Amnesia at HDIs over the "tribal college" past

Rectors defend their turf against Kader Asmal's social engineering. But, asks RW Johnson, what about racial quotas reminiscent of the apartheid era?

One of the paradoxes of the present row over Kader Asmal's plan for the country's universities and technikons is that the ANC, so determined to do away with the legacy of apartheid in every other direction, has taken eight years to face up to that legacy in higher education - the area where delay has been most expensive and damaging. But of course the Historically Disadvantaged Institutions, as they like to call themselves, never quite get around to mentioning that the main historical disadvantage most of them suffered from was being an integral part of the old "separate development" policy with clienteles defined by tribe or race. In effect Asmal plans to turn this page at last, merging most of the HDIs with formerly all white institutions so that most of them disappear.

The last decade has been a terrible time for the HDIs but it began as if they had come into their own at last. In the apartheid era they were run by iron-clad Broederbonders which meant that by 1985 most were the scene of more or less continuous staff and student tumult. By the late 1980s, however, the Left had won and they all passed to the management of "progressive" black or brown academics, a moment of giddy euphoria when their campuses seemed exciting places and managed to recruit a number of able academics. This change preceded the far greater political turning point of 2 February 1990 so that when the liberation movements returned home they hailed the once reviled "bush colleges" as bastions of the Left and models of transformation. Donors rushed to help them, and from 1994 on the government was clearly minded to give them preferential treatment of every kind.

Calamity ensued. The culture of student power and mass action continued to create havoc. The new government, business and the older established universities poached huge numbers of academic staff which the HDIs could not afford to lose. Many of the most able among the HDIs' student clientele deserted them for the formerly white universities. Aids began to cut a regular and growing swathe through the student body. Student applications fell calamitously at the same time that institutional debts mounted. Most crucial of all, the new post-apartheid management teams uniformly failed.

To be fair, the problems of the HDIs would have tested any management - but typically these problems were only worsened by far by the style of management actually imposed. For there was something in the post of vice chancellor which frequently brought out the very worst in the members of the new black elite. The whole notion of a campus was peculiarly alluring: a tiny fiefdom all its own, its chieftain was by definition endowed with great intellectual and social authority, had the right to dress up in brightly coloured mock-medieval costumes and bestow honorary doctorates not just on their cronies but on men and women so famous as to imply even greater distinction in the degree-giver himself. On such occasions the vice chancellor would give orations which exalted the African Renaissance, black empowerment and his or her own determination to achieve yet more and faster transformation in the institution. Crudely, this meant getting rid of whites, whatever their qualifications, and promoting blacks and cronies, whatever their qualifications.

To ensure that no one could prise this fiefdom from their hands, the vice-chancellors quickly packed the university council with their cronies and creatures and, disregarding any notions of academic freedom, applied brutal stick-and-carrot policies to the professoriate, ensuring no challenge could come from there. Thus entrenched the vice-chancellor would award him or herself a vast salary and an even larger expense account and then set forth on interminable peregrinations abroad where he would be said to be "fund-raising", though typically there were no funds to show at the end of such trips. In all too many cases, indeed, there were soon large and unexplained holes in the accounts into which millions of Rands had unaccountably vanished.

With the vice chancellor so frequently away, multiple smaller scams and scandals proliferated - and, inevitably, his or her position became increasingly contested. Even when he or she was present, the vice chancellor's management style consisted simply of the issue of ukases, frequently disregarding not only the institution's constitution and procedures but also taken without much regard to practicality. Students finding themselves on the receiving end of such brusqueness were prone to riot, usually resulting in the sudden alteration of the dates of teaching terms and exams - and to the buying off of key student leaders. Foreign donors often found to their incredulity that they were unable to give away the large sums they had allocated to the HDI because no one could be found to construct a properly evaluated and costed project proposal. At long last many walked away, just as many of the academic staff and students had walked away - and, belatedly, even Kader Asmal is now walking away.

Frequently matters were even worse than this caricature suggests. At the end of a decade of post-apartheid leadership of the HDIs it is not only difficult to cite a single vice chancellor or principal who was a success, but an increasing number of these institutions have seen their leadership collapse altogether so that they are now "under administration" and bankrupt. Only the difficulty of grasping this political hot potato can explain why the government has delayed this long before intervening, for the situation has been chronic for many years now. Probably only two HDIs ever had much chance of succeeding - the universities of Western Cape and Durban-Westville, which were situated in large conurbations and with original target clienteles (Coloureds and Indians, respectively) with superior educational traditions undamaged by Bantu Education. But not only were they fatally weakened by the loss of those clienteles but their management was every bit as bad as that of the other HDIs. It is, nonetheless, no small irony that South Africa's first Indian Minister of Education should be administering the coup de grace to UDW which not only incorporated the outstanding educational tradition of the Indian community but which, alone in South Africa, provided for the study of that community's distinctive history, culture and languages.

So is Asmal's policy correct? To the extent that it shuts down unviable institutions, yes. The only lobby to keep them open comes from vested interests - such as the HDI vice chancellors in post. But it is impossible to pretend that anyone, starting from scratch, would design a tertiary system of the kind South Africa has now. The Asmal plan seeks to make such a policy more palatable by disguising it as a policy of merger. In some cases one can see further disasters coming: thus the universities of the North and Venda are to be merged with Medunsa. All three are failed institutions: a merger will merely make the failure bigger, more unwieldy and probably irretrievable. In most other cases the fact that the HDIs have been allowed to run down for so long will mean that mergers are really takeovers. This could prove problematic for there are areas of real merit, even excellence, within the HDIs - which could be lost in a simple takeover. There is also the problem of administrative overload. The University of Natal, for example, has always struggled to administer two centres at Durban and Pietermaritzburg plus a semi-independent medical school. Under the Asmal plan it must now absorb UDW and perhaps the Umlazi campus of the University of Zululand as well.

