/ 27 February 2015

Bridge the vast university divide

Opposite directions:Tyres burnt in protests at the Tshwane University of Technology.
Opposite directions:Tyres burnt in protests at the Tshwane University of Technology.


‘The chickens have come home to roost.” I came to fully understand this beautiful English idiom only earlier this year, when those who came to roost were the late applicants to our historically advantaged universities, usually abbreviated as HAUs (but please don’t try doing that in isiXhosa).

After the 2014 matric results were announced on January 5, we saw these students queuing on national TV and other media. It was reminiscent, in ways, of the 1994 general elections, but it made for an extremely ugly spectacle.

We also saw and heard a spokesperson for the University of Johannesburg – an institution that resulted from the merger in 2004 of the then Rand Afrikaans University and Technikon Witwatersrand. He said that his institution had received more than 100 000 applications, but could admit only 30 000. Hearing such figures and seeing such scenes made my head spin.

All had been quiet at this university, which is on the Western Front of the divide between the historically advantaged and disadvantaged universities. And then the inevitable happened: all those applicants who the University of Johannesburg could not accommodate were turned away, and they frantically flocked to the poorer institutions.

Until shortly before any semester examinations start, these universities will be busy evaluating disappointed students for possible admission to, in some instances, their chosen disciplines or, in many more instances, disciplines they didn’t choose but that could accommodate them.

The first consequence of this process is that some of these students will be studying for qualifications in subjects at universities – neither of which all of them chose – where the ergonomics for both them and their parents could well be the most unfavourable. Only once they have overcome these obstacles will students be free to tackle the task of passing at the end of the year.

Irreparable damage
The second consequence is that the affected universities’ curriculums will be irreparably disrupted. Lecturers will somehow have to teach the latecomers everything they have missed. The same academics also will have to recognise and bond with new faces – strong necessities for effective learning and teaching.

The knock-on effect of all this will be that academic standards – but, miraculously, not pass rates – will take a nose dive. And this will spiral even further down when demotivated lecturers with narrow research areas find themselves with ever fewer research assistants, little or no outside research funding, no institutional enthusiasm for research and fewer opportunities for community outreach.

Ultimately, prospective employers will vote with their feet when it comes to choosing which degree certificates from universities of both sides of this great divide they can trust. The time has surely come, and is long overdue, for conducting in-depth, empirical research on how employers perceive South Africa’s universities – work that was certainly done before 1994.

I am not even going to discuss the propensity of the employees these universities to embark on annual strikes. You don’t foster an environment of protest and then blame those who choose to take action in the very same environment. Awukhaleli ummelwane ngokudliwa ziintwala zengubo yakho (Don’t blame your neighbour when you’re fleeced by the lice of your own blanket).

Since our liberation from apartheid, the approach advocated (but not adopted) by policymakers to close the university divide – based on the evidence-based research findings of academics and the state, as well as many public intellectuals and journalists, among them the Mail & Guardian’s education specialists and other media – has been that of massive redress funding.

For well over a decade, hundreds of articles, books, other education writing and public discussions have been published and broadcast on the subject, making the argument that the panacea for these formerly disadvantaged universities’ severe distress is the financing of an enormous redress fund, comprising government, private and other financial resources.

A clarion call for redress
Last month Zwelidumile Mditshwa, at Walter Sisulu University’s Mthatha campus, made the same clarion call for this redress to place these universities on the same financial terrain as the richest ones, in his capacity as branch secretary of the Eastern Cape’s National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union in Mthatha (“University funding needs to change to achieve parity”, Daily Dispatch, January 22 2015).

The government has, it must be said, responded generously with funding over the past 20 years. But nothing has changed. All we see is more of the same – and worse.

Over and above the problems I’ve highlighted, “you [still] experience the same student demographics, the same staff complexion, the same physical infrastructure, the same resources [and generally] the same everything”, I wrote last year (“Still waiting for varsity reform”, M&G, February 7 2014). And more redress funding will necessarily mean more sightings of this elusive phenomenon.

The renowned British scholar and economist, John Maynard Keynes, had it right during the 1920s and 1930s Great Depression when he declared in 1938: “Nothing is required, and nothing will avail, except a little, a very little, clear thinking.”

This kind of thinking – the precise specifying, regulating, distributing and monitoring of the changes we require – must lead us to know that what we need is an organic metamorphosis of higher education.

I have suggested that all our universities must offer traditional qualifications so that the communities, public and private sectors, as well as the other constituencies they serve, can clearly see that they are equal, just and justifiable.

Transfer programmes
We also need redistributive justice. Quantity surveying, architecture, civil engineering and actuarial science are among the degree programmes that could be moved from some of the richer universities to some of the poorer ones.

The advantages would be enormous, over and above solving the problem of seasonal student overcrowding in lecture rooms, for instance.

First, funds necessarily follow function: there would be an even spread of the massive funding.

Second, demand always seeks supply – those thousands at the University of Johannesburg were queuing because they wanted graduate with the university’s premier qualifications.

Third, expertise hunts for exploitation: competent academics will work at all our universities, supremely enhancing the image of each and every South African university.

Fourth, private investment will naturally be attracted to all universities.

Fifth, the towns where the formerly disadvantaged universities are located will again flourish.

Finally, we would have more white daughters and sons-in-law: using the redress fund as Keynes advised would also result in the acceleration of racial reconciliation.

I now invite others to point out the disadvantages of this model – including those who argue that implementing it will not protect “the standards of quality” – a familiarly enigmatic code phrase for perpetuating white privilege. Not all the historically white universities first accept and then register the demographically defined 87% of applicants before they start turning away the ones who are poor and black.

How we use technical and vocational education and training colleges as the last lines of defence because of our failure to accommodate students in universities cannot be ignored.

All too often you hear government officials and the SABC exhorting students to settle for these colleges as “first-choice institutions” when universities cannot admit them.

But tell me if these officials and media find any well-informed parents who would encourage their children to study only just enough to qualify for admission to any of the 50 public colleges. The colleges are perceived as existing for those students who do not make it, and they are seen as such both by their parents and themselves.

So, Class of 2015, please study and qualify for university entrance – if you so choose.

Professor Mncedisi Jordan was formerly on the staff of the University of Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University, where he taught and supervised accountancy students. He now researches indigenous cultures