National Higher Education Conference : Reinventing South Africa's Universities of the Future

There are many ways of remaking a university but they all relate to the society in which it exists

Perhaps the topic was complex; or we could put it down to the panellists' need to talk about all aspects of transformation; but the session Remaking the University - Transformative Engagement as Embedded Practice in Local Contexts at Universities SA's recent conference went way beyond the topic.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf), introduced the session with an anecdote. He recalled the 18th of October 2016 - at the peak of the #FeesMustFall student protests. He was in his office, with the phone ringing off the hook. Eighteen universities were shut down and the other eight were on the verge of doing so. The pressure was on for a total shutdown but colleagues from Kenya and Nigeria warned: "Whatever you do, never shut down the system because it will be very hard to re-open".

Prof Ahmed Bawa
"Who owns our universities?" Prof Ahmed Bawa, USAf's CEO, asked the audience as a teaser for the session's sub-theme.

Prof Bawa said there was no defence of the higher education system at this time, "not from the private sector, not from industry, not from government, not from students and not from the communities either".

It made him question who owns the universities. Stemming from that and much more, USAf's Transformation Strategy Group, chaired by Prof Yunus Ballim, Vice-Chancellor of Sol Plaatje University, is exploring how universities can be involved in the local context so that people can take ownership.

Prof Bawa introduced the speakers with the comment there were "three very different speakers with three different perspectives" - and he was dead right.

"Who owns our universities?" Prof Ahmed Bawa, USAf's CEO, asked the audience as a teaser for the session's sub-theme.

Prof Crain Soudien: "Universities' priorities are all over the place"

Prof Crain Soudien, CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council, used the history of the University of Pretoria from about 1933 to 1985 to illustrate the relationship of the institution to its context. It is a tale of Henry Parkyn Lamont, a senior lecturer in French, who was kidnapped by students from his home in Arcadia Street, Pretoria and tarred and feathered before being set free in Church Square. It is also the tale of Professor Geoffrey Cronjé, who headed three departments at the university, and whose writings became the blueprint for apartheid and so he was "really the architect of apartheid", said Prof Soudien.

They influenced the changed language policy at the University of Pretoria in 1932 but also the institution becoming completely absorbed into the Afrikaans community, with "very little, in a sense, boundary between the university and the town", said Prof Soudien. (Read more of Cronje's lingering influence in Prof Soudien's speech made in August and this journal article by Dr Janeke Thumbran, now a history lecturer at Rhodes University.)

Prof Soudien said he mentioned this Pretoria example to show how what happens in universities, and how it relates to their location, is far more complicated than allowed for in the management theories that are usually used to describe it.

When USAf was still Higher Education South Africa, and he was on the Transformation Strategy Group that Prof Ballim now heads, they had asked universities for their transformation plans. The response had shown universities' priorities "are all over the place", said Prof Soudien. Only seven spoke of their priorities being related to knowledge production. "When a university has difficulty in articulating the activities that it is going to commit itself to, we're in a little bit of trouble," he said.

He cited two examples which embed the university beyond its physical location into wider spaces.

One was an attempt at the University of South Africa (Unisa) to begin a conversation with the local indigenous community, which started in 2008 when Catherine Odora Hoppers was given the Research Chair in Development Education. This intervention was about bringing together the knowledge of universities with indigenous knowledge, while allowing for criticism.

Prof Crain Soudien
"When a university struggles to even articulate the transformation activities that it is going to commit itself to, we're in a bit of trouble," said Prof Crain Soudien, CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council.

He was part of the project and said "it was an extraordinary, extraordinary thing. It was asking how you bring the excluded into the space of what the university is all about". It had global significance but it failed "because we would have somebody from the indigenous community making a statement and somebody from, say, physics making a statement and they weren't able to hear each other", he said.

Another example of universities moving beyond their physical location was the Cape Higher Education Consortium where the universities of the Western Cape, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) had been in a relationship for 25 years. The key thing was that the consortium had opened up the conversation of how universities related to the communities around them, said Prof Soudien.

He said universities tended to be seen as sites to materialise political interests, such as the awarding of government tenders. As in the Pretoria example, this meant they were always in danger of being captured.

Prof Xoliswa Mtose: "The African university needs to be reinvented with African discourses"

Prof Xoliswa Mtose, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Zululand, began by questioning the premise of the conference itself, which was Reinventing SA's Universities for the Future. "Have we sufficiently problematised the present, to move to the future?" she asked, wondering how she could be called to reinvent and remake something she had not been part of creating in the first instance.

"From this perspective, it is quite disingenuous to ask us, as black academics, to reinvent or remake something that was constructed in the colonial or apartheid image," she said. She thus proposed that the theme of the conference be changed to Reinventing SA's Universities for the Future as African universities.

Prof Xoliswa Mtose
We should rather be deliberating about Reinventing SA's Universities as African Universities of the future, said Prof Xoliswa Mtose, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Zululand.