Whether this really represents a strengthening of the merged institution which ultimately eventuates is a moot point. Management talent is, as we have seen, in short supply and spreading it ever thinner may hurt rather than help. One should not forget the analogy of the over-loaded lifeboat. At some point one more swimmer clambering aboard will sink the boat and drown the whole crew.

Unfortunately, the battle over closing or merging HDIs is laden with symbolism and has been fought with tenacity by HDI vice chancellors who, though they may be discredited in the educational world, have strong political connections. In fact this battle is as irrelevant to the real needs of the tertiary sector as Asmal's disgraceful threat to apply racial quotas.

Two issues are paramount. Earlier this year the Financial Mail drew attention to the fact that over half the universities' scientific research output (as measured by publications) was now produced by those aged over 50 - a dramatic change from the position a decade ago. In fact much the same would doubtless be true in the arts and social sciences, for what the data was really telling one was that tertiary education is now dangerously over-dependent on an older (and largely white) age cohort which will exit the sector in the next five or ten years - lured out of the way, in many cases, by early retirement schemes crazily aimed at hurrying this talented older group on its way. It is now extremely difficult to see how the whole tertiary sector can avoid a precipitous drop in quality and standards. For although replacing this older group with a similarly talented younger cohort was one of the most urgent tasks facing the education ministry in the last decade, Asmal has yet to acknowledge that the problem exists. The reason, of course, is that this would be to question the holy mantra of transformation.

The second, connected issue is that of merit. When Edwin Cameron, chairman of the Wits Council, announced that it was highly probable that Colin Bundy's successor as vice chancellor would "either be black or a woman", he was merely expressing openly the doctrine that merit alone was no longer the basis of appointment even to the most important jobs in the tertiary system. Quite clearly, white males need not apply. A greater betrayal of the academic enterprise than this insistence on sexual and racial criteria is hard to imagine. When the Nazis ruled that German universities would no longer employ Jewish academics, severe damage was inflicted on that country's tertiary system even though Jews had not made up a majority of German academics. But white males have historically provided the majority of South Africa's academics - which means that our version of the Nuremberg Laws will do far more harm.

The sensible (as well as the humane) response to the Nuremberg Laws was that of the British and American universities which grabbed all the German Jewish academics they could. They were quite unbothered that such folk were non-Aryan white males: they were simply the best. It is, of course, desirable that South Africa's intelligentsia should include as many shades of black and brown and as many women as possible - but anyone with the slightest historical understanding knows that the formation of an intelligentsia is not something which works according to the ukases and timetables of lawyers or politicians. There is no prospect whatsoever of Kader Asmal or anyone else conjuring into existence a black or brown intelligentsia of sufficient size to replace the white academics who will leave the tertiary sector in the next few years.

It is, of course, true that a similar demographic crisis faces most of the professions over the next few years but of these the crisis afflicting our educators (schoolteachers are also badly affected) is the most severe. In the case of accountants, actuaries, doctors and so on, much higher salaries will create market forces to help fill the gap; this is not true of academics or teachers. Second, educators are the fundamental profession: they produce the members of all the other professions.

Above all South Africa has to be deeply conscious of the fact that the coming to power of African nationalism led, right round the continent, to the decline and virtual destruction of many fine universities bequeathed by the colonial order. This was long ago identified by the World Bank as a major cause of Africa's crisis, "robbing such countries of the possibility of institutional renewal". But the brutal truth is that Uganda could survive the decline of Makerere if the coffee and cotton grew, just as Ghana could weather the decline of Accra University if the cocoa crop came in. But South Africa is not like that: its far more sophisticated economy and infrastructure depend utterly on a continuing supply of well-educated graduates, which in turn depends on the core tertiary institutions remaining in a healthy state. But this core - of which the HDIs have never been part - is in trouble. Unisa is already in a critical state and the University of Natal could soon follow. To date all Asmal has done for these core institutions is reduce their autonomy and academic freedom and threaten them with racial quotas.

One of the saddest signs of the time, indeed, has been the failure of universities to protest against a new regime which seeks to turn them into mere parastatals, annihiliating their long and sturdy defence of the autonomy and freedom they once fought for. Thus Asmal's recent ukase threatening racial quotas was actually greeting with applause from universities which mounted furious protests when the apartheid government first insisted on such racial criteria in 1957.

Meanwhile underpaid academics leave in droves for other shores and other jobs and many of the brightest graduates either leave the country or are told that an academic career is not for them because they are the wrong colour. It is a clear warning signal when the vice chancellors first of UCT, then of Wits and then of Natal all emigrate to jobs abroad. The apartheid era was bad for universities but even under apartheid nothing like that ever happened. In a very limited sense the decision to close or merge the HDIs constitutes a victory for merit - at least future resources will be devoted to institutions more able to do the job. But to save the core requires nothing less than a public admission that tertiary education can only thrive and survive if intellectual merit is its first and last criterion.