DAILY MAVERICK WEBINAR
‘The vultures are out’ — Prof Jonathan Jansen highlights corruption and looting at SA universities
South Africans have become used to the corruption that has brought a growing number of state-owned enterprises to their knees. But do we pay enough attention to corruption at our universities?
We may not think of institutions of higher learning as state-owned enterprises, but the 26 public universities in South Africa receive a total state budget of billions of rands annually — a mouth-watering invitation for vultures who indulge in a feeding frenzy, says author and professor of education at Stellenbosch University, Jonathan Jansen.
“If you invest billions of rands every single year in 26 public universities, the vultures are going to be out — inside and outside the university — to lay their hands on it, in the same way they would do that for any other public entity.”
Jansen was speaking during a Daily Maverick webinar on Thursday, where he joined senior journalist Rebecca Davis to discuss his new book, Corrupted: A study of chronic dysfunction in South African universities.
Before reading Jansen’s book — which Davis described as “jaw-dropping”, saying she couldn’t recall a time when she was more shocked by a work of South African non-fiction — it’s difficult to understand just how varied the potential for corruption can be at these universities.
The institutional dysfunction and chronic corruption at many universities, particularly previously disadvantaged universities, which Jansen explores in his book, hardly ever rise to the public eye, said Davis.
One of the reasons for this, Jansen thinks, is because we tend to look at universities differently from how we look at municipalities or state-owned enterprises — we expect them to be better and decent in their delivery of education.
However, while writing his book, he realised, “Our assumptions about universities being exceptional in that regard, are completely wrong.”
At several universities, such as the University of South Africa (Unisa), the wholesale theft and looting of, for example, funds allocated for critical infrastructure or information technology (IT), is happening at “an industrial scale”, said Jansen.
“I knew there was corruption … I didn’t know it was at this level.”
Competition for resources
In his book, Jansen maintains that apartheid is not a sufficient explanation for the levels of dysfunctionality at these universities, because there are former “non-white” institutions that have bucked the trend, like the University of the Western Cape.
But he says what might be an explanation for the chronic dysfunction is the intense competition for scarce resources — which he found to be a common thread at many unstable institutions. “This seems particularly an issue at well-resourced university campuses in resource-deprived areas,” commented Davis.
“I still like the idea of the university in the township — to put it bluntly. At the same time, make no mistake, where there is a lot of impoverishment, the university will be seen as a place to access resources — legally or otherwise,” said Jansen.
One example Jansen gave was the University of Fort Hare, where taxi drivers in the area threatened violence if they weren’t allowed to be the designated transportation service for university students.
One of the key takeaways from the final chapter of Jansen’s book, Davis said, is the idea that the more dysfunctional a university council is – the less qualified its members are – the less hope there is for the functional running of the institution.
“The council is the highest governing structure in the university – it’s like the board of trustees of a foundation. This is the group that makes the high-level decisions for the university,” explained Jansen.
Jansen said that part of addressing the dysfunction and corruption at universities lies in depoliticising university councils and appointing “professionals with integrity”, who can govern and understand the limits of their roles in councils.
“Part of what we need to do in reconstituting councils is make them much smaller, [and] make them predominantly professional people. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have political representation, but when you overpoliticise the council — you’re dead in the water,” he said. DM
Corrupted: A study of chronic dysfunction in South African universities is available at the Daily Maverick Shop where Maverick Insiders can use their coupon for a 10% discount.
Subscribe to the Daily Maverick webinar newsletter and keep updated about our upcoming conversations: https://email.touchbasepro.com/h/d/38911C881454EE15