Excellence at risk of being sacrificed for political expediency
Date Released: Tue, 15 October 2013 17:59 +0200
Excellence is a rare commodity in South Africa, both as an ideal and practical outcome. Mediocrity, its counterpoint, rules the roost. So much so, there is a strong case to be made South Africa is, in fact, a "mediocracy" not a meritocracy.
Into this environment, Free State University vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen, usually an outspoken advocate for excellence and critic of mediocrity, has introduced an argument that global university rankings do not cater for the pressures of or obligations inherent to the developing world. Thus, he suggests, a different set of criteria are necessary. He proposes seven before concluding, "rank our universities against these kinds of criteria and you will be surprised who comes out on top — and at the bottom."
His list of seven is a curious one. None involve academic excellence in the traditional sense. He seems to presume those standards are all high; only our brilliance is undermined by our social obligations. They are infused with political ideas too. "The extent to which a university invests in teaching that deeply transforms student thinking," for example. What does that mean?
A university is designed to produce independent minds. An independent mind is not ideological and can determine for itself what works and does not, on the basis of rationality and evidence. What is a "transformed mind"? Is it a euphemism for independence? In which case, why use that phrase as opposed to the more accurate and traditional term?
Significantly, the majority of his other criteria are not measurable in a quantifiable way. He says, for example, one should measure "the extent to which a university creates a sense of civic-mindedness" and how "it advances social cohesion and inclusion within the student body". This is politically correct waffle. Who would determine such things on a moral scale and whose scale would they use? Jansen seems to be suggesting universities measure the way people behave in their private capacity. Apart from being deeply problematic in principled terms, that has nothing to do with their core function. It is redundant too: an independent, educated mind is of great service to civil society. South African certainly suffers a dearth of them. It suffers no shortage of unthinking, politically dependent surrogates for a national cliché.
Elsewhere, he says one should measure "the extent to which a university is open to, and supports, students from countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region". This can only be an allusion to quotas, the opposite of excellence. If not quotas, then how would such an attitude differ from a general openness to applicants outside the country?
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Jansen suggests the pursuit of a high position on these rankings is vainglorious and selfindulgent. What nonsense. If it is, he should tell the other Brics countries, most of which are desperately trying to move their universities up in the rankings. They understand the rankings are a proxy for excellence; that each criterion in strict terms might not constitute the be-all-and-end-all of excellence, but together they broadly demonstrate whether an institution is excelling or failing.
Jansen, however, does not understand that. He seems to think the rankings are the product of some Western ideological agenda. And he is not alone in that regard. In a rare show of egalitarian solidarity, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande, agrees. Asked in 2010 why South Africa’s universities faired so poorly, Nzimande argued the rankings are biased — based on "Westernised notions of what a university is or ought to be".
Whatever the nature of those criteria used by global university rankings, they are two indisputable things: (a) real and (b) largely designed to measure the idea of what a university should be (research intensive). So one can wish them away or argue they should be supplemented by other considerations but that does nothing to change the real-world facts — namely, South Africa’s 11 "traditional universities", as government has termed them, feature next to nowhere when measured against them. Indeed, only the University of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand have managed a consistent outside position in recent years.
Our tertiary education system does try to cater for a general need to produce more graduates. It boasts some six universities of technology, designed primarily for the "throughput" of students, rather than research. And despite the inordinate pressure applied to traditional universities as well (the demand for more students but with no appropriate increase in funding) for Jansen this is not enough, traditional universities too must see their role as primarily "developmental", tools to aid the state in its developmental agenda.
Here is an interesting question, the answer to which will tell you much about South Africa’s attitude to excellence, and Jansen’s: would it be wrong, even desirable, to identify a small number of our best universities, increase their funding for research, and drive them to take a place among the best traditional universities in the world? In other words, would it be unpalatable to suggest that in the right way and for a limited number of institutions we pursue an elitist agenda in higher education; that, in this area, we strive to be the best? Or, alternatively, is Jansen of the opinion that this kind of excellence is simply not an option in South Africa today? If that kind of excellence is not an option, what does it say about our aspirations?
"We must all be alike," says Captain Beatty in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, explaining the underlying impulse that lead to all books being banned in his dystopian world, "not everyone (is) born free and equal, as the constitution says, but everyone (is) made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against."
