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Change the world

04/07/2024

The political and economic sustainability of higher education in South African fell under the spotlight in the first instalment of Nelson Mandela University’s new Council Seminar Series.

      

A panel of six specialists in this field shared their perspectives in a lively online debate on 13 June 2024 on the political, cultural, and technological forces that shape the character and sustainability of the university sector.

Nelson Mandela University’s Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation Professor AndrĂ© Keet (left) and the Council Chairperson Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill

Nelson Mandela University’s Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET), Professor AndrĂ© Keet, guided the discussion, which was a collaboration between CriSHET and the University's Council.

Prof Keet described the launch of the seminar series, which is open to all, as “a watershed moment” that brings the key role of governance into the substantive debates about the purpose and role of the University and the constraints imposed on it.

While the seminar focused on serious issues, it was made accessible by the passionate and informed input from the expert panel, as well as numerous queries and comments from the audience.

Rationale for Council Seminar Series

Council Chairperson Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill opened the webinar by outlining the rationale for the series, namely that the broader factors affecting higher education also profoundly influence the governance role of a university council.

“Given the trends in global and local politics and economy, and social cultural developments, what are the possible futures for university sustainability and funding?” she asked.

January-Bardill highlighted the “massive complexities and contradictions” of South Africa’s post-school system and its institutions, noting that the sector should lead efforts to align the different expectations of stakeholders.

“How can we advance this?” she asked, urging stakeholders to rethink the social contract of the University in a way that balanced academic freedom with public accountability.

High-level panel

The high-level panel tasked with debating these issues during the two-hour seminar consisted of:

  • Educational Consultant Mr Joe Samuels, who chairs the Governance and Ethics Committee at Nelson Mandela University;
  • Dr Nolitha Vukuza, a specialist in higher education studies with extensive experience in higher education, public and private sectors, and policy development;
  • Nelson Mandela University historian Professor Nomalanga Mkhize, who is the Director of the University’s School of Governmental and Social Sciences;
  • Professor Lis Lange, Special Advisor to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Learning and Teaching at Stellenbosch University;
  • Theoretical physicist Professor Ahmed Bawa, a former CEO of Universities South Africa, and
  • Eastern Cape  Socio-Economic Consultative Council CEO Mr Luvuyo Mosana, who chairs the Higher Education Committee at Nelson Mandela University.

‘Disturbing trends’

As the first speaker, Samuels reflected on January-Bardill’s suggestion of universities as the “critical conscience” of society.

“South Africa is facing a critical challenge in as much as it is seen as one of the most unequal societies in the world,” he said.

Dwindling government subsidies, unpaid student fees and increasing student debt, together with uncertainty around resource mobilisation amid stiff competition for third-stream income were among the many funding challenges.

Samuels also highlighted “disturbing trends” in the Council for Higher Education (CHE) 2024 Report on executive remuneration, which flagged a disconnect between pay and performance, saying the report was “a wake-up call for South African universities”.

Students ‘hungry’ to be seen and heard

Dr Vukuza, a former Member of Parliament, drew on her experiences as a high school pupil in the turbulent year of 1976 to help understand the current generation of youth.

She compared the protest action she herself was part of when students across South Africa marched against the apartheid education system to the more recent #feesmustfall movement that surged into the public eye in 2015.

“Every year there are protest by students who want things to change. They [the class of 2015] were as angry with the government as we were with the apartheid government of 1976,” said Dr Vukuza.

The reason for this was clear: “their voice is missing”. The country cannot afford to ignore their views.

“What is peace for today’s student and how can we satisfy it? What kind of student do we want to produce? Students are the primary stakeholders in the political economy of higher education,” said Dr Vukuza.

In her address, Professor Nomalanga Mkhize agreed with this portrayal, saying: “the student is misunderstood, and is hungry to be seen and heard”.

