The Minister of higher education speaks on changing the universities
Dr B E Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training on occasion of University of the Free State public management memorial lecture, September 3 2009
What is transformation in higher education?
I feel honoured to be here at the University of the Free State today and I thank you sincerely for the invitation to present this lecture. I'd like to begin by congratulating Professor Jansen on his appointment as the first black Vice Chancellor of this university. I extend to him my best wishes and would like to say publicly here that he has my support in his new role and that he will succeed in taking the university forward decisively along the path towards greater academic excellence and to serving its students and staff, the Free State province and South Africa as a whole, including its poorest and most disadvantaged citizens.
Let me also congratulate the new student representative council and its new president, Mr Moses Masitha, who I believe is the university's first black SAC president at the University of the Free State. I wish you well and trust that you will make every effort to represent the entire student body and to unite it under your leadership with energy, vision and courage. You will also I hope play a constructive leadership role in the national structures of the South African Student Union (SAUS) and of your own organisation, South African Students' Congress (SASCO).
My lecture today asks the question, what does transformation in higher education involve? The concept of transformation is understood in different ways by different people and I would like here today to set out my own perspectives in order to elaborate my views on the topic as well as to encourage others to think more carefully about the issues and help stimulate a debate in the higher education sector about this concept of which is often used so loosely.
In everyday English, the word transformation has always referred to change of a fairly basic sort. The South African Concise Oxford Dictionary (2002) also provides us with a specific South African usage of the word, ‘the post apartheid process of social and political change to establish democracy and social equality'. This gives the word transformation a particularly recent meaning and thus one that does not have strong association in the minds of people.
It is a not as strong as the term revolution (we never hear talk of French, Russian or Cuban transformation in 1879, 1917 or 1960) but nevertheless still implies relatively radical change. The term seems to have been accepted widely by many social groupings, precisely, I think, because it can be interpreted in so many different ways. Although in reality there is a continuum of views, the two main interpretations are (i) those that see the main aim of transformation as an end to formal racial discrimination together some relatively minor socio-economic reforms on the one hand (ii) those who see its purpose as being much more far-reaching changes to the socio-economic structure of society in the direction of greater social equity and democratic participation.
I'm sure that it won't come as a surprise to you that my own views correspond to the latter perspective and that I think that the former is untenable. The struggle against the oppression of colonialism, segregation and apartheid in South Africa was a protracted one, going back to the mid 17th century. Millions suffered from the oppression and large numbers lost their freedom and lives in the course of the struggle to end it.
I can't believe that most of them did this just so that a few among them could join the ranks of their oppressors or even for the right to vote which didn't bring with it the possibility of changing the quality of their lives fundamentally for the better. This fundamental social change was also what a sizable number of white democrats fought for including that great Free State Afrikaner, Bram Fischer, who dedicated his entire life to this struggle. Now, with the arrival of a liberated state, I believe that our institutions, including our universities and other educational institutions need to play their role in bring about this improvement in the lives of the majority of our people.
Clearly given our history of overt racial oppression in South Africa, the most obvious form of transformation must take is the elimination of racism in the university. This means increasing access for black students and their full integration into the life of the universities. In this respect the University of the Free State has made progress in that it now has a majority of black students, but it has also in my view failed in some respects to make important changes.
The continued racial segregation of the hostels is something that is unacceptable 15 years after the introduction of a democratic order and has no doubt contributed to the kinds of attitudes that led to the notorious incident at the Reitz Hostel last year. The Vice Chancellor has assured me that he will tackle this issue and I am confident that he will do so successfully with the support of the overwhelming majority of the university community.
We come from a history where for conservative communities racial exclusivity equalled excellence and exclusivity was the equivalent of lowering standards. This is the kind of thinking that we need to overcome. Although this issue has particular resonance in South Africa (mainly because of the part played by racism in our history), it is not exclusively a South African issue. All societies in which an exclusive higher education system has been expanded have suffered from similar attitudes as children of the middle classes and then the working classes have moved in on the terrain of the previously privileged.
In addition, to increased access for black students to universities and their full integration into university life, transformation means we must also ensure that neither black nor any other group of students feel socially alienated or are discriminated against in their institutions and that the demographic composition of academic and non-academic staff of our universities is also transformed decisively.
The same transformation must take place with regard to gender and to ensuring that women of all racial groups and especially black women who have been the most oppressed section of society are equitably represented in all aspects of university life. A transformed university life must likewise make provision to cater for the needs of the disabled and other disadvantaged groups.
A particular effort should be made to ensure that the children of the working class and the poor are given opportunities to study and to succeed in universities. Poor students from rural communities are particularly vulnerable when they enter universities and feel alienated in an environment they often find to be quite different to anything in their previous experience. It is essential that they receive support so that their inherent talent is not lost for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to learn.
Despite the fact that all our universities have policies in place to combat racism and discrimination, the Soudien report shows clearly that there is a disjuncture between policy and actual discriminatory practice as experienced by many thousands of students and staff (especially blacks, women and other affected groups) at our universities? According to the report this is a serious problem because this disjuncture is not only because of the actions of maverick individuals on the ground, but includes the universities leaderships, including even university councils which are guilty of making policy in order to comply with legislation but expect that policy to be ignored in practice.
Clearly progressive policies are not enough. They need to be monitored and interventions made by the institutions where this is necessary. I have committed myself to ensuring that my department monitors the institutions in this regard and have written to the all university council chairs to ensure that the report is taken seriously and discussed on all campuses.
Important as combating racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, transformation in higher education is of course about much more than this. It must be about the whole process of democratisation, national development, poverty alleviation, and about creating a caring and equitable society which benefits all its citizens. Any university transformation process must go beyond demographics and discrimination and begin to change every aspect of university life as well as contribute meaningfully to the transformation of society as a whole.
The Higher Education Act has attempted to build into the governance structures of universities an element of participation by all stakeholders. For example institutional forums were established at all higher education institutions, not as decision-making bodies but as consultative bodies in which all stakeholders could have their voices heard and which could make recommendations to the decision-making structures. Theses forums have not been as successful as they should have been.
The Soudien report says that they have been marginalised and their role and status eroded. Many groups, according to the report, including students, unions, staff associations, academics (especially black, female and junior academics) feel disempowered and would welcome the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the institutional forums. If this opportunity were available, surely some of the communication problems and misunderstandings which lead to conflict between management and students or result in staff dissatisfaction could be alleviated. Clearly not only university managements, councils and senates need to start taking the forums seriously. Those who feel marginalised must also to start asserting their rights.
The principles of academic freedom and university autonomy also have implications for democracy. Both are important in that they protect the academic space and give both institutions and academics to pursue their programmes, thoughts and ideas without undue pressure from government or business centres of power. However, we should not assume that these concepts are the same or that they cannot be in conflict with one another. At the July 2009 World Conference on Higher Education held at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris a paper from the education international (a federation of educational unions) argued that in many institutions, university autonomy (i.e. interpreted as the autonomy of university authorities) is used precisely to suppress freedom of academic enquiry. We have seen examples of this in our country as well and must guard against it since it can undermine not only academic enquiry but democracy itself.
With regard to democracy transformation in society as a whole, universities have an important role that they can play. Although it may be a caricature to talk about universities as ivory towers today, there does nevertheless remain a kernel of truth in such a characterisation. Universities could play a much more dynamic and proactive role in the democratic life of society than they do at present.
This could be done by actively promoting a public dialogue on various crucial issues facing our society: whether the political, social, economic educational or scientific. Research and teaching on various important takes place questions as a matter of course in universities, but these could be shared with the broader society through public lectures, seminar and conferences and other forms of engagement specifically aimed at engaging a non-academic audience.