To become African, universities needed to:

  • develop their research, teaching and learning networks within the African continent for mutual benefit between the universities;
  • not gloss over the thinking of the past but engage with the African archive; and
  • identify the ideas that would serve as the foundations of local contributions to knowledge across the sciences.
  • "You cannot train and educate a black child to live a white discourse and be employed in a white discursive formation. This is the central anomaly that has been fully intellectualised and which I hope this conference will begin to attend to, constructively and transformatively," she said.

    "The African university needs to be reinvented, remade, yes, but it must be imbued with African formats, discourses, discursive formations and knowledge praxis," said Prof Mtose.

    Prof Adam Habib: "Our job is to reflect the plurality of the society"

    Prof Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), said decolonisation or transformation was a process which he didn't think was going to succeed in five or even 25 years "but it's about getting that going" .

    He quoted Leonard Cohen's song refrain to show that working in the real world was about moving forward obstacles and constraints. Thus he had set out to transform key aspects of the university "so that when Adam gets kicked out of Wits, people can at least say that that bloody guy made a difference, " he said.

    This is some of what Wits had set out to do:

    • make the university more demographically representative;
    • get its core business of knowledge production - teaching and training professionals and research - speaking to the challenges, realities and possibilities of its location;
    • speak to the diversity of the local which is presented as homogeneous but isn't; and
    • build partnerships in a multiplicity of ways because "universities are about bridges between the local and the global, the rural and the urban".

    These are some of Wits's successes:

    • 70% black students in 2013 and 84% black in 2019;
    • 75% black administrators in 2013 and 92% black in 2019; and
    • 51% black academics in 2019.

    They achieved the staff demographics by allowing only those of African and coloured ancestry to be appointed for four or five years.

    In terms of African scholarship, philosophy, fine art, and history, Prof Habib said their curriculum had changed fundamentally but he stressed "we're not a party school. We are a university with a critical discourse and I think there're too many politicians involved in the curriculum debate," he said. "When people say we are meant to support Mdantsane or Alexandra and not Sandton, I'd say that's nonsense. Our job is to reflect the plurality of the society," he said.

    "The big project is how do you use the university as a place where you bring in talented students from marginalised communities and give them a fantastic degree. Because when they get a job, they get social mobility that addresses inequality."

    With brutal honesty he declared that Wits's transformation agenda had not all been successful: "We're fixing demographics but institutional culture is not changing and so alienation remains," he said.

    Prof Adam Habib
    "We might have succeeded in transforming the staff demographics at Wits. However, institutional culture is not changing and so alienation remains," Prof Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, admitted.

    Audience responses

    Prof Yunus Ballim, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Sol Plaatje, said part of a university's mission was to hold other social institutions accountable. In the Northern Cape, of the children who die, one in 10 will die of starvation. "A social institution that is concerned with dignity, human dignity, cannot say but that's not part of our responsibility because we're not an NGO; we're not going to be running feeding schemes," he said.

    He said there were also negative forces such as the "30-percenters" who are saying 30% of all money spent at university must come to them because they are black. "I don't care what colour they are; they are rent-seeking capitalists and they're the fish-faced enemies of the people".

    Ms Nonkosi Tyolwana
    "Why are we not offering life orientation at universities when we are witnessing such an increase in health and wellness issues on our campuses?" Ms Nonkosi Tyolwana, Director for Institutional Transformation, Social Cohesion and Diversity at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

    Ms Nonkosi Tyolwana, Director for Institutional Transformation, Social Cohesion and Diversity at CPUT, asked why life orientation was not being offered at universities when health and wellness issues had become so prevalent.

    Prof Soudien said he didn't think transformation was about trying to reimagine the university in a completely different way, "because I think we have a pretty good idea that it is about producing understanding. And I don't think that that's ever going to go away again as a central theme". So they had to produce new ways or theories of understanding.

    Regarding Prof Ballim's statement about accountability, Prof Soudien felt universities had to hold themselves to account too. When they expressed concern about a particular problem, it was their job to make "that problem a space in which we can have conversations with all of the people around us who matter in relation to that". He said people would defend the university if they realised it has their broader interests at heart.

    Prof Mtose said it was also time to engage students better by seeking to understand their experiences so as to understand what informed their attitudes (including anger) and behaviours, and to involve them in finding solutions.

    Prof Habib said he disagreed with Prof Bawa that nobody had risen to the defence of universities during #FeesMustFall. He said he had often been approached during #FeesMustFall by upper-middle class and middle-class people asking if there was any way they could help him - provided they didn't have to pronounce themselves publicly. "You would be amazed at how much money flew into institutions post #FeesMustFall because there was a panic that these institutions were going to disintegrate," said Prof Habib.

    "The question is who's coming forward, and who sees it as being in their interest to defend the institution? Seeing that it is largely the middle and upper-middle classes, how do we ensure that the poor in our communities also feel that they are a part of these institutions?"

    Written by Gillian Anstey, an independent writer commissioned by Universities SA

    Powered by NewsSite