Universities get a bad haircut

The Higher Education Summit in Cape Town in April addressed concerns about the poor performance of the higher education system. Its 15 recommendations will be developed for implementation but, in doing this, we should be wary of ideologies masked as common sense.

Unfortunately, the need for universities is increasingly understood only in terms of their contribution to the economy and the production of marketable knowledge and skilled labour. Their role as a public asset is largely lost .

If we deviate from the call for improvement to the discourses of the free market, then the universities risk harming their capacity to contribute to the public good irreparably. Succumbing to neoliberal assumptions that the efficiency of the market system can improve the functioning of these institutions effectively means they become training centres.

Efficient training centres produce work-ready students, but only in the narrowest of senses. They do not have the core purpose at the heart of the university of developing the critical awareness needed to keep democratic ideals at the forefront of society.

Universities occupy a particular cultural and structural space . The slide into the discourse of the free market essentially involves a misunderstanding of the autonomy of universities.

Universities are autonomous of the state, not in the sense that service providers are autonomous and accountable for meeting the dictates of their contracts, but rather in the sense of playing a role critical of society and the state. If universities produce skilled labour without equipping it with the ability to critique, redress and transform our broken society then the title ‘university” is not deserved.

The funding formula for universities relies partly on the free-market idea that a competitive fi ght between the institutions for a slice of the funding pie will ensure that the system becomes more efficient. This is problematic.

First, it ignores the huge impact of the underfunding of some institutions during apartheid. Not only were these institutions underresourced but they were also prevented from accumulating funds for improvement. This legacy is far from over and the promised revision of the funding formula needs to take better account of these harsh realities.

Second, the idea of the free market as the driver of efficiency in universities is flawed because the university is not a business. The available resources need to be divided up but public universities should not be pitted against one another in a way that makes a mockery of the collegiate underpinning academic identity.

Warnings about the incursion of neoliberal understandings of what the university should be should not be confused with the misplaced glorification of a bygone era. Although parts of the higher education sector played a role in dismantling apartheid, others were deeply implicated in propping it up .

The concern about free-market reforms in the sector arises not from false memories of a glorious past; instead it is a calling for all public universities to claim their primary role—that of driving society to an equitable, thriving future. The state cannot do this for universities: it can only contribute to the development of the structural and cultural conditions that will support and value the role of universities to perform this vital function.

The agency for implementing the role of the university as a public good is vested within the institution itself. To do this, universities need to be critical and reverse some of their own current neoliberal understandings of their purpose. They can begin by rethinking the roles of the vice-chancellor, the deans and the senate.

In some universities the vice-chancellor plays the role not of an intellectual leader but of a chief executive officer. This is accompanied by a focus on operating plans, which are driven only by financial concerns and regard the student as a customer.

Replacing the academic role of the vice-chancellor with a business management role is akin to getting a plumber to cut your hair or an engineer to represent you in court. Vice-chancellors should be leaders before they are managers.

They should be accountable to their students and staff above their accountability to their councils. And they should challenge their students and staff, and the sector as a whole, to take up their responsibilities as lifelong learners and critical citizens.

Vice-chancellors should foster a teaching and learning environment in which students acquire the knowledge, skills and values required of them in their chosen professions—and the ability to contribute to positive change in their fields.

Vice-chancellors should also foster an institutional ethos that empowers the staff to be critical of social structures, including the university itself.

Vice-chancellors should earn salaries commensurate with this responsibility but not out of alignment with the salaries earned by the staff they lead. The next level of institutional management can also be misconstrued by thinking of the university as big business.

At some universities deans are now executive deans appointed by management rather than by those they lead, and their main functions are bureaucratic and financial.

Deans should be the first among equals, elected by their peers—academics leading the intellectual project of the faculty and making the institutional mission relevant to their disciplines, while being open to taking a critique of this mission by their faculties back to the vice-chancellor.

Deans should drive an educational agenda whereby graduates are not simply equipped to afford expensive cars and all the trappings of a lavish lifestyle but contribute meaningfully to society through their expertise in particular fields. Executives, with inflated salaries to match, do not belong in public universities.

The third university structure that has, in many cases, fallen prey to the corrupted understanding of the university is its senate. The senate should not rubberstamp decisions or dance to the tune of upper management—it should be the most powerful voice of any university. It should deal not in petty politics but in the negotiation and critique of the shared academic project.

The summit has produced a declaration we can all support. Let us hope that the powerful and dangerous common-sense understandings from the marketplace are silenced by this call for universities to claim their position as a public good and get on with the real job of driving our society towards sociocultural and economic equity.

Professor Sioux McKenna is higher education studies doctoral coordinator at Rhodes University’s Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning

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