Higher education transformation has been a terrain of struggle for various forces and a policy priority for the democratic government at least since the appointment of the National Commission on Higher Education in 1995 by the late President Nelson Mandela.
My aim here it is to discuss a selected list of pertinent unresolved and urgent policy issues in higher education. The issues are subjectively selected on the basis of the tension or stagnation they cause in the system. The ideas put forward here are preliminary — however, they are presented in a manner that suggests that decisive action is required to move them forward.
Framing the discussion:
Students are social constructs of their society and the issues they confront in the community are qualitatively the same as those they confront and seek to resolve in the campus setting. Further, it is an acknowledgement that the university is an institution within a particular time and space, never an island.
It too, is a product of the polity. As such, it has to be responsive and relevant to the society it serves. The second point of departure draws from the popular mandate of the Freedom Charter of 1955. The Charter declares that the “doors of learning and culture shall be open to all”. The Charter is deliberate in its phrasing when it says “ALL”.
This means that no position of social disadvantage must hinder access to education and cultural actualisation.
Except for the rise of the finance and service sectors, the fundamental economic structure of the South African economy has remained the same: minerals and energy complex.
What does this mean for the purposes of understanding the struggles to transform higher education? It means at least this:
The struggle for education transformation must be understood within the context of the nature of our political economy and the interaction between the two; “That long before apartheid, white minority interests had always sought to use education as one of the key levers for social engineering; and that the inequality that exists today speaks to all manner of social deprivation of the vast majority of black people from earning better incomes, gaining skills, enjoying social mobility and being part of development.
Of course South Africa is a capitalist social formation. As a general rule, the dominant political economy structures of any epoch or society, tend to influence and direct development in all other spheres of society, so that even the mental or cultural production of that society resembles the basis of material production of the very society. Cultural institutions such as universities are not immune from this influence.
What is transformation?
Any project that lays claim to the concept of transformation, must at a bare minimum, aspire and actually seek to realise fundamental and thorough-going change. Anything short of this understanding will be pretentious and an exercise in merely marking time.
The recent student uprisings:
The recent protest movements in historically white institutions are an emphatic statement of disapproval on the lack of transformation in the sector. The students are asking the simple and yet profound questions: what is the meaning of struggle and freedom? What is the pace and quality of change in the university when juxtaposed with the expectations and promise of 1994?
What is the direction of this change, if any? Who benefits? It seems that the students are saying, by and large, that we are merely marking time – that there is no transformation in higher education at least in so far as it is conceptualised above.
Managers of universities have failed the transformation project. But students are also saying that the movement for transformation will succeed if it comes from above and below. If the political leadership and university managers recommit themselves at all to the project of transformation, then the students are willing to use their agency to support genuine efforts for transformation.
Governance and Democratisation:
The commitment to democratisation means that we should strive to democratise all our public spaces and institutions; especially so that they gain more legitimacy and become more inclusive. For some institutions, a well-run university is one that conforms to formalities:
This means that: Many of our councils see themselves as corporate boards running corporate entities and our vice-chancellors see themselves as CEOs; By and large, the end-game is about keeping a positive balance sheet to the detriment of all other important values, activities and outcomes;
Due to the funding model and other demands on the focus, universities are managed in such a manner that increasingly; they are exclusive, bordering on being “private”. In fact, our public universities in South Africa are semi-private institutions if one looks at the fee structures.
Increasingly, almost all universities have adopted the corporate language and culture of “client-service provider” relations.
Students are now clients and in this context. Those who have money have easy access. Those without money find it hard to gain access; and for the university to survive, generate income and surplus, it must establish income generating schemes which sometimes take away precious time from teaching and learning as academics are increasingly committed to a myriad of consultancy-oriented centres.
To the extent that these expenditure items advance knowledge and the core tasks of a university, they are welcome. However, some of the items are unnecessary luxuries such as the built infrastructure that requires maintenance and therefore escalation of costs.
Proposals do away with Councils and Institutional Forums:
Clearly there is a need to rethink our democratisation efforts and models. The Institutional Forums, meant to drive transformation, has failed to perform their tasks because of two fundamental reasons. There is also an overlap between councils and IFs in terms of scope of work or mandate.
We suggest these should be replaced by democratic University General Assemblies (UGAs) in which all constituencies will be represented and heard equally. The UGAs must be founded on principles of fairness, social justice, democracy, equality, representivity, public accountability, etc. The community, management, students, workers, academics, must be represented in the assembly. The UGAs will be the new highest decision-making bodies.
Increase the autonomy of the SRC: SRCs have been under question for some time now. They have also been experiencing relatively low levels of voter turnout year after year — the further we move away from the 1994 moment. Most universities have reduced the autonomy of the SRC through funding, narrow managerialism, corporate culture and other measures that close the space for democratic engagement. No institution is as more democratic as the SRC in the university setting: They are elected annually and not appointed. They are mandated structures. They hold regular popular assemblies for accountability purposes and so on.
We propose the following funding models and structures to increase the autonomy and vibrancy of the SRC: A reformist option — that is, a return to the original democratic funding for the SRC as envisaged across generations of the revolutionary student movement. The original funding model for the SRC is that, as a principle, every student must fund the SRC. This means that for every student registered, there should be earmarked fees for purposes of funding the establishment and operations of the SRC.
The second option is to adapt the Student Union model of the United Kingdom to the South African conditions. The SRC will be established as a non-profit organisation and yet voted for and accountable to the students through the normal democratic processes and as well as to the community via annual reports to the Department of Social Development as required by existing law; and Further, the SRC must invest in policy and research capacity so that students continue their role of impacting society beyond campus life.
The South African Union of Students and campus politics: Increasingly, student politics are emasculated. Some managers dream of universities existing in a utopian apolitical society. Nowhere in human history have we had a non-political society. The idea of killing the rich student political culture is counter to democratisation and therefore the transformation project. The South African Student Union (SAUS) should be a union of students and not merely SRCs.
It should be accountable to its national conference, democratically constituted by all SRCs in the country. It should be recognised in official government policy. Student support and funding in achieving access and success, access across the post-school system is dependent but not limited to two fundamental things: student support and funding. In the long-term, if we improve the outcomes at school level, student support at university or a TVET college will play a slightly different role to the current one (managing transition to university, crisis management, etc).
We also need better articulation between the school and post-school systems. NSFAS should continue as a prime funder that gets us closer to free education for the poor. As a principle, all students who finish on record time should have their loans converted into bursaries. The DHET should continue its efforts to cancel the national student debt, which runs into billions of rands now.
The current funding model is such that universities with higher research output (historically white) get more funding in the form of earmarked funds and other grants. It is also important to note that historically white institutions still attract higher private sector and donor incomes compared to historically black institutions. The skewed nature of the funding reflects the unresolved national question and the coloniality that still plagues the system. Historically black universities still get less funding due to the legacy of incapacity induced by apartheid.
The current White Paper on the Post-Schooling system attempts to return to the “redress fund” principle, stating that “universities with lower levels of research output must be supported through planning and funding to develop their research capacity in particular areas of specialisation, as well as to develop a research culture”. We support the return to heightened and dedicated focus aimed at addressing the unique needs of historically underdevelopment.
But two things are worthy of noting: Public accountability for previous and new funding and related support should be a priority for historically black institutions. The underdevelopment of historically black institutions is not only about funding but; other related aspects too; and Geographical location will continue to burden historically black institutions. The wider South
African political economy must find creative ways to deal with the periphery.
Differentiation and Articulation: We support the renewed efforts to deal with articulation in our differentiated system.
We believe that government should press harder and faster to ensure that our universities are more differentiated and that the system is well articulated from school to TVET and right up to university. Public policy in this instance seems to be on track. More importantly, we need to move faster in terms of understanding education provision for the future and how it will affect the university degree, access to higher education, institutional types, performance, quality, funding, etc.
Technical and vocational education and training: (TVET)
In so far as the TVET sub-sector is concerned, we agree and endorse the following key policy decisions: The introduction of NSFAS in the colleges; the efforts to make TVET colleges institutions of “first choice” for the youth through improving quality, funding, infrastructure, governance and programme options; and the efforts to ensure that TVET programmes are well articulated in the higher education or post-school system.
The university managers may continue to mark time and fail the transformation test but the voices from below will expose and hold them accountable. The government must really take its task of holding universities publicly accountable seriously. The deal since 1994 was that universities will enjoy autonomy and the people of South Africa will hold them publicly accountable through the government of the day. There is no institutional autonomy without public accountability and no institution is autonomous from transformation. From students to managers to government, we need urgent, decisive and visionary leadership. The new broad movement for transformation must triumph!
David Maimela, a former president of Sasco (2007 – 2008), is now a researcher in the faculty of political economy at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra).