The demoralization of SA's academic staff

Daniel Herwitz on why the quality of teaching at our universities is under threat

Reinvigorating South Africa's Academic Staff

There is an important sense in which the sustainability and vitality of a university depends neither on the students nor the administration. Students are crucial but transient. They arrive and within a few years, depart. It is the same with Vice Chancellors, who are equally transient. They come and go.

A university depends first and foremost on its academic staff. They are the ones who are in it for life, who remain in the workplace for many years. When they flee, either abroad or from one university to the next in the manner of musical chairs, a university is threatened at its core. (This is also true of non-academic staff, but that is a topic for another opinion piece.)

Of course, a core mission of universities is the education and training of students. If they do not thrive the university is as bereft as a hospital without patients. Students share in the invention of knowledge, they challenge encrusted norms. Students catalyze innovation. They are the future of a society.

But not its only future.

Perhaps the most dispiriting result of the past two years of tumult around decolonization at South African universities is that the emphasis on student demand has led to widespread demoralization of academic staff. It does no good to offer free education to students if the academic staff is depleted. A university is a system in which all the parts must thrive for any to thrive. Call this Ubuntu. It takes the entire university to educate a single student.

Disaffection on the part of academic staff is an open secret. Why the secret? Because it is neither acknowledged nor addressed by administrations nor by the Ministry of Education.

Demoralize academic staff and a university falters in every of its purposes, from teaching to the discovery and creation of new knowledge, to the making of art and culture. Conditions are so toxic at certain universities that academic staff have gone under the radar screen, intimidated from participating in conversations around policy, knowledge and welfare. The mode is: protect your own interests, if you speak up you will be humiliated. This is hardly a recipe for democracy.

Identity politics are meant to be emancipatory: the politics of recognition wherein formerly oppressed or marginalized voices may claim public acknowledgment and response, shattering stereotypes. This emancipatory role for identity politics has too much yielded to vicious identity politics turning solidarity into threat and the open, questioning voice of free conversation into the screaming of iron clad belief. Which drives academic staff underground.

Research funding through the National Research Foundation is drying up, or harder to find.

South Africa's interpolation of the British Research Exercise into South African universities during the 1990s (when I lived and taught at South African university) have imposed on academic staff increased bureaucratic surveillance. Increasingly they must account for and quantify every inch of time, prove the veracity of every research publication and most important, maintain student numbers to retain funding. This puts academic staff in the position of corporate employees without any of the perks of the corporate world: the car, the house, the cash, the high-quality travel.

Finally, as universities struggle to teach students inadequately prepared thanks to poor investment in primary education, academic staff are forced to bear more and more burden.

The sum total: a lot of applications for exit visas to Australia and the UK.

Is that what South Africa wants? A repetition of Apartheid flight at the crucial moment of decolonization?

This is a national problem which has to be addressed at all levels of leadership. A top Ministry of Education is required to address it, one deeply familiar with higher education.

Academic staff are the equivalent of doctors in a health care system. If the system is not focused on quality of patient care doctors fail in their mission. Conversely if doctors are demoralized the quality of patient care diminishes.

Nothing is more urgent for the sustainability of South African universities than the question of how to reinvest academic staff with a sense of recognition, time and purpose.

Daniel Herwitz was Chair in Philosophy at the then University of Natal in the 1990s. He is Fredric Huetwell Professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.