our academics are not spring chickens. They are, in the majority, old white males. At the ripe (average) age of 57 they have—give or take an affair or two—very little in common with the incoming generation.

That makes for a diabolical combination: the illiterate being taught by the intolerant.

What will we do when the universities are chock-full of ill-prepared students, eager to learn, protest or get laid, and who are then confronted by old codgers who have let their eccentric flourishes get the better of them? And, in equal measure, what of the geriatric professors who have long since sought retreat in their offices with their manicured walls of books, a retirement that they cannot afford and their dim reveries of things long passed?

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