Places of higher learning range from desirable to diabolical and a clear strategy is needed to enhance their offerings.
Jonathan Jansen published a book in 2017 entitled As by Fire: The End of the South African University. In it he describes the searing experiences he and other vice-chancellors of leading universities have had over the past few years, as their institutions have been wracked with internal disputes, the #FeesMustFall movement, in-sourcing, declining subsidies, race tensions and even hatred, funding shortfalls, the burning of buildings and other horrors. He rightly portrays universities as vulnerable institutions. As he says, they are vulnerable financially, as subsidies for paying staff, building infrastructure or developing research are insufficient; they are vulnerable academically, as the basic education system is unable to produce matriculants who are capable of university-level study, while academics leave the unpleasant conditions they may find there; and they are vulnerable politically, as their needs have become invisible in the face of student concerns about fees.
Jansen condemns the institutionalisation of violence on many campuses. However, he does wrap up the book with a chink of light in the darkness by arguing that the calibre of university leadership in the future will be fundamental to the ability of these vital institutions to survive and to revitalise themselves.
Jansen’s book is excellent. From my own experience, I recognise everything he says about universities – they are uniquely vulnerable institutions in today’s South Africa. Many of them have been damaged by the events of the 2000s. Being a vice-chancellor today is probably one of the most demanding jobs in the country.
But I don’t think we can conclude from this that this means the end of the South African university. Here is why.
Over the past two weeks our parliamentary portfolio committee has travelled to five different universities – two in the Eastern Cape and three in Gauteng. Let’s look at one from each region – the Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha and the University of Pretoria in Gauteng.
Walter Sisulu University is in the poorest region of the country. It has no hinterland of potentially fee-paying students, no city or urban environment it can draw on and no wealthy alumni or potential donors. It has decayed significantly over the past 20 years.
Originally the University of Transkei, it was by all accounts a well-run, vibrant university with competent staff and an attractive, architect-designed campus. However, that was when it was part of the apartheid scheme of things – located in the “Bantustan” of the Transkei, where Mthatha was the “capital”. A modest economy had developed around these bizarre “homeland” nodes, which gave the University of Transkei support.
It is now located in a town with very little economic activity, with a hinterland destroyed by the decline of the mining industry. Not only that: it was, under minister Kader Asmal, vastly and recklessly expanded and merged with several other campuses, including a technikon. It is now in a very bad way.
Two of its major programmes – social work and law – have been de-accredited by the Council on Higher Education. The campus is rundown and wracked by protest, violence and tension. A Daily Dispatch article published while we were there said the area of what was the old Transkei is the second-most violent region in the world, after Honduras. It shows.
After we had been on the Mthatha campus for half a day, we discovered that two of the other campuses were on strike that week – something no one had thought to tell us. In 2017, there were seven murders, 11 protests and two instances of burning down buildings on campus. The campus is dirty, unkempt and unsafe.
One of our more disturbing experiences was going into one of the residences. There we found filthy, cockroach-infested rooms occupied by people who were very likely not students. Some were simply squatting there. Other occupants were clearly running businesses – spaza shops and others – from their rooms. And this was before the term had even started.
The university’s attempts to secure the residences had been largely unsuccessful. Huge metal security entrances had been built, said the management, but they had been rapidly and violently destroyed by the students. The squatting in residences appeared to be protected by some of the staff, who possibly took bribes for turning a blind eye.
Another shock was learning that a decade or so ago, the university had closed all its dining halls for students to save money, but had failed to replace them with self-catering facilities. There are no shops on campus and the nearest Spar is a long walk away. Students were cooking and eating in their tiny, often shared rooms (some held up to eight students, most of them there illegally), pouring the food waste and cooking oil down their basins or out of the windows, and in all likelihood eating a cheap and low-nutrition diet. Empty beer bottles and cans were strewn everywhere around campus, and the seven murders, we heard, were mainly the result of drunken brawls in the residences. One was a case of “mob justice”, we heard.
