Do South African universities have a future?

as by fireAs By Fire – The end of the South African University (Tafelberg)

Jonathan Jansen

As the eldest daughter of a white middle class family, I went to Rhodes University, the first of my family to go to university.

It was not a given – my mother said she saw no point in going to university unless there was a specific career motivation.But  I had a supportive English teacher who approached my parents, and Rhodes was about to launch a three-year journalism degree course.

My dad’s employers lent him money for my fees, to be repaid over six years. I was given what seemed to me to be a very small amount of pocket money, from which I was supposed to buy my clothes and pay for my entertainment, but I went off each term with a bag full of toiletries and other necessities.

My parents covered my transport to and from Grahamstown – by train; I lived in a university residence, so my accommodation and food was covered; and I had accounts at the local bookshop and chemist.

All that was expected of me was to pass each year. I graduated three years later with no debt. There was no question of my repaying my parents, or helping them or my three younger siblings financially when I started working for the Cape Argus as a junior reporter.

Along with many of my co-students, I took all this utterly for granted. But this situation is no longer the case. I expected family support; today the tables are reversed and many families expect their student children to help support them.

The student protests that erupted our universities in 2015 and last year took most of South Africa – including the government – by surprise, particularly given the violence and apparent hatred displayed.

But as Jonathan Jansen, former rector of the University of the Free State, says in his introduction to this insightful book, one group of people was not surprised: the country’s university vice chancellors. These men and women, concerned about falling government subsidies and rising fees, said: “We tried to warn the government for more than a decade that a perfect storm was brewing.”

Jansen felt that in the various reports and opinion pieces about the protests, the voices of the university leaders were missing. These were people in an impossible situation.

“Whether they like it or not, they stood between the government, which required accountability, and the students, who demanded accessibility. These leaders had to ensure living-wage increases for their academics and workers but at the same time engage with students’ demands to insource contract workers, which threatened to collapse personnel budgets. As vice chancellors, they had to reassure their senates that the academic project would not be compromised even while making adjustments to the academic calendar and examination timetable forced on them by relentless protest actions. They had to convey confidence and assure parents and alumni that their children were safe, and yet bring in added security that made some of the students feel unsafe…”

This book seeks to answer three broad questions – what happened, why it happened, and what will happen next – based on the views of 11 vice chancellors including Jansen himself.

His topics include the financial and cultural origins of the crisis; the fact that the student movement was broadly leaderless which made negotiation impossible;  the “vexed demand” for decolonisation and what that means; what Jansen calls “welfarisation” of the universities; the role of the media; and the future of the universities.

One can’t do justice to all these topics in a review, but the book does give people like me a glimpse into what happened and why. And the more we understand the challenges faced by others in society, the better chance we have of creating a viable future.

Here are a few insights.

  • Jansen says the primary driver of the crisis was the declining state subsidies. Adam Habib of Wits said that in 1994 a total of 70% of the university’s expenses were covered by the subsidy; this was down to 30% to 35% by 2014. Universities tried to compensate for this by raising fees, effectively pricing higher education beyond reach.
  • The doors of learning opened. University enrolments increased from 493 342 in 1994 to almost one million in 2014, as subsidies declined. Yet many of these students were ill-prepared, thanks to a poor school system, and studies showed that less than 50% of students doing a three-year bachelor’s degree would graduate within six years.
  • Almost all the black students at the University of Cape Town, which in the words of vice chancellor Max Price has “the trappings of the colonial, of the empire”, come from Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, “where the society is one in which four out of five people look like them. Whereas here, four out of five do not look like them”, making these students feel like outsiders. Jansen says this leads to a situation at UCT where “black African students discover their blackness” (his italics). Within “UCTs expressly white English culture, these students come to feel that they are different and fall back on an elementary defence: their black identity”.
  • As the proportion of students from very poor backgrounds increase, they need welfare help of a sort universities never provided in the past. The students need help with accommodation, food, transport and even toiletries, and there are no comfortably off parents in the background able to fund these needs. Or as Sizwe Mabizela of Rhodes told Jansen: “Students are demanding things that have never been part of the mandate of a university.” To make their case, says Jansen, students targeted the most vulnerable of institutions in the social welfare chain: the public university. “The tragedy is that irrevocable damage was being unleashed on a fragile and immensely valuable national asset.”
  • Historically black universities have been struggling for years, but for the first time the top 10 universities are threatened by the funding crisis, protests and instability. While places like Stellenbosch and Pretoria have strong reserves, UWC, with its relatively weak financial position, could “find itself slipping into the financial and operational quagmire that engulfs the bottom 10 universities”. And Rhodes could be next.
  • Jansen says he does not know of a single vice-chancellor who would not give an arm and a leg for 10 black professors in chemistry and maths, in architecture and anthropology. “But they are simply not there, and they are unlikely to emerge unless the school system is fixed and professorial salaries are raised.”
  • The effects of underfunding, political interference and instability on campus have been seen in African countries to the north. Jansen says first students who can afford to do so will leave public universities, many to go overseas. Academics who can afford to do so will leave too. And then what Jansen calls the academic facility – libraries, buildings, laboratory equipment – will start to collapse. “What was built up over a century could very well be laid waste in a matter or two to three years.” He adds that the fatal error of some of the most militant agitators is the belief that “decolonised universities” can rise from the rubble.

This is not a cheerful or encouraging book. Jansen seems profoundly pessimistic about the future of quality tertiary education in this country, despite his final two pages in which he says it can be saved if ordinary citizens “reclaim the public in our public universities”.

Yeah, maybe. But given the wealth of evidence he cites in support of his thesis, one is left feeling pretty doubtful.

  • This review first appeared in Weekend Argus in August 2017

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