Crises of contemporary capitalism

For an explanation of the current financial fragility across the sector, Prof Mkhize turned to the origins of student loan schemes, which later became the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

When NSFAS was first devised, she said, there was a blind spot. It was not considered that there would be three different types of universities in 2024, nor that the country would have been “ravaged” and the government “left bankrupt”.

The unfortunate result is that the high cost of a degree today excludes too many people from accessing tertiary education.

“There has been an erosion of sustainability,” Prof Mkhize said, attributing this to four risky tendencies in the sector:

  • Corporatisation of education, where the university is run as a business and students are the customers, and therefore always right.
  • Bureaucratisation and governmentalisation of higher education institutions, where there is a cumbersome lack of agility.
  • Preservation of universities as “ivory towers'” where the institution operates in its own bubble, sealed off from the real world.
  • “Mass lecture hall” tendencies, where an institution crams in as many students as it can, collects the subsidy, conducts negligible research, and churns out graduates.

In the discussions that followed, Prof Mkhize noted that “contemporary capitalism is driving sustainability crises across the board. Universities can no longer exist as if there is a public state that can fund a learned elite when so many industries are also in decline.”

Inadequate subsidies and funding

Professor Lis Lange also focused on the broader context. “There is no possibility of transforming higher education, or thinking of the future of higher education, without a really serious critical view of the capitalist system,” she said.

She argued that the ways in which universities think about sustainability is always within the current system, which leads to strategies that commodify knowledge and promote competition. This leads to us defying our “own principles of openness, democracy and access”.

For Prof Lange, universities needed to prepare students who would be able to change their way of being in society, and to do this in collaboration with their students.

This would require fundamental change in the ways universities are governed, as they would need to change their relationships across the board – including their relationships with the state, society, and students.

Moving away from the corporatised university

Professor Bawa highlighted what he saw as a lack of forward movement in the higher education sector since “you can't contemplate a higher education system outside of the political economy in which it is embedded, and if that hasn't changed you can't expect the higher education system to have changed very much”.

He noted that the resource constraints imposed on higher education after 1994 had forced it to corporatise.

He also spoke about three major forces that have been brought to bear on higher education since 1994 that have influenced the ways in which it has engaged with change:

  • Frequently shifting political imaginations of change, pulling higher education institutions (HEIs) in different directions, often to its detriment.
  • “Democratisation” of previously elite institutions not only due to demands for equitable access but also due to the demands of the labour market.
  • The discourse around decolonisation, brought to the fore by the 2015-2017 #feesmustfall movement.

Prof Bawa suggested that, to move away from corporatisation, universities refocus on their purpose by re-centering the experiences of students.

Addressing the past and building the future

The sixth and final panelist, Luvuyo Mosana, foregrounded the importance of the university understanding and locating itself within the entire education ecosystem and within the context of South Africa’s past.

To build the future, he argued, there was a need to “engage the present with appreciation of the past”, especially in terms of how the African community has been commodified by the colonial project.

He suggested that “universities have to ensure and assure deliberate programmes of unlearning these dominant colonial patterns of thought” to create students who understand the social and economic dynamics of society, to contribute to its development.

Mr Mosana also addressed the importance of how universities engage in the South African nation-building project and whether they are, as “the thought-leadership of the country”, substantively informing the development agenda.

Future seminars

Panellists also addressed what January-Bardill called the “strange and worrying distance between public and private higher education”.

“The University's mission of teaching, research and engagement is in constant interplay with questions of transformation, institutional culture, and other higher education challenges,” said January-Bardill.

Prof Keet said that the thought-provoking webinar served to sharpen the focus for future Council Seminar events. These will cover issues such as:

  • Changes in the organisation, purpose and rationale of our institutions;
  • University autonomy, legitimacy, and public accountability;
  • The role of higher education in development and the new world of work;
  • Corruption and maladministration, and
  • Social justice work pursued institutionally.

Contact information
Primarashni Gower
Director: Communication & Marketing
Tel: 0415043057
Primarashni.Gower@mandela.ac.za