Transformation by numbers skims the surface of tertiary realities

Until 1994 discourses concerning transformation centred on the conceptualisation of its meaning. (Supplied)

Until 1994 discourses concerning transformation centred on the conceptualisation of its meaning. (Supplied)

'Transformation" must be the most frequently used word in South Africa's political discourse since the 1990s. 

Until 1994 discourses concerning transformation centred on the conceptualisation of its meaning and on establishing its conceptual and practical distance from revolution and compromise. 

This was followed by an institutionalising of transformation in a variety of ways. One was the necessary conversion of commissions' reports and green and white papers into policies and regulations. Another was the tacit acceptance of a "common-sense" notion of transformation that played an ideological role, separating progressive from nonprogressive people and, more narrowly, ANC supporters from those who weren't. 

Finally, transformation entered the administrative logic of the state bureaucracy, becoming a key performance indicator for a variety of public and private-sector entities and officials. 

In the process of translating evolving political arguments into policy-making, the intellectual, political and moral elements that shaped the conceptualisation of transformation in the early 1990s were reduced and oversimplified. 

Crucially, this reduction entailed the elimination of paradox and contradiction in the concept: instead, there was the establishment of one accepted register of what transformation was and its becoming sector-specific or socially blind. 

The latter meant that the transformation of South Africa was narrowed down in the policy texts and in the corresponding implementation strategies to the transformation of higher education, the schools system, the judiciary, and so on, without an eye kept trained on the structural conditions that might accelerate, slow down, halt or make impossible social transformation of any depth.

The reduction of transformation was further aided by the need for accountability.
Because government and social institutions are, rightly, accountable for their promises, transformation had to be demonstrated. In this context, transformation has been reduced to numbers, percentages and ratios (indicators that are, of course, not devoid of substance, given our history). In brief, transformation seems to have been reduced to equity. 

This does not mean that demographic quantification has no place in attempts to understand change. But even when these numbers reveal outrageous inequalities, if taken by themselves they hide our own inability to interrogate "transformation" itself. 

Transformation is something we need to do and demonstrate; and the rush of the performance becomes an obstacle to any attempt at testing whether the notions underpinning our indicators can resist closer intellectual, political and moral examination. 

For similar reasons, at institutional and organisational levels, performance-oriented transformation does not deal very well with the complexities of social, organisational or personal change. 

Taking into account the 1990s debates, one can define transformation as a change in the nature of South Africa's society that clearly marks a break with the apartheid past. Because what needs to be transformed and the direction of that transformation are contextual, transformation has to be redefined historically. Thus, the very notion of transformation in South Africa entails keeping on asking about the subject, the object, the means and the motives of transformation in each area of society. 

Transformation implies and derives from knowledge that is neither explicit nor examined. In this regard, it is useful to distinguish between "knowledge for transformation" (the knowledge that needs to be produced in order to make change possible) and "knowledge of transformation" (which is the knowledge we generate about transformation itself). I would like to analyse these knowledge(s) in relation to higher education.

There are three types of knowledge that are the basis for transformation at universities: knowledge of the self, knowledge of knowledge, and knowledge of the other. Each of these knowledge(s) has a history; they have been developed through decades and often centuries, and they have rules of formation and possibility that determine what can be thought and done by whom and what cannot be thought and done. 

Knowledge of the self is know-ledge of each one of our universities and their understanding of and relationship with the concept of university itself. All our universities have a history, a series of institutional memories, accepted behaviours, ways of thinking. 

This knowledge is usually tacit; it is transmitted from generation to generation in tearooms, staff meetings, senate and committee meetings. Yet this knowledge, this sedimentation of the institutional being in 100, 50, 30 years of history, is seldom examined. 

There is an interesting mixture of historical continuity and discontinuity that operates vociferously or silently, depending on the case at each of our institutions. Either the past goes unexamined in the avoidance of confronting thinking and practices that might indicate institutional support for today's unacceptable behaviour and ideas, or the past goes unexamined in the glorification of the opposition to racism and/or in the direct support of the struggle against apartheid. 

This lack of knowledge of the self creates categories that allow for simplistic moral and political judgments. We have historically black and historically white institutions, historically liberal, historically Afrikaans institutions and, more recently, transformed institutions, to which we easily attached a right or wrong, good or bad judgment, based on unidimensional conceptions of the institutional self. 

Complex, critical, analytical excavation of the knowledge of the institutional self is a necessary condition to start thinking about transformation, but also in order to effect transformation. Yet confession of past sins does not result in the absolution of transformation. The past matters not only as a memory of what was but also in its connection to the present, in its actuality, in what it does to the possibility of being today and tomorrow. 

How do we examine and probe institutional cultures, traditions, ingrained behaviours? How do we develop approaches to make self-examination a way of being? 

Knowledge of knowledge is probably the most obvious type of know-ledge associated with universities. In the past 30 years most universities have examined the knowledge they teach and research in terms of their responsiveness or otherwise to labour markets, government needs, the knowledge society and so on.

This is not the knowledge I am talking about. I refer to the epistemological foundations of our disciplines and professions — the extent and the manner in which knowledge and thinking serve disciplinary/professional and social status quos. What kind of knowledge do we teach and research? How is this research and teaching open to movement and change that respond to broader local and global preoccupations?

Are our institutions conserving inherited patterns of thinking that maintain privilege in and outside academia? What kind of education do we provide to our professional graduates that will make a contribution to the possibility of social justice? It does not matter how many black and female professors an institution can produce for statistical purposes if the knowledge they create and transmit is not challenged in terms of its social epistemology — its potential to transform social practices. 

In relation to knowledge of know-ledge, the institutionalisation of transformation presents our universities with the highest risk — the risk of seeing transformation as a place of arrival that, therefore, requires the suspension of critique, offering instead a new orthodoxy. The price of this is the depoliticisation of knowledge and the death of the university as a place of contestation and public debate. 

The depoliticisation of knowledge has two dimensions. One arises from the demobilisation of debate and enquiry brought about by canonical notions of transformed knowledge. In this context doubt, disagreement and argument are seen as morally wrong and anti-transformation. The other dimension of the depoliticisation is the disengagement of know-ledge from its potential capacity to transform the world. 

Knowledge of the other is a complex category that must not be confused with "othering". This know-ledge has a local historical and sociological dimension that needs to be engaged with. The massive expansion of higher education in South Africa since the 1990s together with the dismantling of apartheid legislation has resulted in changes in the social, linguistic and cultural make-up of our universities. 

These are combined with profound global technological and cultural changes that affect our communication and the way we see the social world. We are confronting a new generation of youngsters whose ways of learning, loving and being differ from ours. 

Although there is wide variation in the detail of the student and staff profiles at our universities, the overall look and feel of most our universities has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. In the face of this there have been a variety of responses. In some cases, this change has not been accompanied by the openness to develop a knowledge of the other. 

We are still struggling with "established knowledge" of the other that is not only an impediment to institutional change but also jeopardises the possibility of new pedagogies and different results of education as much as different institutional cultures. 

Ignorance of the other has two pernicious consequences. The first is personal distance and the difficulties this poses in finding empathy, in imagining the position of the other and through it understanding. 

The second is the ineffectiveness of the teaching that takes place when the assumptions about the other are wrong. 

Transformational performance here eschews all questions about education as a political act and the interrogation of pedagogy. It is not always the case that an institution's success rates are low because it has not transformed teaching — it is rather that the transformation of teaching takes a long time to reflect in the numbers. 

There is no direct and immediate correspondence between curricular change and improved success rates. Teaching is a circular process that is messy and endlessly influenced by a variety of internal and external factors. How to undo this knowledge? How to confront the cultural, social, linguistic components of our know-ledge of the other whether student, lecturer, academic colleague or ourselves? 

What are the layers of knowledge that need to be examined for students to accept being taught by their intellectual, political, gender, sexual orientation, religious "other"? What knowledge needs to be challenged for lecturers to understand that lack of accepted cultural capital is an issue of political economy and conceptions of modernity that can and ought to be worked around?

Who brings together the knowledge(s) for transformation, who examines their impact, who decides on what to do with this knowledge? This is one of the tasks of institutional research, to see how these knowledges are deployed into change. But it should also be the role of institutional research to point out the need for knowledge of transformation. 

This knowledge can remind institutions of the complexity of transformation as process and project. Yet transformation cannot be frozen in numbers. Under statistical trends there are individual and institutional stories that are messy, contradictory and paradoxical. The knowledge of transformation can help institutions to keep open the dialogue about transformation. 

The knowledge of transformation and its open, passionate, difficult, unruly discussion is what saves transformation from depoliticisation. It is what allows us to find new avenues and strategies for change as well as new areas to change. 

Knowledge of transformation has as a necessary but not sufficient condition knowledge for transformation, yet both of them would not make a dent in delivering transformation at our institutions unless they are shared, discussed, confronted and acknowledged, and unless strategies for change are identified and implemented. 

Given the complexity of universities as organisations it is important to take a sober view of the power that centrally driven transformation, top management, policies, transformation committees, quality assurance regimes (and the like) can have at the coalface. We might need distributed leadership to manage simultaneously staff, students, systems, external pressure, internal conflict, power relations and scarce resources. The appropriate balance between distributed and central leadership that is needed in each case to galvanise people into knowing, understanding and acting is a question with multiple answers. 

Finally, institutional transformation has as its structural limit the depth and direction of the transformation of society. This should not be taken as an excuse to stop change or to absolve universities from the need to push further. Rather, it is a reminder that in the big scheme of social change and social justice universities are but a very small part. 

Operating under the current political, socioeconomic and moral national limits we might want to remember that, if we are to take the transformation project further in the country, then like Antonio Gramsci we will need the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of our will. 

Dr Lis Lange is senior director in the University of the Free State's directorate for institutional research and academic planning. This is an edited version of her paper to Higher Education South Africa's Transformation Colloquium at UFS earlier this year

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