Storm over controversial varsity ‘commissariat’

Deeply antagonistic rifts that mirror long-entrenched conflicts in South African higher education opened up immediately following Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande's announcement this week of a permanent committee to "oversee" transformation at all 23 universities.

Both the need for such a committee and its membership, especially Nzimande's choice of controversial University of KwaZulu-Natal vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba as chairperson, elicited irreconcilably opposed and sometimes emotional responses.

These extremes oscillated between assessments of the committee as "a permanent commissariat to police transformation that will no doubt massacre some universities", as one academic put it, and a "welcome and long-overdue move".

The latter view is Thabo Moloja's, president of the South African Union of Students, who enthusiastically endorsed Makgoba's appointment as well.

So too did the Higher Education Transformation Network, a lobby group established in 2010 with about 3 000 members, mainly alumni of various universities. Its director, Reginald Legoabe, said Makgoba had "vast academic experience and exposure to the challenges of higher education".

His "boldness as a leader" suggested "he has not been influenced by the myopic schools of thought prevalent within the ranks of Higher Education South Africa [Hesa] and the Council on Higher Education," Legoabe said.

But the CHE, the statutory body legislated to advise the education minister, expressed "scepticism" that such a committee could even perform the functions Nzimande described on Wednesday.

Hesa, the vice-chancellors' representative body, expressed concern that the new committee's mandate appeared to duplicate the CHE's. "The purpose of the oversight committee is to monitor progress on transformation in public universities and to advise the minister on policy to combat racism, sexism and other forms of unfair discrimination," Nzimande said.

The committee would "advise the minister on policy to promote social cohesion and an institutional environment where every student and staff member can live, work and flourish free of … unfair discrimination".

Among the seven-member, permanent committee's terms of reference was to "evaluate the transformation frameworks/charters of universities", the minister said. It must also "bring to the attention of the minister any major problem areas or incidents affecting universities' transformation".

The establishment of the committee follows the inquiry into racism at all universities ordered by the former education minister Naledi Pandor in 2008, following the notorious so-called "Reitz affair" at the University of the Free State.

Reitz Four
It involved a video showing four white students in the then Reitz residence putting five black workers through humiliating "initiation" rituals. The video, which caused a national outcry when it surfaced in 2008, included footage the students filmed of a white student apparently urinating on food that the workers were then forced to eat.

Pandor appointed Crain Soudien, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, to head her ministerial committee on tertiary racism. Soudien's report found "pervasive" racism and sexism in the whole sector, and recommended a permanent oversight committee on university transformation should be formed.

But Soudien himself expressed doubt that Nzimande's new committee would succeed. "I am not confident that the committee's terms of reference will themselves help begin the proper conversations transformation needs," he told the Mail & Guardian this week.

"The big organisational dynamic issue that the ministerial committee drew attention to was that of how easily institutions could begin to 'play the game', how easily complying with the regulations and the policies was able to be done," Soudien said.

"I'm anxious that using the mechanisms and frameworks that we use in the quality assurance process [of the CHE], like benchmarking, will lead to just more of the same — that is, compliance." He was sceptical that this committee "could in a deep way understand the particular dynamics of institutions, which is what transformation discussions require.

Beyond one-size-fits-all
"How we get beyond a one-size-fits-all mentality is crucial. Templates will lead us to standards and criteria that in the end may be anti-developmental."

For Peter Vale, professor of humanities at the University of Johannesburg, the establishment of this committee "tears up the protocols that have governed the higher education sector in the post-apartheid years".

These "rested on universities governing themselves with the tests for quality and transformation, through a social accord between state and sector, resting in the CHE and its audit arm, the higher education quality committee.

This has plainly ended today," Vale said on Wednesday after Nzimande's announcement. "The choice of the chair of this body is, shall we say, regrettable," he said. Although his "academic credentials are impressive, as a university administrator, he has failed.

If this is the price of his interpretation of 'transformation', we should responsibly ask whether this is a price too high." Ahmed Essop, the CHE's chief executive, said: "I am not convinced that a committee is needed.

The question that needs to be asked is why the higher education and training department has not taken forward the range of recommendations made by the Soudien committee report." Although the "need to monitor transformation in higher education is important, I am sceptical about the efficacy of establishing an oversight committee to perform this role".

Hesa chairperson Ahmed Bawa, also vice-chancellor of the Durban University of Technology, said: "There may well be compelling reasons for the establishment of such an oversight committee [but] it does, however, generate a number of questions.

"For instance, the mandate of the higher education quality committee of the CHE is to assess whether our institutions of higher learning are making progress in terms of the transformation agenda laid out in our policy framework.

And Hesa has a transformation strategy group, chaired by Derrick Swartz, vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. So we must ask how the oversight committee will articulate with these."

The South African Students' Congress welcomed the establishment of the committee but cautioned that it should focus on transformation issues broadly and not just racism. "Students face broader issues such as financial exclusions and poor students battle to access universities," the organisation's president, Ngoako Selamolela, said.

He did not want to comment in detail on the committee's membership, but added: "Look, it's problematic to have vice-chancellors who are battling to transform their institutions leading such a committee.

The minister missed an opportunity to bring other people who are know-ledgeable on transformation."

— Additional reporting by Victoria John and Bongani Nkosi


'Racist to question Makgoba

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s comprehensive response to the Mail & Guardian’s questions about his new oversight committee strongly defended the choice of University of KwaZulu-Natal vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba to chair it.

Nzimande also denied there was any overlap between the new committee and the statutory Council on Higher Education. The M&G asked Nzimande why he had selected “easily one of the most controversial vice-chancellors in the country” as chairperson.

His spokesperson, Vuyelwa Qinga, replied: “This is a matter of opinion clearly showing a particular bias, including the racial undertones in your statement. The minister is in fact deeply disturbed by this judgmental statement.

“Why is Professor Makgoba controversial and not some of the people he has had some misunderstandings with? For example, why is the question silent about the grouping of Wits professors who embarked on some of the most unethical behaviour to chase Makgoba out of Wits University [in the mid-1990s]?

“What remains undisputed and far more important to us than appointing a chairperson who is ‘popular’ to some sections of society is that the University of KwaZulu-Natal is one of the more stable institutions in the country, with a track record of improvement in its performance and outputs.

“… [I]t is also an institution with one of the most advanced transformation programmes. The credibility of the committee therefore cannot be at stake when judged on merit and fact, rather than views others hold about its chairperson. Members of the committee are men and women of high stature, integrity and competency.”

Qinga denied there was “any overlap” between the Council on Higher Education and the committee. “The CHE higher education quality committee is primarily tasked with the quality assurance of higher education and its academic programmes.

In carrying out its task of quality assurance, this committee may come across incidents it may deem non-transformative, which it would then report to the institutions concerned.

[But] it has no obligation to report such cases to the minister or the department of higher education and training [which the new committee does]. “By contrast, one of the terms of the oversight committee exclusively tasks it with overseeing transformation progress in universities within the scope [the minister defined].” The council and the new committee “therefore serve distinct purposes, albeit within the same sector”, Qinga said. Makgoba referred all the M&G’s queries to Nzimande. — David Macfarlane

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David Macfarlane
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