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

CityPress - - Voices -

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

PHOTO: FELIX DLANGAMANDLA

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

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