Student representatives who spoke to us were outraged at the conditions. There was little or no accommodation offered locally in Mthatha, so they had to live on campus, whether or not there was space for them. Hot water, electricity and even water itself were all in short supply. Lecture rooms were too small and under-resourced, sometimes with no lighting at all. Lecturers were often absent and the shortage of academic staff was such that lecture loads were intolerably high and some qualifications went for two to three months without a lecturer. Many degrees and programmes requiring practical work had nobody to teach them. The governance of the multiple campus model did not work, and the university was not integrated. Only 50 percent of students ever got a qualification. Thousands were in serious debt. And if they reported instances of corruption and mismanagement, they claimed they were intimidated.
Except for the relatively new vice-chancellor, the management appeared to be dazed and even punch-drunk, inured to recognising the true state of affairs in this remote area. It was unclear to what extent corruption extended into the ranks of the staff, but if the residences were anything to go by, it was highly likely there were corrupt pockets throughout. The university has already experienced episodes of being placed under “administration”, and it appears barely to have recovered from these indicators of severe problems. Since our visit, I have had approaches from whistle-blowers who say this is indeed the case – corruption has not been rooted out by the administration.
The management seemed resigned to the squatting in residences, saying they understood that students had no other options. Besides all the problems of endemic violence, neglect, corruption, poor governance, the surrounding poverty, low maintenance and lack of a fee-paying student body, clearly the Department of Higher Education and Training had allowed – encouraged – this campus to expand far beyond its capacity, and it was left reeling, as were we. This was a university on its last legs.
It was a relief, a week later, to visit the University of Pretoria. Its gorgeous, park-like campuses, beautiful Herbert Baker buildings and smart new ones, immaculate condition and highly organised and competent management could not have provided a greater contrast with Walter Sisulu’s train smash. The university is a vibrant teaching-orientated institution that has, since the 1990s, begun to develop into a research-intensive university with all that this entails. It was seriously damaged by the long “Broederbond years” – from the 1930s to the mid-1990s – during which it became fully Afrikaans-speaking (it had been English-speaking or bilingual before that) and was turned into an arm of the nationalist government, providing its civil service with personnel and degrading its education, particularly in the Humanities, in the way totalitarianism does.
It has now, controversially to some, reverted to English, modernised much of its curriculum, embarked on an extensive and, so far, largely peaceful transformation process, and worked hard on raising its profile locally and internationally.
Students in its well-run, highly diverse residences are treated with a sort of paternalistic care and consideration, offered healthy food and expected to excel academically, participate in sport and undertake community service. The University of Pretoria is mainly a science, engineering and technology university and has several specific areas in which it excels in research, particularly in the sciences. Our impression was of a happy, secure campus that was well-run and well-resourced.
It would be difficult to reconcile this impression with Jansen’s notion of “the end of the university”. But even the University of Pretoria has its problems. It is not as well-funded as it might seem. Falling subsidies over the years have affected it to the point where its annual costs will in the next year or two exceed its annual income.
Like all universities, it is plagued by the uncertainty around fee-free education – will it work? Will the government seriously be able to afford it when all years have to be funded, as opposed to the current first-years only. Funding the first-years alone will probably add R12-billion to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme budget. Will it be able to afford to fund it at massively increasing levels annually, as second-, third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year students are funded? (Once all years are funded it has been estimated that the scheme will cost at least R50-billion per annum, not counting postgraduate students). Will it include a properly costed annual increase to cope with inflation, which in the case of universities is higher than the consumer price index?
If the scheme is unaffordable, what of the expectations of students? How will the government cope if students ultimately find themselves disappointed, or financially unstable universities are compelled to carry the burden of “free” education?
They also ask whether the in-sourcing of workers, arising from the protests of 2017, will be affordable as budgets exceed income. And they ask whether the university will be able to attract new staff of excellent quality to continue to reform its inheritance of mediocrity. And will the state, which until now has respected academic freedom and university autonomy, decide it needs to intervene in universities to the point where they lose these precious features?
Thus the University of Pretoria – excellently managed, with a rising standard of quality and one of the most stable of institutions – is also vulnerable. But it is certainly not on its last legs. Positive societal input would place it in a firmer position and enable it to thrive into the future.
The point of describing these two extremes is that it shows clearly and starkly that our 26 universities are not all in the same boat. Indeed, most universities in South Africa lie somewhere on the continuum implied by the portrayal of these two extremes. The continuum goes from universities that display a level of excellence that places and keeps them in the world rankings, to a level of decay that is quite desperate. There are several failing universities that need urgent attention.
The place of each on the continuum is determined by several factors:
1. Is the university research-intensive? The best research-intensive universities pursue research at the highest possible levels and are rewarded for this by international rankings, their ability to attract and keep good staff and their high-quality teaching.
2. Is the university able to offer and sustain excellent teaching? The most stable universities are those able to draw on a steady stream of students who value their experience there, who are desirable in the job market as a result of their good training, and who are competitive with the best.
3. Is the university able to draw on resources other than the government? This may include the cities or towns in which they are located, alumni, high-fee-paying students, donors, international networks, local partnerships, assets such as land and buildings, and the like.
4. Is the management of the university committed to excellence? This is important especially when we look at universities that are not research-intensive but must be measured by other means. We need to take into account the constraints within which each university operates – a poorer, rural university that does not have the resources to seek research excellence may instead become excellent through emphasising its strengths, eliminating corruption, inculcating pride and focusing on the quality of teaching and care.
5. Is the university watched over by vigilant and competent professional associations? These include those in law, engineering and accountancy, as well as our own Higher Education Quality Council, which guard and watch its quality? What do the reports of these associations say about the quality of what is taught?
The DA believes that both too much and too little is being asked of our university sector, and that it needs to be managed differently. What would we do to manage the sector better and to cope with the huge divergence in university performance, were we to take over from this incompetent government?
It is important that this question is answered by focusing on how universities themselves are functioning, irrespective of who pays for students to attend them. This is a matter largely obscured from view by the conflicts over student funding, and it needs our attention and vigilance. Of course, student funding needs separate consideration. But how students are funded is actually a welfare issue rather than a university matter – it should be considered alongside discussions about social grants, rather than universities themselves. But however they are classified, the difficulties of student funding are so prominent in our minds that they have come to overshadow the important matter of what universities themselves experience, and how they themselves are funded. We have drafted a comprehensive policy on student funding, which proposes a tiered model of loans, and which we will revise as soon as free higher education has settled. This is not the subject of this discussion.
Here are some pointers to a few of the ideas for the future of universities coming out of our new universities and research policy to be released later in 2018:
1. We would ensure that the university sector receives a level of subsidy that allows it to flourish and ends the phenomenon of the “failing university”.
2. We would like the sector to become properly and formally differentiated, as befits a sector with such a marked range of quality. We would divide universities broadly into three types:
3. We would consider reversing those of the mergers of institutions that appear not to have worked
4. We would redesign the structure of university councils to make their oversight function stronger. Councils today are made up largely of internal members or government nominees, which means their true oversight function has been diminished. We would reduce their internal membership and increase their external membership to ensure they are equipped to monitor universities properly.
5. We would clamp down heavily on corruption, adopting a zero-tolerance approach. This would be aided by our reform of university councils.
6. We would invest in well-run residences.
What can you do to make sure your local university functions properly? Support your local university. Get on the council, the alumni association or, if you are a professional, the professional committees that many universities have to assist them. Whistle-blow if you get a whiff of corruption. Learn about how university funding and spending works, and keep an eye on it. Get involved. Remember universities are not government agencies, they are autonomous and their quality rests to a large extent on the people who work there and those who get involved in them rather than some decree from above. Our best universities are jewels and we cannot and should not give up on them. DM
Belinda Bozsoli is the DA shadow minister for higher education and training. This is the text of a talk given recently to members of the DA.
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