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Business schools are racist gatekeepers

The critical issues of equity, access and affordability were enshrined as the central components of the higher education white paper. They were specifically identified as objectives to be achieved in response to the legacies of an apartheid-based education system.

We wrote about this in a piece to which various people responded, with their views being published in the Financial Mail in July as a cover story with the headline “Business schools: Roles under fire”.

We hope to address the falsehoods expressed by some administrators of African business schools in that piece.

South Africa is now 21 years into democracy. The issues of equity, access and affordability seem to linger on. They unremittingly confront the higher education sector.

On an annual basis, thousands of indigent black students are denied access to the higher education sector, primarily because they are unable to afford the fees for entry.

The problem is further compounded when, within the higher education sector, certain academic departments or units institute their own gatekeeping measures to prevent black students from gaining access to them.

The elitist responses given to the Financial Mail by some senior white administrators in the business school sector confirm this, particularly when they conflate issues of access and affordability with academic standards – a discriminatory practice that is now well known in academia.

Poverty and lack of opportunity do not add up to inferiority and a lack of quality. Some of the responses to our original charges strongly resonate with the arguments postulated by the old apartheid academic demagogues when they assiduously prevented students of colour from entering their elitist white spaces.

These pompous and self-righteous administrators further claim that conforming to the government’s goal-directed funding system, which links public funds to the institutional demonstration of movement towards the goals established in the national higher education white paper and the National Development Plan (especially in respect of issues such as access, affordability and targeted skills development), is a violation of academic freedom and tantamount to “communism”.

We are forced to assert that promoting issues of access and affordability in the battle for greater equity in the higher education system has nothing to do with academic freedom, and that to subscribe to the aims and objectives of the transformation agenda of nation-building is obligatory for all citizens.

We remind the gatekeepers that the white paper on higher education clearly articulates the position that the education system must be transformed to enable it to contribute to the reconstruction of society through a close linkage with a development policy aimed at economic growth, the enhancement of a democratic political system, and promotion of society’s cultural and intellectual life.

In this context, the higher education sector was to be linked to national human resource development and the production of scientific and other knowledge to service the economic, political, cultural and intellectual development of the nation.

Among the principles underscoring the white paper’s vision was the pursuit of democratic values such as representivity, accountability, transparency, freedom of association and academic freedom.

The elitists have to be reminded that the public higher education institutions they represent are intricately woven into the fabric of the higher education sector. These institutions receive state funding and are obliged, at the least, to respect the overall aims and core values of the higher education white paper. To subscribe to the noble intentions contained in the policy directions of the white paper has nothing do with the violation of academic freedom. It is about nation-building and assisting those who were previously denied access to such institutions.

Given that the issues of access and affordability are inextricably linked to the fee structure of specific university programmes, the cost of admission to the MBA course at some universities makes it almost impossible for indigent black students to enrol – irrespective of whether they have the intellectual capacity or not.

Is this not gatekeeping of an elitist kind? Surely the arguments made by these administrators of business schools have another, more sinister agenda – perhaps to protect their racial space?

It is even more strange and hypocritical that one of these elitist business education schools undertook a survey, in conjunction with the Monitor Group, to ascertain why black students were not enrolling in their MBA programme. Lo and behold, they found that black students could not afford entry into their programme, primarily because of financial difficulty.

The school’s transformation committee then promised it would use the outcomes of the survey to remedy the situation.

But, if you were expecting a positive result, you were wrong. The school raised its fee structure to ensure that the indigent black person would never gain entry into its portals.

Dhiru Soni teaches at Regent Business School; Mark Hay teaches at the Management College of Southern Africa (Mancosa)

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