Higher education’s moral high road
Our universities remain at a tipping point, and we must choose wisely to ensure the academy is transformed, writes
Last year was tumultuous for higher education. Transformation moved to the heart of the national discourse through #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. Through the latter, the students achieved in a matter of 10 days what vicechancellors had been advocating for at least 10 years – bringing down the costs of higher education. One striking feature of the student protests was in how they were organised beyond party and ideological divides. It was this, more than any other thing, that brought thousands of students and their supporters on to the streets at Parliament and the Union Buildings. This multiclass and multiracial alliance shook up the state and prompted it to be partially responsive to the students’ demands. It fractured, however, soon after President Jacob Zuma announced the scrapping of increases for 2016. Political parties and ideological groups reasserted themselves to project their own agendas on to this social struggle. The movement fractured into a cacophony of ideological and protest voices, each with their own educational and political demands.
The student movement will also have to address the racial essentialism that now afflicts it. It is driven in part by the cultural alienation black students have experienced, particularly in the historically white universities, and is also intellectually justified by selective readings of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko.
But this does not need to lead to an automatic degeneration into crude racism. Neither is it intellectually legitimate to read racial essentialism into the ideas of Biko and Fanon. Too many students also glibly dismiss both the contributions of earlier generations of activists and the 1994 political settlement. Particularly obnoxious is the dismissal of the contribution of Nelson Mandela by some young activists who have accused our collective icon of having sold out. Even if we ignore the temerity of a group of born-free activists to pronounce on the contribution of a leader who gave 27 years of his adult life to imprisonment for the anti-apartheid cause, one still has to question the intellectual wisdom of reading the 1994 political settlement from the perspective of 2015.
This is not to suggest the 1994 settlement cannot be criticised. I myself have been critical of its compromises, neoliberal character, and propensity for corruption. I have also been particularly scathing of its enabling of increased economic inequality. However, the generation that preceded the current students, whatever their mistakes, left the world a far better place than the one they inherited. The students could do with a dose of the very humility they are demanding of others. The propensity for violence
Equally worrying is the propensity for violence by some strands of the student movement. The majority of protesters respected the boundaries of peaceful protest (and even at one point formed a circle of protection around me in the Wits Great Hall), but actions such as the attempt across campuses to close off entrances and exits by lying in front of the gates violated the rights of others.
At the University of the Western Cape, and the Cape Peninsula and Tshwane universities of technology, there was widespread violence, residences were set alight and campuses had to be closed. At Wits University, some protesters partially set alight a bookshop and a university vehicle. At the University of Cape Town, a bus was set light, as were a few vehicles at Stellenbosch University. Protesters suggested the resort to violence was prompted by university authorities who called in the police. This was the case at some institutions, but at Wits they were only called in after protesters had already resorted to arson and violence.
The writings of Fanon were interpreted as advocating revolutionary violence. But he wrote about revolutionary violence in the crucible of the colonial struggle. It is not legitimate to transpose his ideas to a democratic era which, however flawed, provides the space not only for protest, but also the right to vote out the political elite. Secondly, how is the struggle against structural violence advanced by attacking other students and destroying university property intended for the housing and teaching of the students themselves? If anything, such actions are likely to consolidate the very effects of structural violence against the poor and marginalised. Finally, such actions compel the state to respond with force to protect public property, thereby creating a militarised atmosphere that works against the interests of the protesters and the legitimacy of the protests.
Equally damaging to the realisation of the goals of the
THE GREAT UNIVERSITY movement is the failure of some strands within it to recognise that success will result not from a single event, but from a process of continuous struggle, engagement and negotiation. The challenge of ongoing transformation
All of this was just the beginning, and universities still face the challenges of reversing the historical effects of apartheid, retaining and improving standards, and creating cosmopolitan, socially integrated campuses. Managing these competing imperatives has spawned two distinct approaches to student enrolment and staff recruitment at universities: multiculturalism and nonracialism. The former is the practice of some institutions that see racial and cultural groups as homogenous, and they plan the enrolment of these groups as distinct entities. At its most notorious level, this approach is reflected in a university adopting a principle of racial federalism in which distinct campuses come to represent distinct racial and cultural interests. The racial integration approach, by contrast, rejects cultural homogeneity and believes in constructing an organisational space in which new national identities are built, where one can be part of a local cultural group while simultaneously being South African, African and human.
The former approach is perhaps best reflected at the universities of Stellenbosch and North-West. The former still has 68% white student enrolment. North-West University has a better demographic profile, but has, in essence, established a federal university comprising distinct campuses of racialised cultural groups. Most of the historically black universities have also continued to remain completely black, but in their cases these racialised enrolments exist by default, rather than by design.
The concern about segregated white campuses is that they have such student enrolments because of an explicit political agenda to keep them white or Afrikaner. The problem is not that the language of instruction is Afrikaans, as some of the public debate has tended to suggest, but that Afrikaans is used as a mechanism to promote a cultural project, and undermine the emergence of nonracial and cosmopolitan institutions.
This is defended by some on the grounds that the Constitution allows for multilingualism and a diversity of cultural expression. It is certainly true that learning multiple languages is an important means of enhancing our mutual understanding of one another. However, this has morphed a legitimate debate for the protection of a language into the promotion of a cultural project. Recruitment at North-West, both at staff and student level, was implicitly directed around racial communities, with whites directed to the Potchefstroom campus, and blacks to the Mafikeng and Vaal campuses. In practice, this violates the Constitution’s call to build an integrative and cosmopolitan identity.
The historically black universities are in theory committed to the nonracial agenda, but are continuously in crisis, managerially and financially. They have also been prone to political interference, further exacerbating institutional challenges. They are unlikely to overcome their institutional predicament unless their development comprises part of a broader socioeconomic development of the region within which they are located. Until now, government has lacked the political will or imagination to do this.
The remaining universities – both historically Afrikaans and English – are urban and committed to a nonracial agenda. Many have begun to deracialise, and have established more diverse and cosmopolitan environments, and have also enhanced academic performance. Yet they have not risen to the transformation challenge. Despite significant demographic diversity at studentenrolment level, many black students continue to feel marginalised. This is true at Wits, even though black students constitute the majority, and our attempts to address this include strategies around curriculum reform, institutional naming, and efficient and expeditious investigative and disciplinary processes for the many allegations of racism from both staff and students. In search of the black professor
An overriding question is what to do about transforming the demographics of the academy. In many of the nation’s leading universities, black African professors constitute less than 10% of the professoriate. The lower levels of the academic hierarchy have better representation, yet the situation is far from adequate.
Wits has now reserved at least 50% of vacancies for equity appointments. We have also mobilised R45 million from our own resources to underwrite the appointment of a number of new African and coloured academics in tenured track positions, and a special programme to advance African and coloured academics in the system towards promotion to the professoriate over two to five years, while rigorously maintaining postgraduate standards.
But what about the role of government? Has it made the difficult fiscal and political decisions required for the creation of a new generation of scholars? Has it made the required infrastructural and human resource investments in a university sector that has, in essence, more than doubled, from 421 000 students in 1994 to 1.1 million students in 2012?
Too often, politicians and others imagine the university as no different from any other public or private institution. But a university is a place where knowledge workers are produced. To train a professor requires on average at least 10 years of continuous study, followed by another 10 of teaching and research productivity. South Africa cannot talk about transforming the demographics of its professoriate unless it enhances the quality and size of its academic pipeline. Too often politicians complain that South African universities do not have black professors when they have refused to make the systemic interventions and investments required for this to happen.
There does seem to be light on the horizon: the higher education department recently engaged the universities’ member organisation, Higher Education SA, on setting up a new generation of academics. In essence, the department has agreed to mobilise significant public funds – the first wave of which is about R500 million – to be invested in training a new generation of scholars. This is an edited and abridged version of Wits vice-chancellor Habib’s
African Voices speech at University College London on January 25
CAUGHT IN THE STORM Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib (centre) among the students in the university’s Great Hall last year at the height of the #FeesMustFall protests against fee increases. He writes about the continuing challenges around transformation and inclusivity this year