Jansen suffers Beatty’s reasoning: We must not have global rankings, they are cruel and unfair, they create mountains against which we feel judged and so, rather than conquer them, they must be flattened and replaced by something more egalitarian — our own standard against which we can shine. And damn those who aspire to another standard, they are "unAfrican" by implication and elitist in turn. That is mediocrity itself.
It is a disturbing position for a vice-chancellor to hold. Universities are elitist by their intrinsic nature. That is their purpose — to hone the abilities of the best and brightest, and to pursue ideas to their ultimate conclusion, without fear or favour. They should do so fairly and provide that opportunity to anyone who qualifies, even to go out of their way to ensure those who might qualify but are unfairly disadvantaged are not denied access, but that is their traditional role. In the world of ideas, they are the factories of intellectual excellence and the home to progress, knowledge and human development in turn.
Universities are not egalitarian institutions, they are elitist; were it otherwise there would be no such thing as a "university exemption" (although the government seems to have its mind set on doing away with even that).
Not every university needs to fulfill this function in a society; we have many that don’t. And there is an important place from them. But "traditional universities" should. Even in South Africa, where the pressure is on all universities to be identical and politically compliant, at least some should be research intensive. Jansen might not see that as the role of Free State University but that says nothing about the general objective, more about him. Some should be better at research than others, excellent at it, the best in the world. Yet merely to suggest that idea is now seen as seditious. Ironically, that is to our collective detriment; for excellence forces the general standard up, not down.
Jansen seems to understand this when it comes to basic education. His various public criticisms are replete with international benchmarks, the result of which he uses to excoriate the government. Why does he not advocate for a different standard of measurement in this area, as he does in universities? Because he knows an ability to understand maths and science cannot be reinterpreted in a developmental context.
Revealingly, he asks, "What is more important? That you produce lots of research in science journals that is cited by your peers in Norway and Boston? Or that the knowledge you produced through research in your school of engineering solved problems of annual flooding in the squatter housing of Khayelitsha and KwaMashu?"
Think about that for a moment. The assumption is, because the application of the research is different (KwaMashu instead of Norway), the quality would be different too. Presumably we want the best engineers working on flooding problems in KwaMashu, not just engineers interested in KwaMashu. How would one assure they are the best? By setting the standard against the best in the world. Unless Jansen is suggesting African problems deserve a different, special and lower standard.
The independence of South African universities is being seriously tested at the moment, as the government has set up a transformation committee to ensure their objectives are aligned with government’s developmental agenda. That is itself anathema to academic freedom independence; if anything universities should be the place where government paradigms are interrogated not unthinkingly replicated.
Where is Jansen’s column on that? It says much about the cowering condition of university academics, often held hostage by funding constraints, that there is no considerable outcry against this state-led encroachment on their terrain. The silence would be deafening, were it not so embarrassing. For shame on them.
Use the word elitist and so poisoned has it been by political correctness, it automatically negates reasonable discussion. It is seen as a euphemism for privilege and unfairness.
But actually, in the best sense of the word, it is a wonderful thing — a synonym for excellence itself and the best human potential is capable of. If it is the result of manipulation and bias, yes, it is tainted. But if it is the result of fair practice, effort and equal opportunity it lies at the heart of human achievement.
It is for this reason we have centres of excellence in every profession, from accounting through sports. Yet when it comes to the world of ideas and universities, we demand no one excel above the lowest common denominator; even the idea that a single institution be dedicated to this end is deemed abhorrent.
The real disappointing irony, however, is the relative lack of judgment on Jansen’s part. It is not a case of our traditional universities fairing badly, many are in a state so abysmal they literally cannot function. A number are under administration and Walter Sisulu University has all but imploded. Arguing about global rankings is one thing; arguing about them in South Africa quite another. If it is egalitarianism Jansen is after, perhaps we should develop a special scale for Walter Sisulu University and rank all our higher education institutions at that level? That might seem like a disingenuous point but make no mistake, it is the end point towards which an egalitarian attitude to excellence inevitably leads. Jansen’s argument aids, not counters this attitude.
Jansen will no doubt argue he was making a case for excellence — developing world excellence (a euphemism for mediocrity if every there was one). The problem with his argument is both ideas and excellence are universal and, if you are in the business of pursuing them, the global community cares little for local constraints.
Oxford doesn’t stop mapping the human genome because Zimbabwe has a funding crisis.
Global academic excellence is a brutal business. You can delude yourself into thinking your own standards set the bar; the world will carry on with its business regardless.
BY GARETH VAN ONSELEN
Article Source: Business Day