Non-university researchers, leaders and opinion makers could be actively pursued to make use of public platforms provided by the university to present and debate their views. Academics and students could also engage in forms of public dialogue whether through the media or through other platforms in civil society. These are merely examples and there are various other activities which could, with imagination, be developed to contribute to a vibrant democracy through keeping society informed and engaged in debating the big issues which affect us all.
Of course I am aware that universities do engage in such activities, some more than others. There are already good examples in many universities that we need to build on. But all universities should develop systematic policies to guide them in contributing to building an informed and thinking public.
I now turn my attention to what are normally thought of as the key functions of the university teaching and research. I have said on a number of occasions recently that one of the biggest problems that I see with our curricula especially in the social sciences and humanities and particularly in economics which itself has come to exercise an enormous influence on other disciplines is the dominance of a single type of thinking.
Since the end of the Cold War humanity has been subjected to what I can call the tyranny of a singular ideology, a single economic idea, or what we can perhaps describe as a particular form of ideological totalitarianism an untrammelled free market, unfettered by any state intervention, as the only vehicle to tackle the many problems facing humanity today. This is neo-liberalism. While the ideas of other thinkers Keynes, Habermas, Gramsci or Marx and so on, may be taught they are generally taught as historical curiosities with no relevance to today. Neo-liberalism and the ideology of the so-called free market, on the other hand, take on the hue of immutable science which is not open to challenge.
I call this totalitarian and tyrannical because under the guise of freedom it is highly intolerant of divergent views and uses its economic base and muscle to intimidate or blackmail all those who hold different views. Let me illustrate through an article that was in the Business Report of Tuesday 21 July 2009, under the headline "Cosatu challenged on inflation". It quotes Iraj Abedian, who has become one of its prominent local economic and ideological hit-men, as saying that COSATU was remiss in its critique of the policy of inflation targeting.
In his usual way he goes on, without providing any substantive argument to point out that foreign investor perceptions were vital to the economy. At the onset of the current capitalist crisis, Abedian had been telling everybody willing to listen that no alternative views to the current neo-liberal economic trajectory should be raised as these would upset the markets and the investors. Yet it is the very same singular kind of thinking of neo-liberalism that has brought about the current economic crisis!
Our country faces many serious problems these are problems that our public institutions need to take seriously. They need to constantly question dominant approaches whether they come from within the academy, from government or from international institutions. We must test ideas through rigorous research and debate and we must teach our students to do the same thing. This applies as much to the social sciences which are also faced with many burning social questions, issues concerned with the environment and climate change, with sustainable energy, finding solutions to the serious health care problems such as HIV and AIDS, and with finding economical solutions to service delivery to the poor in areas such as housing, water, electricity and so on.
There must be a national dialogue on these issues of transformation in higher education as well as dialogue within institutions. I will be calling a national higher education summit early next year in order to promote such a national dialogue. Hopefully this will result, among other things, in fleshing out a proposal for a permanent stakeholder forum to ensure that a sustainable stakeholder dialogue is established.
Lastly, let me say that the universities are an important part of the national education and training system. This system includes, in addition to universities, pre-schools, schools, colleges and various workplace training institutions and programmes. In this array of institutions the universities occupy a special place. They are the institutions where most research is conducted into learning and into the functioning of the system as a whole.
They are also the institutions where teachers are trained in preparation for work in the schools and where much of the in-service is also conducted. There are, however, areas of the education and training system which are sorely neglected by the universities, both in terms of research and in terms of teaching the further education and training (FET) college sector (and other colleges), early childhood education, special needs education and even primary school teaching. Without going into details about this, let me appeal to the University of the Free State, led as it is now by a prominent and distinguished educator, to look into this problem, and pose the question to yourselves: what can we do to assist strengthen the rest of the education and training system, especially as it affects poor communities.
Let me conclude by thanking you for inviting me here today to share my thoughts with you. This university is an important national asset which you have been entrusted with. I am confident that you as a university community will be able to vindicate the nation's trust.
I thank you.
Statement issued by the Department of Higher Education and Training, September 3 2009
Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter