Talking sense about university transformation

A somewhat uneasy consensus exists on most university campuses that something called "transformation" has to occur.

A somewhat uneasy consensus exists on most university campuses that something called "transformation" has to occur. To this end, "transformation forums" have not only become a standard part of their institutional furniture but it is now recommended by the National Commission on Higher Education [NCHE] that such forums become a permanent and powerful part of all universities' governing structures. [The same is true of technikons but, for simplicity's sake this article will confine itself to universities.]

Liberal academics and students have tended to go along with this, although not one in a hundred of the proponents of transformation can say exactly what is meant by the term. More confusingly, no one seems able to point out a university, either here or anywhere else in the world, which has been successfully "transformed" and thus represents the final state of this process.

Worse still, those campuses where transformation activists have been longest in the ascendant are quite normally scenes of great strife and, often, lower educational standards than would be acceptable elsewhere in Africa, let alone beyond that. Similarly, the fact that it is impossible to point to other good universities anywhere in the world which are run by transformation forums or the like is too easily dismissed, reminding one of the mother proudly pointing out her uniformed son in the Army march-past: "There he is - and what's more, he's the only one in step!"

Five types of university

When the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was first told of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, she is said to have exploded: "End of history? - beginning of nonsense!" Certainly, if we are to avoid talking nonsense about South Africa's universities, we have to have a little history, for they have had very different starting points and records: there is no point in regarding them as all the same. There are, in fact, five different models:

English-speaking liberal universities

These universities were very much the cultural possession of English-speaking whites, and enjoyed a genuinely liberal culture in which there was room for the expression of a wide variety of views. Their liberalism had its limits - although they resisted racial segregation, their pre-apartheid history saw a fair amount of hypocrisy over hidden but real racial quotas and a less than total commitment to the liberal principles they preached. [The author, while serving on the University of Natal students representative council in the early 1960s, was threatened with expulsion from the university by the "liberal" vice chancellor, EG Malherbe, for refusing to organise a segregated graduation ball.] Nonetheless, their tolerance was real - they did nothing to inhibit a flourishing left sub-culture, for example, which produced several generations of leaders and cadres for the South African Communist Party and a large number of black graduates.

These universities were constructed very much on the British model with syllabi to match. Even in the 1960s one studied more British than African history and English literature courses would feature not a single African author. The point was - it was simultaneously true in Australian universities - to retain strict compatibility with the British system since many of the faculty had been trained there and many of the students hoped to do a further degree there or in the United States. Thus there was great emphasis on maintaining international currency for the universities' degrees and scholarship, with faculty conducting research and producing publications intended to keep them connected to an international academic world beyond South Africa.

Afrikaans universities

These were the cultural possessions not just of white Afrikaners but of a National Party-Dutch Reformed Church-Broederbond nexus which stressed a notion of Christian National education at sharp variance with the culture of English-speaking campuses. The atmosphere was considerably more authoritarian and it was taken as normal that student leadership [organised in the Afrikaanse Studentebond] would accept the dictates of their NP elders. Thus the ethos far more resembled that of a high school, with SRCs playing the role of blazer-wearing prefects and strict rules governing the behaviour of women students in particular [no jeans, no smoking, no male guests, curfew hours etc].

This in turn reflected the defensive and anti-colonial thrust of Afrikaans culture. English-speakers, though a minority without political power, conducted themselves with the confidence of a traditional ruling class, enjoying open debate and disagreement, tolerance of division and so on. Afrikaans culture, despite its ruling status, lacked confidence and retained the more closed, parochial and unity-enforced character typical of a minority group.

While a few of the faculty of such universities might have done a degree at Leyden or Amsterdam, the overwhelming majority inhabited a cultural world bounded by South Africa.

The intellectuals of such universities, in true South African fashion, invented lots of prizes and awards which they gave to one another, but it was a closed circle. There was no concern about the maintenance of an entree into an international academic world and accordingly far less stress on publication and research. Essentially such universities were giant teaching factories -often at a very reasonable, though locally set, standard.

Fort Hare

A class of one: a black university founded within a white English-speaking missionary tradition. As a result liberal standards of tolerance and pluralism applied and several generations of black students -including Nelson Mandela, Mangosuthu Buthelezi,

Robert Mugabe, Joe Matthews and Robert Sobukwe - benefited from an education far superior to that found in the tribal colleges. Fort Hare produced really serious African intellectuals like ZK Matthews, and brought them into contact with white liberals like Edgar Brookes.

Although a hotbed of political discussion, the atmosphere at Fort Hare was tolerant and open. Some of its graduates went on to study or teach in universities in Britain and the United States, although few returned to Fort Hare to feed their international experience back into the system. The university attracted black people from all over southern Africa and thus had no particular ethnic colouration. Although now assimilated into the historically disadvantaged university category; Fort Hare's liberal history gives it a distinctive character.

The tribal colleges

Now re-christened as historically disadvantaged universities [HDUs], the change in nomenclature tells a remarkable political story. When they were founded by the apartheid government these universities - Turfloop, Venda, Medunsa, Western Cape, Durban-Westville, Zululand, Transkei, Bophuthatswana [now North West) - were vilified by the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress as illegitimate, ethnically-defined and third rate institutions, not worthy of the name of universities.

But as the number of their graduates grew and the ANC penetration of their campuses progressed, they were re-defined as victim [and thus progressive] universities. Originally controlled by Broederbond and homeland administrations, some [UWC and UDW, most notably] have set out to be "universities of the left" while Africanism of one variety or another tends to rule in the rest. Typically, the HDUs have been severely disadvantaged by lower levels of funding, chronic non-payment of fees, the poorer educational background of most of their students and by a mixture of student unrest and administrative problems: some are now clearly near the point of collapse. Ironically, while their connection to the international academic world is tenuous, an increasing number of their graduates hold important positions in government.

Distance education

The University of South Africa is the largest degrees-by-correspondence university in the world and its success led to the creation of the federal university of Vista, with campuses around the country- Vista's students are wholly black and UNlSA's now predominantly so, although UNISA otherwise belongs to the world of the Afrikaans universities, headquartered in Pretoria with a largely Afrikaans faculty and administration. Only the physical distance between faculty and students prevents the clash between these two cultures being even sharper than it already is.

Transformation: Some home truths

Clearly, any attempt at transformation which fails to take into account these very different histories and characteristics into account, will fail. Equally, any strategy aimed at somehow melding these extremely disparate institutions into the same end-state will fail. Large differences between these institutions will always remain and it is, indeed, desirable that this is so, just as it is in other countries, for a diverse mix of universities can better cater to needs of every kind. But that it is not to say that there is no need for change.

Typically, protagonists of transformation have wanted five things:

1. The decolonisation of university culture, with courses and syllabi made more relevant to African realities.

2. More equal resources for universities, thus remedying the under funding of the HDUs.

3. The admission of more black and brown students to make the total student body more representative of the country's demography.

4. The creation of a comprehensive student loan scheme.

5. The appointment of more black faculty and administrators, especially at senior level.

It is important to realise that these demands only make full sense in the context of the historically white universities [HWUs], for there have been no internal resistances to such changes at the HDUs for some time. While the rhetoric of transformation may be heard at some of the HDUs, it generally signifies a political battle of a quite different kind.

And, to a degree which is seldom acknowledged, there is nothing new about such demands within HWUs either: in practice most of these changes have been under way for some time, usually beginning in the apartheid era.

Thus courses and syllabi have been thoroughly decolonised and reformed: in most cases there is little left to do. The funding discrepancy between the HDUs and others has been reduced by the simple [and disastrous] expedient of reducing funding for all universities. The intake of black and brown students has been hugely increased and is increasing year by year. A national loan scheme has been set up. And there has been a push to appoint black faculty and administrators ever since the late 1980s, with strong affirmative action policies in place at most HWUs.

What has stopped these processes going further than they have has not been a lack of will so much as three practical problems. Firstly, at Afrikaans universities both the language and the predominant culture have acted as a barrier to black entry at both faculty and student level, though this has been overcome to some degree by the provision of parallel English language courses.

Secondly, the demand for a comprehensive loan scheme must be taken in conjunction with the poor prevailing rate of loan repayment and the frequent demand by the South African Students' Congress [SASCO] for education to be wholly free. In practice this means a demand for very large amounts of money which are unlikely to be paid back at all. Funds are simply lacking for this.

Thirdly, affirmative action hiring, even at pay rates far in excess of those which comparable white staff can expect to earn, has been stymied by the sheer lack of suitable candidates and the speed with which the most promising black academics are picked off by business and government.

As it is, it is by no means clear that this strategy is working. Very large numbers of disadvantaged black students have been admitted and in many cases the handicap imposed by the poor level of schooling available in black areas has doomed large proportions of them to poor results or outright failure, this despite the effective emergence of two-track standards and such devices as "affirmative marking". Faculty, particularly at the HDUs, complain that many of their students are barely literate and even at the HWUs - which tend to receive the cream of the crop - the intense efforts made at remedial education merely attest to the size of the problem. If the pressure continues for more and more under-prepared students to be admitted, the result can only be falling standards and higher rates of academic failure.

The fact is that much of the money now being spent on higher education would be far better spent on setting up a series of intermediate remedial colleges whose sole purpose was to compensate disadvantaged students for their poor school education by intensive remedial tuition aimed at bringing them up to minimum university standard. Currently the government is trying to get foreign donors to cough up R650 million to fund student loans without being able to attest either that the loans will be paid back or whether all such students will be seriously educable at university level. It would make a far more appealing case to any donor if the government were seen to bite the bullet, accept what is inevitable in the long run anyway, and ask for help in setting up remedial colleges.

Some of the rhetoric of transformation is so heady that it is important to be quite frank about what can and cannot be achieved. The example of the historical handicap of the Afrikaans universities is an important one to note in this respect. From 1948 on, National Party governments made strenuous efforts to ensure that any gap in standards between Afrikaans and English schools was closed, and they also gave heavily preferential financial treatment to Afrikaans universities. Fifty years later the annual university league table reflecting academic research and publication still puts the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Cape Town at the top, with Pretoria third and the universities of Natal and Rhodes still ahead of most of their Afrikaans peers. Of course, in those years the Afrikaans universities produced many individually brilliant scholars and researchers, but at the collective, institutional level even two generations of effort under favourable conditions have not been sufficient entirely to close the gap between the Afrikaans and English-speaking HWUs.

The lesson is that there is no reason to believe that the HDUs will be able to overcome their far greater heritage of handicap any quicker than Afrikaans institutions did, and something of the same is bound to apply to many individual black and brown South Africans as well. There is some discomfort in acknowledging such inconvenient truths as these but in the long run the pain which stems from ignoring them will be greater.

The politics of transformation

The cry for transformation is not emitted in a vacuum but comes from campuses which have been the scene of intense political activity for a generation. South Africa's campuses have always been over-politicised compared with what passes as normal in most other countries, but the process of politicisation reached its peak in the 1980s when both the HDUs and the English-speaking HWUs were the scene of permanent and intense mobilisation behind the United Democratic Front.

The fact that the ANC, PAC and SACP were banned meant that the student movement, like the trade union movement, achieved a heightened significance as a de facto surrogate, especially since campuses were able to provide effective bases to these banned movements. Many student activists forged in this atmosphere went on to achieve high office in the government, the ANC, in non-governmental organisations and elsewhere.

The unbanning of the ANC, PAC and SACP robbed student politics of much of its significance at a stroke. The parties set up their own offices and had no need of a campus base or of surrogates. But the period left behind an aura of excitement and drama and it also left behind the enviable memory of the extraordinary upward mobility achieved by the earlier generation of activists.

The result today is a class of "struggle wannabes", determined to enjoy the adrenalin of the "struggle", this time for an impossible-to-define - indeed almost metaphysical - transformation. What adds bite to this demand is that radical black students in the 1980s, despite being a minority on campus, found that over and over again they were able to win their point by dint of their "legitimacy" and by the hard-edged politics of mobilisation - strikes, littering campaigns, sit-ins, damage to property and physical intimidation. In the end this worked because campus authorities quailed at the thought of the confrontation required to defeat "legitimate" minorities willing to use such methods.

Today's radicals, knowing the weakness of the authorities, naturally deploy the same methods, usually with similar success. What they have realised is that by such means a minority can exercise majority power - provided it can maintain a quasi-permanent state of mobilisation. But if mobilisation is to be permanent then it cannot be for practical, realisable goals, for these would be quickly conceded. It has to be for impossible objectives - "pass one, pass all" or "no exclusions [no matter what)". This impossiblism is often quite nakedly apparent, as in SASCO's campaign against the NCHE report in early 1996, when SASCO demanded that universities support their demand for the report to be withdrawn, before it had even appeared and before they knew its contents. The quest for a "transformation" which no one can quite define - the pot of gold at rainbow's end - fits perfectly into the politics of the impossible.

The politics of permanent mobilization

This politics of permanent mobilisation in turn feeds on several sources.

The first is strictly material. Education, particularly a university degree, is seen as a pathway to a good job and thus to middle class status. Once admitted to a university many black students feel that such an outcome is now more or less guaranteed - and that that is the meaning of liberation, that their time has come. Inevitably, a strong sense of entitlement overwhelms any notion of a degree being conditional on the fulfilment of various academic tasks and tests. A university administration which attempts to insist on the validity of those tasks and tests is thus affronting a potent force: hence, too, the demands for "no exclusions", "pass one, pass all" and so on. The point to be grasped here is that while the struggle thus unleashed will be fought under the slogans of the radical left, the battle is actually one for the "right" to a middle class status and income.

Secondly, this form of political struggle is effectively encouraged by the general over-politicisation of campuses and by the fact that many educational "progressives" see that politicisation as normal or are still ideologically convinced that angry students are, in some hard-to-define way, the representatives of the masses, of legitimacy, and of the struggle. On top of that, they are plain scared of taking them on. This sort of thinking is perfectly reflected in the NCHE recommendation that permanent "institutional forums" [with representation of students and campus unions plus other stakeholders) be set up on every campus to "play a crucial role in co-operative governance". The roles specified for such forums are:

1. Involvement in selecting candidates for top management positions.

2. Identifying and agreeing upon problem areas to be addressed.

3. Interpreting the new national policy framework.

4. Setting an agenda for change.

5. Providing a mediating forum.

6. Participating in restructuring governance structures.

7. Developing and negotiating a code of conduct,

8. Monitoring and assessing change.

In other words, forums can do whatever they want. And whereas university administrators have to juggle financial pressures versus faculty demands versus policy pressures versus donor requirements and a host of other factors, forums will be free simply to opine away. Such forums have no duties, no competing pressures to reconcile - they have, in the famous phrase, power without responsibility. As such they are a recipe for trouble.

But the problem goes further than that. The NCHE also wants students and campus unions [read: SASCO and NEHAWU] represented on Senates, so that there can be no decision making body in the university where they arc not present. SASCO will run the SRC, sit in the forum, on Senate, on Council, on the national Higher Education Forum -and on just about everything else. There runs through such recommendations the notion that campuses are and must always remain theatres of intense political activity. Students will have to act as full-time politicians, playing endless representative roles, becoming, as it were, professional "stakeholders". The notion that students are at university essentially to study and that SASCO activists are typically among the academically weakest students on the campus, wholly unable to spare the time for such full-time political careers, is simply foreign to such conceptions. It is more or less bound to happen that such activists will fail their exams, will become candidates for exclusion, will become the rallying point for further "no exclusion" struggles, and so on and on.... Somewhat similar points may be made about the gardeners, cleaners, cooks and clerical staff organised in NEHAWU.

The false microcosm

Underlying these intense political struggles is a notion which Deputy President Thabo Mbeki gave voice to in a recent address to the University of Natal in Durban. The transformation of universities was, he said, important because the university was "a microcosm of the wider society". This is, of course, quite untrue: in no country are universities really representative of the whole society - the children of the middle classes were as over-represented at Sussex, where Mbeki studied, as they are at Wits or UCT. The faculty represent a peculiar and rather bohemian section of the middle class themselves, while campus workers are equally atypical of the working class as a whole. Universities are, indeed, rather odd and special places: large villages dedicated to a single set of activities with the emphasis on unforced compliance by thousands - sometimes tens of thousands - of young men and women co-existing closely in a way they would never be expected to do at home, on the factory floor or anywhere else.

Nonetheless, Mbeki's mistake is a common one, widely shared by activists who, transparently, believe that just as we now have a black president and government, so this change must be replicated at the level of every campus 'microcosm'.

This symbolic identification lends further intensity to campus struggles for it allows activists to see themselves as carrying through the struggles of 1990-94. This is the reason why SASCO activists at both Wits and Pretoria objected in principle to the notion of the vice chancellorship going to a white, why in the name of democracy they even attempted to prevent a white candidate from standing at all at Wits for, if every campus is a microcosm, choosing a white vice-chancellor over a black one is analogous to choosing FW de Klerk over Nelson Mandela. This sort of reasoning is emotionally powerful - and complete nonsense.

The same reasoning gives a very special importance to the appointments to other senior administrative posts: the black campus president must, so to speak, be seen to be backed by a black cabinet. The argument, the tactics, the objectives are all frankly racial, even racist. Yet so strong is this identification that if transformation means any one thing, it is this. Naturally, this interpretation is gleefully encouraged by the handful of possible candidates for such affirmative action appointments.

The ancillary notion is that demography equals legitimacy. South Africa's long denial of majority rule gives this notion its special force but it is, in the university context, peculiar. At the University of the Western Cape, for example, black students -though in a minority on campus - have attempted to justify their dominance of the SRC by arguing that they enjoy legitimacy because there is a black majority in South Africa. Their coloured opponents have sought to justify their own position by arguing that while that may be true, coloureds are the true bearers of legitimacy in the Western Cape because there they have the demographic majority. The one thing on which there is agreement - that campus democracy is all about demography - is actually quite foreign to the functions and raison d'etre both of a university and democracy.

The politics of cultural capture

This last argument gives pause for thought, however. While it may be phrased in terms of demographics, the real crux of the matter is that the various campuses are perceived by the various population groups as their cultural possessions.

President Mandela has reportedly told black intellectuals that they must not push their claims too hard at UWC: Africans have many universities but UWC is the only coloured university. As so often, the President shows a shrewder grasp of underlying ethnic realities than do his followers. For the fact is that Afrikaners see Stellenbosch as "their" university just as English-speaking whites see UCT as "theirs". These cultural possessions are precious. Father and mother, son and daughter went there; these institutions are worth fighting for.

And a fight it is. For what we are witnessing is the politics of cultural capture - and this is bitter stuff. In the case of Wits, for example, by pressing for affirmative action appointments, a large increase in black students, the claim that only an all-black SRC is "legitimate", by demanding no exclusions and (in effect) lower standards, the SASCO-NEHAWU alliance is really just demanding that Wits should be taken away from its English-speaking white constituency and that it should become a giant Turfloop.

This is why, in white northern suburbs circles, one can hear that Wits is "gone", that it is "lost": this is the bitter commentary of cultural dispossession. Equally, the demand by black radicals that it is not "acceptable" that Stellenbosch should have a white Afrikaner as rector, that there must be no bias towards the Afrikaans language - these are the prolegomena of cultural capture and are bitterly understood as such. What is going on, in other words, is a struggle for the cultural capture of one campus after another. Thus far only one group has truly lost - UDW has ceased to be a predominantly Indian university, though even there a desperate rearguard action is being waged by Indian workers in the university administration, albeit under a radical flag.

It is this struggle for cultural capture which makes the battle of the campuses so fierce. Given the long history of group struggle in South Africa and the tremendous sensitivities which exist over the survival of different cultures and languages, it is tempting to call for a degree of cultural protectionism - to say that Stellenbosch must be left as an Afrikaans medium university, that UWC should be seen as a predominantly coloured campus, and so on. But this does not solve the problem - there are so many more Afrikaans medium universities than can be justified by the 15% of the population to whom this is a first language, and it hardly deals with the questions faced by the English-speaking HWUs.

The liberal deal

There is, in fact, an inevitability about the liberal ideal of the university - that it should be as open, tolerant and pluralist a community as possible, that it should strive for internationally acceptable degree standards, emphasise research and publication which makes its scholars part of the wider academic world, and so on.

This means that both the crude politics of cultural capture and the temptation to cultural protectionism have to be rejected. For example, we should not want to preserve Wits as the cultural possession of the white northern suburbs, but nor should we want it to become a giant Turfloop. The only viable direction in which to go is towards a liberal, culturally open institution in which the emphasis is shifted from the navel-gazing politics of which group[s] can exercise veto power on campus to the question of what functions South Africa needs Wits to perform.

Historically, this university has provided the bulk of the lawyers, doctors, engineers, businessmen and other professionals essential to make the industrial heartland of Gauteng work. It is quite crucial to the entire national economy that Wits continues to produce high standard professionals to service this financial, industrial and communications complex. This has to be a key national priority - against which the parochial demands of symbolic politics on the Wits campus should weigh very little.

Immediately, standing up for the liberal ideal of the university runs counter to strong currents in our society, particularly in the curious period of cultural revolution through which we are currently passing.

To take an obvious example, it is close to accepted parlance on many campuses that white males should be the least considered group for jobs, student places, awards and so on. But if we really mean what we say about wanting to build a non-racist, non-sexist society - and we want to remain true to the liberal university ideal that all that matters is academic study, research and achievement - then the corollary is that a white male is as good or bad as anyone else. It cannot be right to treat white males as a pariah group, particularly when one is looking at a university system in which this group still accounts for the bulk of the faculty, without whom the whole system cannot work. No one doubts that it is important to have more black and women professors, administrators, technical staff and students. But if we make racial or gender targets our main objective we are not only undermining the whole ideal of what a university is, but we could also be undermining the key functions such institutions have to play.

We have to remember that the current period of over-heated campus struggle will pass, that it will all seem very curious, even antique, before long. We are going through a period of attempted cultural revolution which has two main components. One is the conscious strategy of the SACP (its chosen instrument being NEHAWU and SASCO] to obtain hegemonic control over higher education in the belief that this will give it the ability to forge a new 'organic intelligentsia' to carry through 'national democratic revolution' to its next stage. The other component is the spontaneous effervescence of post-liberation politics which, despite the fact that SASCO depends on a COSATU subsidy, means that much of what happens is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Moreover, as recent SRC elections around the country have revealed, SASCO's support is flagging. For black students are not fools and have other ideas about their futures than simply being cannon fodder for the politics of permanent mobilisation.

I began this article with a mention of how I was once threatened with being expelled from university for refusing to organise a segregated dance. For some time now you could probably have got yourself expelled for refusing to organise an integrated one. Things have changed out of all recognition, for the better and very fast. They will continue to do so. It is a difficult time for those who work on a university campus and the courage to stand up against

Sometimes overwhelming pressure is in short supply. But the tide will turn. Through all the present difficulties our over-riding concern has simply to be that our universities survive as liberal institutions able to serve the country, its children and their children in turn.

Higher education: the rocky road to governance

Robin Richards Project Manager Helen Suzman Foundation

Education in South Africa is in crisis - indeed, those close to the heart of policy formulation in the national education ministry admit that current administration amounts to no more than permanent 'crisis management'. While nothing may rival the parlous situation of many township schools, higher education is certainly no exception to the rule of crisis management: the sector is characterised by continual outbreaks of campus unrest, repeated budget cuts despite increasing student numbers, the lack of an adequate student loan scheme, falling staff morale and rancorous disputes over 'transformation' in which the battle lines often run along the fissures of race and language. And, as with other sectors of education, basic questions of order, authority and governance are at stake.

Establishing the NCHE

It was in good part such questions that lay behind the government's decision to appoint a National Commission on Higher Education in February 1995 under Professor Jairam Reddy, then vice chancellor of the University of Durban-Westville, to advise the government on the restructuring of higher education.

The commission's objective was to design a higher educational system to "serve a new social order, to meet pressing national needs, and to respond to a context of new realities and opportunities". It enjoyed considerable resources: it was supported by a network of more than 100 local and international researchers, consulted other experts at home and abroad, and received 123 written submissions -some of them, like the Wits submission, major research reports in their own right.

The commission's interim report, a discussion document published in April 1996, ran into widespread criticism for its lack of clarity on many issues, a criticism which it attempted to take into account in its final report, A Framework for Transformation, published in October 1996.

There is a clear tacit assumption that government will accept the NCHE Report. The notion of the commission as an independent body, separate from government, has been somewhat undermined by Reddy's immediate recruitment to the education ministry to assist in drafting a Green Paper on higher education, anticipated in December 1996, with a White Paper to follow by early February 1997. The objective is, indeed, for parliamentary legislation on the matter to be pushed through in the session starting in February 1997. There is a strong sense of haste. NCHE member, Brian Figaji, emphasises that "when the Green Paper hits the wires, and stakeholders have not participated through the parliamentary select committee hearings, it will be too late, they will have missed the bus".

Such an ambitious timetable hardly allows for the possibility of detailed alternative views to those expressed by the NCHE, so it would be sensible to assume that what it proposes is pretty much what we will get. Already arrangements are in hand to set up the separate branch of higher education in the national education ministry proposed by the NCHE, and advertising for candidates to head it has already been undertaken. Oohn Samuels; the newly appointed deputy director general of higher education, who was expected to head the branch has, surprisingly, indicated that he will retire in 1997 for "health reasons".]

All of which is rather alarming.

Higher education is in a delicate and vulnerable condition and government seems set to rush ahead with far reaching reforms - and yet in many respects the government has put the cart before the horse, for the central critique of the work of the NCHE is its lack of clarity on key policy recommendations. One gets the worrying sense that government may soon be passing on key policy decisions to the confusing plethora of new and powerful advisory bodies proposed by the NCHE, thus creating a large new national bureaucracy whose job will be to fire politically correct messages down at university and technikon administrators. It is far from clear that this will be of any help or use to the administrators, embattled as they are in local campus disputes and growing" cost pressures.

No map; no plan

The reason for this vagueness on policy is in turn attributable to the absence of any strategic plan for higher education, matching national educational and manpower needs against what the higher education system currently produces and then seeing what incentives and reforms would have to be put in place to meet those needs. Such an exercise would, in most countries, be seen as the obvious way in which to approach higher education reform, but the NCHE has not carried out such an exercise. It calls for a rolling three year national higher education plan but provides no detail or even any objective to which such a plan might work.

Equally, the government lacks a national strategic plan for education as a whole. The White Paper on education and training [1995) mooted the idea of an education charter to galvanise stakeholder energies and draw attention to the importance of education and training in the social and economic development of South Africa, but that is where the matter rests. A charter might be stirring stuff but, of course, what is needed is a hard-headed planning exercise based on detailed data.

The NCHE report acknowledges that the first planning requirement is for an information system which would continuously monitor the size, shape and profile of higher education: at the moment we lack such data. The NCHE would like the system to include performance indicators to measure quality, equity and effectiveness. This would indeed be desirable. What we seem likely to get instead is a highly contested and time consuming appointment process for all the new advisory bodies to be set up - a new fleet of coaches on the gravy train. Meanwhile universities and technikons are bracing themselves for funding cuts in 1997 which could force them to lay off staff and spark widespread unrest, a situation described by Professor Brenda Gourley, chairperson of the Committee of University Principals (CUP) as "a catastrophe".

Amidst all of this a whole series of reforms are taking place at local and provincial level. In the Eastern Cape, colleges of education are being integrated with the University of Port Elizabeth. In Gauteng the provincial legislature has recommended a reduction in the number of colleges of education from nine to four, and their conversion into community colleges which will offer bridging courses and vocationally oriented training. Finally; some universities (for example, Port Elizabeth and Venda] are proceeding with amendments to their university private Acts to facilitate internal changes of their own.

The problem of governance

Writers on higher education governance typically differentiate between the state control model, in which an all-powerful government allows a minimum of autonomy to higher education institutions, and the state supervision model in which government monitors relatively autonomous institutions, usually nudging them along the way it wants by offering funding incentives. The NCHE recommends a new model of its own, the co-operative governance model. "This new approach", says the commission, "shifts from a narrow concern with government to a wide range of governance mechanisms which are concerned with the growing rife of associations, different agencies and partnerships, and that reflect the dynamic and interactive nature of co-ordination". In this model, it adds, autonomous civil society constituencies work in partnership with an "assertive government".

This, at least, is the theoretical rationale for the veritable jungle of new higher education agencies the NCHE proposes to set up. These include;

· The National Admissions Clearing House

To disseminate information and advice to students and to assess students' experience and qualifications.

· The Higher Education Quality Committee

Comprising three sections responsible for institutional auditing, programme accreditation and quality promotion. All higher education programmes will have to be registered with the National Qualifications Framework and the committee will use that framework to achieve quality assurance.

· The National Agency/Unit

To oversee human resource development and to develop a national human resource policy framework.

· The Higher Education Forum

A statutory body of higher education stakeholders which would be consulted by the Minister on tertiary education policy issues,

· The Higher Education Council

A statutory body comprising experts in higher education; to advise the Minister on tertiary education policy issues.

· The National Development Agency

An H&C sub-structure for academic curriculum development. It will deal with research, policy development and evaluation, dissemination of best practice (based on comparison of tertiary institutions], project support, development and funding.

· Regional advisory structures

To be established by the HEC to advise the minister on mergers, rationalisations and the development of new tertiary education institutions in the regions.

· Legislated institutional forums

Advisory bodies similar to the Transformation Forums established at many tertiary institutions in the 1990s. Such forums would become a permanent part of campus life everywhere. The NCHE emphasises that these will be "important governance structures that will play a crucial role in co-operative governance".

· Student services councils

To be set up on all campuses with equal representation of all stakeholders in order to give students a more direct say over all services provided to them, ranging from "the opportunity to evaluate and comment on the contents of academic programmes to direct policy making powers on the type of social services they receive and their management".

This might seem a very large number of new bureaucracies - and as the NCHE itself points out, many anxieties were expressed by education stakeholders that the new agencies would be expensive, time consuming and would soak up valuable academic manpower which could ill be spared from universities and technikons. In fact the list above represents a cut-down version of an even longer list, trimmed back by the commission in response to such pressures.

Meanwhile, of course, a whole series of other bodies still exist - the Committee of University Principals, the Committee of Technikon Principals, the Advisory Council for Universities and Technikons, the Certification Council for Technikon Education, and so on. While the NCHE recommends that such bodies should lose their statutory status, they will continue to exist, further adding to the dense alphabet soup of tertiary education agencies. It is anticipated that government, under pressure to reduce this bureaucracy, might amalgamate the HEC and the HEF - but, as can be seen, this hardly answers the problem.

The commission also recommends that all university senates and academic boards be restructured to include representatives not only of faculties and departments but of student representative councils and executive management [administrative staff], though it accepts that at least 80% of senate members should be academics.

The drive to centralization

The NCHE report dearly foreshadows a considerably greater centralisation of power over higher education. This is clear not only from the sheer number of new national supervisory bodies it wants to set up but from the sweeping powers ft gives to the three most important among them, the new branch of higher education, the Higher Education Forum and the Higher Education Council.

Apart from advising the minister on all aspects of higher education, the new branch will monitor the entire system, compile information about it, manage all infra-departmental, inter-provincial and international matters regarding higher education, provide the secretariat to the HEF and HEC, tell all the other statutory bodies which policy areas need to be developed and - quite crucially -control the entire higher education budget, including financial aid to students.

The HEF is to consist of 30 members;

  • Government nominees of the ministers of education, health, finance, labour, agriculture, and arts, culture, science and technology (six members).


  • Three representatives each of the Committee of University Principals and the Committee of Technikon Principals [six members].


  • Faculty and student bodies [eight members].


  • External stakeholders including business, labour, funders, research councils and professional organisations (six members).

The director general of the department of education or his nominee as an ex officio member.

It would be surprising if government did not dominate such a body: the HEF chairman will be directly nominated by the education minister, will have a longer term than ordinary forum members, will be seconded by the minister's director general, will have six other direct government nominees and several other government employees in the shape of research council members, and will have power to co-opt additional stakeholders. Above all, the non-governmental members of the HEF will mainly be supplicants for government money and will hardly be unaware that the governmental nominees will be influential in deciding whether they get it or not.

The forum's functions will be to debate higher education issues and advise the minister of its views - and of how he should go about choosing the members of the Higher Education Council.

The HEC will consist of seven members, all appointed by the minister [after all the usual elaborate selection procedures endured by Constitutional Court judges and similar worthies], three representatives of other ministries, the director general of education [or his nominee) and an executive officer also appointed by the minister [who also appoints the HEC Chairman], The HEC is supposed to be more expert than the HEF and is given power to advise the minister on any area of higher education, but it too will be entirely government-controlled.

On the all important question of funding for higher education, the commission at first recommended such wide powers for the minister that tertiary institutions were at first fearful that he might have the power to determine the exact number of subsidised student places in each instructional programme within any given field of learning.

The final NCHE report sets such anxieties to rest, but does commit itself to the statement that institutional redress should be the key criterion in the planning process. This suggests that the current government funding formula, set at 85% of funding in block grants and 15% in earmarked funds, will change in order to upgrade physical and financial resources at historically black universities.

The NCHE also stresses "flexible differentiation" -which means that a university might offer a programme more typical of a technikon (or vice versa] in regions where such a programme is not otherwise on offer. The commission, in addition, wants universities and technikons to incorporate a number of hitherto independent colleges of nursing, education and agriculture. This is not a popular proposal: universities feel it will be a financial burden to absorb vocational colleges which are non-academic and truly different from themselves.

Moreover, in some cases absorption will require the establishment of difficult to administer satellite university campuses, an extra problem which hard-pressed university administrators could well do without. The only apparent motive for this recommendation is to tidy higher education up into uniform large units so as to make central control easier.

Autonomy and academic freedom In any major national reform of higher education - particularly one with the centralising tendencies recommended by the NCHE - there is inevitable concern that academic freedom and university and technikon autonomy could be compromised.

The four rights basic to such a conception - essential if there is to be an atmosphere in which scholarly work can thrive -are an institution's right to determine who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught and who may admitted to study. Academic freedom is not something of merely parochial interest to academics and students. As Charles Simkins writes: "Academic freedom is one of the most sensitive indicators of political freedom -there is no political freedom without academic freedom."

The NCHE argues that the Constitution's Bill of Rights recognises academic freedom in its clause on freedom of expression, and that it is therefore under no threat. The proposed model of co-operative governance clearly brings tertiary institutions into a much denser and more complex relationship with central government, however, and the commission's very strong emphasis on the accountability of higher education to all manner of national priorities certainly sounds some warning bells.

The NCHE suggests, moreover, that higher education institutions should be included within the definition of "organs of the state" described in Clause 239 of the new constitution, and that they will therefore have to comply with the basic values and principles governing public administration. National legislation will then ensure that tertiary educational institutions adhere to these values and principles. Moreover, the NCHE argues that academic freedom is an individual right, not an institutional one - thus de-linking the concepts of institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

In fact both academic freedom and institutional autonomy will clearly be under pressure. Greater ministerial use of earmarked funds may well force universities and technikons to adopt programmes and use their resources in ways stipulated by government. At the same time, although institutions will have a right to choose who they may employ, their recruitment and selection decisions will be firmly guided by the need to meet race and gender equity criteria closely monitored by the plethora of new, powerful and centrally positioned bodies recommended by the NCHE. At many points the commission stresses how higher education will be closely watched, scrutinised, monitored - in effect suspected - so that it complies with nationally enforced criteria.

