Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 7 September 2014

Weep for our universities!

South African universities have become tools for the agendas of politicians instead of respected independent institutions of higher learning. The ANC’s force-feeding of transformation has become more important than learning. Students must emerge from institutions of higher education, in President Zuma’s own words, as “patriotic citizens”. No mention of sound judgement, or intellectual development, or educated minds. No reference to independence of thought or world-class learning; just patriotism.

Speaking at the first anniversary of the Progressive Professionals Forum of the Pan-African Parliament, Mr Zuma and a raft of other misguided luminaries railed against the so-called slow transformation of universities and the need to reject what they see as their undue and inappropriate “internationalism”. Climbing on the band-wagon drawn by Jimmy Manyi, Blade Nzimande and political analyst Sipho Seepe, Mr Zuma said South Africa was a “developmental state and therefore its approach cannot be informed by European dictates”. He continued by  expressing the wish that South Africa’s transformation agenda should be infused into the curriculum of universities to instil in students a greater appreciation of what he believes to be the country’s imperatives.

Shooting himself in the foot yet again and wholly unable to be objective or stop pushing his party’s point of view, Mr Zuma said that academic freedom meant “freedom from the stranglehold of any social class. Universities must not be institutions that exist merely to legitimise the views of one group over another”.  Yes, he really said that, while working hard to advocate that universities should adhere to his group’s views.

Let’s not give any more credence to a man limping toward his final denouement, but let us understand what the broader view of his powerful ruling party may be. Mr Nzimande, and remember that he is the Minister of Higher Education, said his department’s efforts to push for greater transformation and to “guide university curricula” were often rejected and seen as “attacks on academic freedom.”  Yes, of course, that is precisely what such attempts would be! And he, in his muddled thinking and confusion, does not see it.

The quality of debate and thought at this illustrious gathering of “Progressive Professionals” seems neither progressive nor at all professional. Reference, for example, is made to the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness index for 2014, which ranked SA poorly on higher education and training. This finding must obviously be the result of the leadership of those present. But this fact somewhat eluded them. They simply went on to fly the transformation flag and to complain further.

The sad thing is that South Africa used to be a respected participant on the world academic stage. Our graduates continued to do post-graduate work in major international universities and could not only hold their own but in so many cases could excel. Academics from the international community welcomed the opportunity to come and develop their careers here and join our universities. Standards were maintained. But there has been a slow degeneration of quality. Admission criteria have dropped. Race-based numbers are protected at all costs. Graduates are being produced who in some cases can’t read or write. And then we are surprised that there is such a high level of graduate unemployment. People of doubtful ability have often been appointed to positions at universities where the transformation imperative has been trumping that of academic excellence.

And still they are not satisfied. We must now develop academic curricula which are based on “transformation and the unique elements of our local issues”. Are we back again to the dropped standards and patronising methods of the erstwhile “bush universities” created by the Apartheid regime?

Instead of keeping a steady pace of transformation and building a harmonised multi-ethnic academic society where everyone has respect for the standards maintained and where people can proud of their qualifications, we now have racial stand-offs. The South African Human Rights Commission has recently reported a spike in racism-related incidents at universities. Government leaders like Mr Nzimande think it is because transformation is too slow. They don’t understand that it is because transformation is too fast.

What will we have achieved if we end up with fast-forward transformation in universities which are inadequately staffed, which produce graduates that can’t think for themselves and are out of step with world standards? What would it mean if we customised our academic standards to be appropriate for Africa but are rejected by the rest of the world?

Keen, ambitious students from many of the other developing countries like India and China are flocking to universities in the USA and Europe to acquire the very international educational standard that our lot are so spittingly critical of. It is the ones who see the benefits of a world standard who will eventually become leaders in business and the professions, while we will be the losers.

And again we cry the beloved country. DM


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