Too many chiefs

The recent Stakeholder Summit on Higher Education rightly argued the need for a national conversation on the future development of higher education in South Africa.

With the primary and secondary education sector largely in disarray and little prospect of correcting that in the foreseeable future, Minister Blade Nzimande called for universities to think afresh.

They must stop saying students arrive underprepared for their studies and rather face the fact that it is the universities who are underprepared for teaching the only students they have or are likely to get.

In a country committed to an equitable distribution of the life-enhancing educational goods that universities have to offer, ways must be found to welcome in and successfully graduate the next generations of students.

With less than 5% of the black population completing degrees, no one can doubt the urgency of the situation. No country can afford to deprive its citizens of full access to educational opportunity, or rob the most materially deprived of the hope it affords.

South Africa can ill afford the massive loss of talent and potential this completion rate suggests. Hence the need for the conversation about the future of higher education called for at the summit. Called for, but certainly not entirely realised at the summit itself.

For there was one voice significantly absent from the conversation at the summit and that was the voice of the thousands of academics whose teaching and research constitute the core activities of the higher education system.

Of the 500 or so invited delegates, only around 40 invitees were chalkface academics, involved full-time in teaching and research. As a result, conversation at the summit mainly featured as a dialogue between policymakers and senior and midlevel university managers (about five times as many chiefs as Indians in other words, a ratio that oddly enough represents the difference in salary scale between lecturers and some vice-chancellors).

Indeed, the absence of a significant academic voice was striking enough for Nzimande to acknowledge it and to suggest that the absence of a collective voice for academics was to be regretted, though academics had no one to blame but themselves. As it was, the conversation held at the summit tended to suffer from the relative absence of the academic perspective.

This absence came through in at least one striking way: the insistent foregrounding of subjective experience over objective analysis. Most of the separate discussion groups that constituted the work of the summit focused on the experience of students, workers, academics and managers and gave an opportunity to ventilate feelings rather than to analyse material structures and conditions.

When this was done — as in the session on academic experience — the objective analysis tended nonetheless to be submerged by a flood of largely anecdotal testimony. In this selective focus on experiences the summit followed the lead of the 2009 Soudien Report, which similarly consigned some aspects of higher education to the blurred margins of discussion.

More formally known as the Report on the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in South Africa’s Public Higher Education Institutions, the Soudien Report formed a central reference point for the summit’s whole conversation. But it was unsettling for this academic observer to hear the report introduced as both central and riven with apparent methodological and theoretical failings.

Much the same tension emerged in a later comment, apropos the report, that criticisms of it were largely because of the fact that ‘academics love to critique”. That this raised approving laughter from the audience only suggested that while some real difficulties with the report from an academic perspective were being acknowledged, they were being marginalised or simply wished away.

In fact, the report’s first critics were some of the people who wrote it. In several of those strangely bland textual moments in which major disagreements among committee members committed to producing a consensus ruffled the otherwise smooth surface, the report emphasises that it was ‘not an academic exercise” and ‘should therefore not be judged in terms of the strictures of academic research” or evaluated ‘in terms of the restrictions of academic research”.

What might the strictures (‘critical or censorious remarks”, according to my dictionary) or the restrictions associated with an ‘academic exercise” actually be? And failing or ignoring these, how should its conclusions be judged or assessed?

The report declares from the start that it was only interested ‘in obtaining a sense of the real-life experiences” of staff and students with regard to racial transformation. But there is the rub (or the stricture). For, to the analytical or academic eye, ‘real-life experiences” could have two intertwined, but ultimately different, interpretations.

In the first the recounting of real-life experiences can yield the subjective truth of the social, how the self reads the world around it and transparently articulates this in the indisputable voice of first-person experience.

In the second, however, ‘real-life experiences” are all too disputable, since first-person experience is always read as constructed according to a syntax of social power and difference which may be as invisible as it is determining.

As one of the founding fathers of objective sociology, Emile Durk heim, put it, ‘social life must be explained not by the conception of those who participate in it, but by the deep causes which lie outside of consciousness”.

In fact, the challenge of much academic sociology today is just how to recognise and reconcile first-person experience with objective analysis, and this is particularly so with regard to the question of race as one of the primary forms of contemporary identity politics.

The report does not seek to face such complex challenges head on. It blandly admits that it was content to privilege the voice of first-person experience and did not ‘seek empirical verification of the issues raised and the views expressed”.

But surely — from an academic and a policy perspective — you need to be very careful and academically scrupulous in interpreting an assertion like ‘examinations and assignments are used to victimise black students” if you want to improve the higher education system?

And you need to find out — rather than rule out of bounds, as the report does — the question of whether and to what degree ‘prior schooling was a factor in how well [students] adapted to university life”.

From the academic perspective (the one disallowed by the report), the acknowledged and even deliberate absence of objective evidence in the report must surely undermine or at least circumscribe its real usefulness to policy formation.

Paradoxically, to address the problems of racial redress in the South African higher education system, it is not enough to think only through the lens of race, with a consequent fixation on
subjective experience. The objective structures and conditions that constitute the material foundations for higher education demand attention and consideration.

From an academic perspective, these material realities (all of which ultimately have to do with student success or failure) range from apparently trivial issues such as the size of seminar rooms and lecture venues to the pressing questions of workloads and remuneration.

While many might agree that the provision of a four-year undergraduate degree might do much to counter the inadequacies of existing primary and secondary education, how much depends a great deal on how this would be resourced.

Does policy imagine this can be achieved simply by extending the working hours of existing staff (something like the equivalent of demanding that miners work an extra 10-hour shift a week), or are there plans for substantially increasing academic staff ?

What are the plans for resourcing a more effective graduate culture in South Africa? How is the nexus of research-driven teaching — the cornerstone of higher education — to be maintained, never mind extended?

How can we imagine the necessary growth of a graduate student population (necessary to simply reproduce the existing system, never mind to speak of expanding it) without making available proper funds for the realistic maintenance and encouragement of students at this level? These are some of the hard — academic — questions that need to be engaged in future conversations.

John Higgins is Andrew W Mellon research professor in archives and public culture at the University of Cape Town

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John Higgins
John Higgins works from San Francisco USA. Media Studies, U. of San Francisco, Fulbright Scholar, Cyprus, Storytelling, Street Puppeteer, Prez: AFT/CFT Local 6590 @usfptfa John Higgins has over 283 followers on Twitter.

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