Enforcing correctness

Thus, the new branch of higher education will have to monitor the functioning of the higher education system and write an annual review of it. The HEF will have to "initiate proposals on issues of common interest, such as capacity building, race and gender redress, etc". The HEC will "monitor progress in all areas of redress and equity" and will ensure that "gender and race equity and anti-discriminatory policies are developed and monitored". Each institution will have to submit an annual report to the ministry and part of that will have to be an "equity report", charting progress towards these goals. On top of that, there will be evaluation of an institution's funding proposals, and criteria for approval of funding will be based on meeting national goals, regional planning needs, national equity goals and so on. How much real freedom an institution will have to recruit the faculty and students of its choice at the end of all this, is a moot point.

It also seems likely that institutions will lose some of their freedom to decide what they teach. Until now academic performance and quality was assessed by the institution itself and by the market - institutions with better academic records attracted more and better students and faculty, and vice versa. Now, however, centrally managed agencies will review and evaluate performance and quality within a framework determined by an Orwellian construct known as the National Management and Performance Indicator System.

Even that most local of activities, curricular reform, is not beyond the NCHE's centralising drive. Although the commission stops short of recommending concrete proposals for curriculum reform at the institutional level, it nevertheless provides examples of principles which should guide curriculum reform. Its criteria include: the relevance of course content for national and regional developmental needs, "Africanising" the curriculum, mechanisms to increase student participation in curriculum development and restructuring, the language of the curriculum, and the question of gender and race in the curriculum.

Finally, there will be a limited number of subsidised student places which are government controlled and centrally managed, across institutions and in different fields of study. This will mean that institutions will have to decide how to arrange their quota of subsidised student places across the spectrum of courses and disciplines they offer - and it will inevitably influence their decisions on student selection.

Answering the wrong question

There is a deepening crisis in higher education in South Africa. Tertiary institutions of all kinds are faced with endemic political troubles, with declining salary levels and morale among their faculty, with the enormous pressures exerted by a whole decade of falling state funding - and, on the other hand, by the need to accept ever increasing numbers of less privileged students, many of whom require expensive remedial and bridging education.

The funding crisis is very real. In response to large scale student discontent the National Student Financial Aid Scheme was launched in 1995, with R300 million allocated to it in the 1996-97 state budget, it was hoped that a committee chaired by Dr Nthatho Motlana would supplement the scheme with funds raised from the private sector - but thus far such funds have not been forthcoming and there is a shortfall of some R650 million. Failure to raise this money is sure to result in violent student protests which will do nothing to convince potential donors and foreign funders that their money is being well spent by investing in South Africa's higher education sector, At the same time, many historically disadvantaged institutions, as the old "tribal colleges" are now called, face imminent closure due to massive debts incurred by students' failure to pay fees. These institutions do not have reserve funds to fall back on and government will need to take decisive action to address their funding dilemma.

The NCHE's recommendations do not address this crisis and do not pay attention to recent international trends. For many other countries have moved towards decentralising higher education, allowing institutions to Find and match regional and market niches, and have forced higher education to move towards more private funding and involvement with industry via science parks and the like.

Instead, the commission proposes a series of large new national bureaucracies whose main job seems to be to centralise control over higher education and exert more pressure on already hard-pressed university and technikon administrations. While there is still considerable vagueness about many of the NCHE proposals, the number and overlapping functions of the new bureaucracies it proposes, the uncertainty as to how they will all relate to one another - not to mention the long delays involved in making appointments to them - are bound to slow down decision making and could virtually paralyse this key sector. Without doubt the impending funding crisis will have to be dealt with long before all these new bodies are in place.

Paved with good intentions...

!t is, in a word, difficult not to feel that the NCHE has asked many of the wrong questions and come up with quite 3 few wrong answers. Yet the Commission's policies were founded on the bedrock of highly laudable principles. Few can fault the emphasis on equity, democratisation, development, quality, academic freedom and efficiency in our higher education system. Yet to achieve these principles, the commission proposes measures which are bound to be costly; which take no account of the overriding current reality- the profound funding crisis; which will slow down decision making; which will involve a large scale and probably unworkable centralisation of power; and which are likely to be detrimental both to institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

There is nothing sinister about the commission: its ideas are merely naive and parochial. But they could have evil consequences. There is no sign that it even realises how contrary to international practice many of its ideas are, or of how grotesquely interfering it is to attempt to lay down to higher education institutions what size and shape of senate they should have, whether or not they should have student representation on it, and whether they should or should not set up an "institutional forum".

The commission does not ask why governments in the rest of the civilised world just leave such matters for tertiary institutions to decide for themselves or why it is that universities and technical colleges in the rest of the world have got on for centuries without "institutional forums".

In effect the NCHE treats South Africa's conventional wisdom of on-campus political correctness in the 1990s as a sensible framework for permanent and root and branch "reform". This is exactly what the apartheid government did by forcibly segregating universities in 19S7 - a ludicrous and parochially minded measure which damaged generations.

Nobody seems to have asked the obvious question of why highly developed countries like the United States and Britain, homes to many of the world's leading universities, have not found it necessary to invent (or possible to afford] all the new "co-operative governance" bureaucracies which the NCHE wants.

It is possible, of course, that all these costly new bodies may in time just become a form of politically correct window dressing, with all the real decisions taken somewhere else. But in that case, why waste the money on them? And why divert large amounts of scarce well educated manpower towards them? If there really is any gravy to spare, the hard-pressed faculty, administrators and indebted students on our campuses surely have first claim to it.