The trouble with transformation

In Beyond Matric (Mail & Guardian, April 16), Ulrike Kistner presents a frightening picture of South African higher education under new management.

I agree with many aspects of her critique as it pertains to the higher education system and not to any particular institution. I agree that ‘notions of transformation, equity and redress have acquired a plethora of meanings, interpretations and performative styles”, which often have become self-destructive and simply immoral.

I agree that ‘resistance to transformation” is often used to obliterate and invalidate debate before it takes place and that, in the name of accountability, efficiency and costeffectiveness, higher education is being commercialised and emptied of intellectual discourse. I also agree that institutional culture is a catchphrase seldom analysed.

Kistner’s analysis is sharp and painfully true in many respects, but for all its sharpness her argument is unfortunately partial. I would like to discuss here three aspects of her article: the constitution of academia, the transposition of the critique of black economic empowerment to employment equity in academia and, finally, the concept of transformation.

Academic teaching, Kistner says, involves a non-symmetrical relation of obligation that informs a network of ethical practices. I could not agree more. The problem with Kistner’s use of the notion is the assumption that (a) this has always been the case and (b) that this has been the case for every body involved directly or indirectly in academic teaching.

In South Africa this has not always been the case historically. Apartheid made absolutely sure that the asymmetries of teaching were multiplied by race and class to a point at which they gave way to structural inequities that undermined the very ethical foundation of academic practices.

The result of this: an academia divided along the lines of race, institution, language and culture, on top of the older divisions of gender, class, disciplinary field and philosophical approach. Many of these divisions have been theorised and discussed from a variety of perspectives since at least the 1960s.

By now we know that social conditions intersect individual choices and possibilities in often unpredictable ways. This knowledge does not allow us to talk about any grouping or organisation as homogeneous in terms of intellectual, political or ethical positions. There are no black academics or white academics with unchanged ascribed positions depending on their race, class or gender.

There are progressive and committed academics who serve their disciplines well; there are academics who choose to do their work well but without looking for the political or social impacts of their work; there are academics who do not do their work particularly well but who pay lip service to political and social commitments; and there are academics who neither do their work well nor are interested in any form of political or social commitment.

What we have inherited from apartheid is an academic domain in which the rules of formation and inclusion and exclusion were ethically compromised.

The processes of inheritance or incremental acquisition that allowed the educated elites, black and white, into academia under apartheid were not always transparent; neither did they always result in the fulfi lment by their members of ethical practices in relation to their disciplinary fields or to their students. Again, lack of critical engagement and generalisations do not help to clarify our current problems.

By critical engagement I mean both the uncompromising analysis of the concepts, processes and structures that support inclusion and exclusion in academia, and self-reflection on the ethical basis of individual behaviour. To add to our problems, the educated elite was too small in number and too unrepresentative of the demography of the country.

How to democratise and include, based on the restoration of rights that were violated? Inheritance was out of the question when most people had been disinherited. Incremental acquisition was the accepted path but this could take two or three generations.

Should we have closed down academia until a sufficient number of black PhDs and professors had come through the ranks in the traditional cursus honorum?

We could not do this—neither from a principled view of the problem nor from a practical response to the urgent replacement of an ageing cohort of academics. It was necessary to accelerate change in the demography of academia. This was done differently at each institution with various results. It is essential to reflect on both processes and results in the development of a representative academic staff .

It is true that, while some approaches have been based on respect of the individual and of the specific requirements of the disciplinary field and have been accompanied by an examination of institutional practices and of the definitions of the gold standard, others have been a betrayal of the individual and the discipline and have done nothing to question and change institutional practices.

But no analysis of the outcomes of employment equity in academia can be done if we start with the assumption that inclusion is not undermined by gatekeepers or that the acceptance of democratic processes and rights is never seen as a threat.

What about ‘new management”? It would be disingenuous to pretend that the reform of higher education that started with the new democratic dispensation was totally isolated from the global discourses that guided reform in other higher education systems. Many aspects of ‘new public management” entered our reform.

Accountability, performance indicators, productivity, monitoring, planning and quality assurance were incorporated into our discourse and practices as they were in higher education systems the world over. But this does not make every member of the management of higher
education and every vice-chancellor into a philistine anti-intellectual technocrat.

Moreover, at least in intent and conceptualisation, and sometimes also beyond that, South African policymakers and those heading different regulatory bodies at arm’s length from the state attempted to use seemingly conservative tools for progressive goals.

Just to provide one example: it is not possible to correct academic failure in the form of dropout rates if one does not know that students are dropping out, if one does not count on the technical mechanisms to analyse what went wrong where and why. It is also true that the presence of monitoring and accountability mechanisms can replace essence with form and that discourses of efficiency are trumping more difficult-to-manage academic discourses and that this needs urgent correction.

The management of higher education institutions has become a complex task, which is so demanding that, at times, some academic managers forget that they were ever academics and their engagement with the purpose of academia is tangential at best.

Academic leadership ceases to be a requirement for the post and a small politico-administrative discourse replaces intellectual engagement. This does not have to happen and, moreover, it is not always the case.

Finally, thinking in terms of a policy framework that invokes transformation as its organising intellectual, political and moral principle, the uses and abuses of the term cannot be taken lightly.

There are many notions and definitions of transformation that encompass different stresses on equity and redress, review of conceptual frameworks, purposes and orientations in higher education, and these are variously translated in reflections and policies about current practices and conceptualisations of teaching, research, community engagement and management.

But transformation is not a settled notion. On the contrary, if it has any power, it derives from a constant revisiting of its conceptual, political and ethical force and from its application to the whole of the higher education system and its actors and not only to some.

The constant invocation of transformation by different layers of university management, academics and students within a new regime of accountability seems to have rendered the term empty, or, worse, destructive, despite the ethical purpose with which it was introduced.

Given these problems, the restatement of political orthodoxies (for or against transformation) without examining the impact of, for example, the utilisation of funding, planning and quality assurance as steering instruments of higher education reform and situating them in the broader terrain of global trends will not take us very far.

More than heated responses in the name of rationality or transformation, what is needed is to see whether and to what extent we have failed in taming higher education reform into serving a recognisable intellectual and ethical project.

Higher education reform has unsettled the relationships between academics, students and university management, as much as it has changed the relationship between universities and society the world over. That the donnish dominion could not survive massification and the new demands made of higher education was inevitable. Some aspects of the demise are to be lamented; others can be disposed of with greater ease.

What is not inevitable is the void that this displacement has produced, the distance that it seems to have created between academics and higher education management in outlook, values and concerns, let alone salaries. That massification has brought along a greater preoccupation with students was also inevitable.

What is not inevitable is the rise, in many institutions, of the idea of students as clients, which has undermined the notion of education as a pedagogic process that is not dominated by market forces.

A way of responding to this is for progressive academics, managers and students to question their position, contribution and ethical practices in the non-symmetrical relationship of obligations that academic teaching is.

Dr Lis Lange is executive director of the higher education quality committee of the Council on Higher Education. She writes in her personal capacity

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