/ 26 March 2010

Leaving the bay

In the first article I wrote for Higher Learning three years ago I put forward the then somewhat radical view that the then department of education should be split.

In fact, one of the guiding principles of this column has been to think aloud about possible future scenarios for higher education.

So it is fitting, in this last contribution, that we look forward to April when Comrade Blade (Nzimande, the minister of higher education and training) will convene a stakeholder summit on the future alignment of higher education.

In the concept paper there are 25 questions. They cover the familiar landscape of academic retention, transformation, differentiation, race, council responsibility and the student experience. In the department’s wisdom, it has allocated two days to cover this mess.

I’ve been to four-day conferences on some of these lesser issues and we’ve made no ground. Unless. Unless Blade has already figured out where he wants to go with this. At the end of the summit there is supposed to be a declaration.

My guess is that it has already been written; not the declaration which can only be blah blah anyhow, but the plan of action that ‘gives flesh” to that epistle.

So I’d like to set out the document that I hope has already been written.

  1. There will be no more policies. Or, if there are, they will be written after the fact. I know that it’s been 13 years since the White Paper (and look where that got us). It achieved all the things that it wasn’t supposed to achieve, some of the things that it set out to do (by mistake) and failed abysmally to get the only major point — transformation — across to institutions.
  2. Don’t debate differentiation, do differentiation. That apoplectic state in which higher education finds itself is precisely because Kader (Asmal, former education minister) debated when he should have acted and acted when he should have debated. As Blade recently intimated, universities of technology belong firmly in the camp of the further education and training colleges; the historically disadvantaged universities can, and should, be doing only teaching; research and innovation should be left to the big five or six and the science councils.
  3. Don’t pay academics more. The big secret of our universities is that you don’t actually need academics. They are a noxious breed who tend to bitch and bicker about everything and, having convinced themselves of their intellectual prowess, they veer, over the years, towards less and less labour. The real work is always done by enthusiastic, underpaid and naive postgraduates. They are the real workforce of the university. If we take the number of postgraduates from 7% to 10%, we could probably fire — at a conservative estimate — 10% of those professors who do nothing and better than meet the demand side of higher education.
  4. Screw throughput. There are approximately 2.4-million young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who have had no access to higher education. Bring them in. Stop worrying that only 50% of our students ever graduate and concentrate, rather, on getting more students through the gate. There will, inevitably, be rough diamonds who will make it through and excel. Those who don’t make it will have, at least, had the chance. It’s a model that works well in India and should be adopted wholeheartedly in the name of free enterprise.
  5. Higher education is free. Don’t laugh. All students entering our hallowed portals will have the opportunity to tick a box that says ‘free higher education”. If they do, they enter into a contract with the state that allows the state to use them as they see fit until they repay their debt. Any course, semester, or year failed will still see them paying back the principal amount as a dishwasher in a dusty corner cafe in Mpumalanga.

There’s a couple more interventions needed, but we’ve come to the end. As old Bob would say: ‘But the funniest thing was / When I was leavin’ the bay / I saw three ships a-sailin’ / They were all heading my way / I asked the captain what his name was / And how come he didn’t drive a truck? / He said his name was Columbus / I just said, ‘Good luck—”