Change the world

23/02/2022

‚ÄčWithout water and electricity, a university cannot have classes and use its technological infrastructure to drive research innovation and quality teaching and learning on a daily basis.

Without sanitation, housing and local economic development, the university cannot attract the best academics and the necessary talent needed to directly and indirectly ignite local economic growth and urban renewal.

These interrelationships that universities and municipalities seemingly share are microcosms that remain understudied in our South African context – both from a productive point of view (municipalities as assets to universities) and from a deficit perspective (municipalities as liabilities to universities).

This is not unexpected in SA largely because universities are still viewed as national and international institutions that rely on generating universally applicable research for the purposes of establishing a sizeable national footprint.

Economically and politically, universities are still understood as assets that belong to the domain of a national minister who must utilise his/her leadership collaboratively with the higher education executive and student leaders to mobilise a political economy that will serve the macro-priorities of the sector – such as access, success, free education, equity advancement, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and social justice broadly. In other words, universities and local government do not have a traditional working relationship – both from a strategic point of view and from a task-orientated position.

In addition, the sustainability matrix of universities as public institutions does not depend on local government – and the institutional design of universities does not allow local government to have any influence on their autonomous operations either. Importantly, universities are “accountability intensive” – with a robust culture of tight management mechanisms, monitoring, evaluation, and auditing principles.

From human resource appointments, financial management, procurement systems, examination control measures, and research ethical obligations – universities have placed the value of their qualifications and brand reputations on instilling these highest standards of practice and human conduct. Therefore, it is nearly impossible for any illicit business class to capture universities for their own corrupt ends in such a tight working environment like they would in a rural municipality.

Of course, this does not exclude potential risks that universities can be exposed to. For instance, the University of Fort Hare is in its current state, as far as its financial management status is concerned, primarily because at one stage of its institutional life it was occupied by an executive leadership that did not have any regard for the ethical measures I’ve outlined.

The necessary integrity needed to operate an institution of higher learning was eroded for short-term gains – including the monitoring, auditing, and prosecution bodies needed to rescue the university. Without these internal mechanisms in place, the corrupt political class that emanates from municipal structures would not have gained such a significant entry into the operations of Fort Hare.

These are the same weaknesses that the white capitalist class exploited under apartheid to gain entry into the fiscus of former white universities to plunder them up to the current epoch. One of the greatest unknowns of South African higher education that came out of the #endoutsourcing and #FeesMustFall protests six years ago is that former white universities had to reassess the costs of their procurement services which were largely found to be wasteful, illicit, and valueless – with most of them were being provided by the white economic class located in the cities where those universities are.

Today, these former white universities are trying their level best to transform the BBBEE scorecards of their procurement spends as they largely remain white and significantly distant from their core priorities. In other words, our higher education system, for many years, has been bleeding resources made from the taxpayer to the monopoly local industries owned and controlled by the white minority in university towns and cities.

These local monopolies are the same cartels that are beginning to emerge from the context of former black universities such as Fort Hare and they all carry the same mandate – which is to maximise their profits and padlock universities as permanent sites of accumulation.

None of these forces are concerned about the academic project that these universities are supposed to maintain for their intergenerational sustainability. Moving forward, the student leadership of the working-class and organised labour must fight for the professionalisation of university structures especially in black institutions of higher learning that are located in rural municipalities.

These structures must have auditing, accountability, monitoring, and evaluation strictly embedded in them. The recruitment of the best talent and experienced executive and professoriate needed to manage and lead these university structures must be non-negotiable.

A university that will produce graduates with the highest reputation and talent to serve the country’s economy and its people adequately can only be generated out of a well-managed university. In other words, a university that operates with a rule of law is useful for our democratic project. Municipalities then must be seen as strategic partners of higher education to generate the necessary urban renewal frameworks needed that will drive local economic growth and sustainable communities.

These relations must be legally and autonomously guided for purposes of ensuring that both the municipality and the university share their talents and expertise to optimise the intellectual project to best serve society.

This article appeared on The Sowetan Live on 21 February 2022, written by Dr Mzileni, a Research Associate in the Faculty of Humanities at Nelson Mandela University.