A question of excellence

“Weasel” words lurk in the corridors of the university to seduce uncritical academics into neoliberal thinking, and a look at just two such words—excellence and skills—highlights the extent to which these concepts silence concern with social justice.

South Africa’s despicable score on the Gini coefficient, which measures the national disparity in incomes, reveals the effect of rampant consumerism—a glance through any South African newspaper shows that the “amaBenzi” are the driving force of economic fundamentalism. In this context the university should be taking up its place as a voice for public good, demanding social justice and modelling a collegial and critical citizenry.

Instead we see that universities are increasingly constructed as producers for the economy, spewing forth ready-made labour, which then goes on to reproduce these injustices. And all academics, from lowly junior lecturers to lofty full professors, are at least partly complicit in the construction of the university as big business, with all the implications for institutional ethos and loss of academic identity that go with that.

One of the many ways in which they are implicated is by their ready acceptance of weasel words, terms that most academics hold dear and that proliferate in institutional documents and national policies.
But academics fail to engage the ideological baggage of words such as excellence and skills critically.

Excellence sounds an innocuous enough word, although clearly it is a very important one—it is mentioned in the mission, vision or core values of 17 of the 23 public universities in South Africa. We all love excellence.

The word could denote a public good that produces critically engaged and skilled citizens but it doesn’t. Instead, it is entwined with a notion of standards in dangerously decontextualised, neutral ways that become hegemonic. The feeling is that everyone knows excellence when he or she sees it—so that’s what we’ll strive for, curtailing any need for debates about our context or purpose as universities.

Relativist notion
This is not an argument for some relativist notion that the peculiarities of the South African context entail throwing the whole idea of quality out the window and adopting a laissez-faire approach. There is a lot horribly wrong with our higher education system that urgently needs addressing. But the facile way in which excellence is bandied about is dangerous for universities, though possibly in different ways.

In historically advantaged universities, particularly the research-intensive institutions, excellence is the card that can be held up to trump transformation. There is research that indicates that the excellence discourse is being used to maintain the status quo and prevent debates about context and purpose.

Excellence weasels its way into institutions in different ways. It is used in the research-intensive universities as the justification for an alienating environment that offers only the most limited access to their processes. But in many of our most historically disadvantaged institutions, excellence is held up as a dream of being world class in ways that seem so obvious and neutral that we don’t need to question them. Excellence allows these universities to avoid what their academic project could or should be—because, of course, it is excellence and we all already know what that is. By putting excellence in our mission statements, on our letterheads and engraving it on our corporate gifts, it will be thus.

What we really need, and what excellence forecloses, is an awareness of our history, our national and international context and a focus on social transformation, which should be the core to any university professing to be a public good.

The notion of a society driven entirely by the free market is constructed on words such as excellence in ways that they are reproduced daily so that they become “common sense” and serve as a powerful pedagogical force, erasing almost everything critical about education. If the ideological baggage carried by a word comprises decontextualised, neutral notions of standards, efficiency and skills then there seems little space for it also to carry contextualised notions of social justice.

Perhaps the time has come to replace notions of excellence with the idea of the ethical university proposed by Andrew Nash. Certainly the sector would be better off if we did away with the word excellence altogether.

Perhaps there is even more ambiguity about the next weasel word, skills.

How can anyone argue against a focus on skills in the higher education sector given South Africa’s dire need to address poverty, health issues, social problems and environmental concerns? They can’t. We desperately need to ensure that, with economic development, our citizens are equipped with the skills necessary for true freedom and human rights.

The knowledge economy
But the ways in which the skills discourse is constructed in national policy and the media are reductionist and lead us in much the same ideological direction as excellence does. The skills discourse is largely to blame for the reduction of the university’s many aims to that of producing labour for the marketplace and knowledge for the “knowledge economy”.

Arguably there has been a shift from the role that many thought universities might play in post-apartheid socioeconomic transformation by simply becoming producers of resources for national competitiveness and economic growth. This “high skills” discourse not only leaves little space for discourses of equity and transformation but can also be easily misinterpreted as requiring teaching that simply transfers workplace skills. The economic rationalist discourse of skills leads to production-line teaching and learning.

In the light of the truth that South Africa needs more skilled labour and universities can assist in producing it, it is hard to argue that we shouldn’t be funded, managed and steered in that direction. But this is an argument academics must be willing to make.

Language has the power to construct reality—we think in terms of that which we have words for. Academics need to be particularly alert to the ideological baggage that some words and concepts carry, to note shifts in this baggage and constantly to question the assumption that there is any shared meaning. Taking up the mantle of public good will entail shaking off a few weasel words.

Professor Sioux McKenna is higher education studies doctoral coordinator at Rhodes University’s Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning. This piece is based on her presentation at the annual conference of the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa held in Limpopo in November last year

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