Nzimande’s blade’ must cut where it is mostly needed

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The debate on the Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Bill 2012 which were passed by the National Assembly, giving Minister Blade Nzimande more powers to intervene in universities. A lot has been said in opposition to and in support of these Bills.

A more interesting debate on this has been the one triggered by Professor’s Barney Pityana’s article titled “Free our Universities from Nzimande’s blade” published in The Sunday Independent on 04 of November and the subsequent defensive response by the DG of the Department of Higher Education, Mr Gwebinkundla Qonde.

Like most academics Professor Pityana, argues that institutional autonomy is a principle that is beyond all other principles guiding higher education in South Africa. In trying to argue his case he makes fictitiously desperate statements such as, “the higher education system as a whole is not in crisis” and by implication does not need any form of intervention from government. Professor Pityana joins many others such as the CEO of the Council on Higher Education, Ahmed Essop and the Vice Chancellor of Central University of Technology (CUT) Professor Thandwa Mthembu.

Mr Qonde, on the other hand, believes that the state’s intervention in universities should only result from maladministration and financial challenges. This is a form of directionless intervention, where things are done for their sake, without any long-term intentions for transformation. Mr Qonde does not try to enter the discussion but just provides technocratic scenarios of where intervention was meted. He does the expected finger pointing when he asserts that Pityana’s commentary is motivated by “a political agenda to discredit a prominent ANC and SACP leader...”   

Those who might want to enter this discussion might be tempted to choose one of the finger pointing sides and continue the debate in this unhealthy way as laid down by both individuals. Below I provide a different perspective from the two.

Any legislative amendment should speak to the foundations of our democracy which is the Constitution of the Republic, which includes the Bill of Rights. The amendment should be able to capture the higher education transformation vision encapsulated in the Education White Paper 3: A programme for the transformation of higher education.  

The Higher Education Act (101) of 1997 envisaged a democratic higher education system in the context of a single-coordinated yet differentiated format. It was to be a system where institutions and programme offerings were to respond better to the human resource, economic and development needs of South Africa; redressing imbalances of the past and that there would be equal access to all universities.

In terms of this Act, it was desirable for universities to “enjoy freedom and autonomy in their relationship with the state within the context of public accountability and the national need for advanced skills and scientific knowledge.” This meant that institutions are not independent but autonomous to government and society at large.

At present, the higher education system lacks the capacity to meet the political, social and economic demands of a democratic South Africa. It still has a variety of deficiencies, such as an unfair distribution of access and opportunity for students and staff in terms of race, gender, class and geographical location. This is coupled with a significant disjuncture between the output of higher education and the needs of a modern economy.

The system is still fragmented, inefficient, un-coordinated as before. Even if one can differ with the above observation, it is very difficult to agree to Professor Pityana’s desperate argument that there are no challenges in our system in its entirety.

Various inequities continue to reflect themselves in the system as a whole. Even the 2012 Green Paper on Post-Schooling acknowledges this when it states that:

“Gender and racial inequalities are evident in patterns of University enrolment. While the numbers of black and female students enrolling at universities have increased dramatically over the 16 years, blacks and women students continue to be under represented in science and engineering and technology as well as in business and commerce programmes. Major racial disparities also exist in the completion rates in undergraduate programmes, together with the particularly high attrition rates of black students across the board.”

This situation requires that we move out of our comfort zones and agree on a real programme for the transformation of our universities, particularly in the areas of race, class and gender. For this we need autonomous institutions not independent ones as is the case currently. 

This programme should also include changing the nature of university councils in order for them to become truly democratic organs which are reflective of all institutional stakeholders. The fact is that the higher education system is still fragmented and skewered towards a particular racial and population group as it was during apartheid.

The reality is that formerly black institutions are still black and under-resourced and formerly white institutions are still white and significantly resourced, with huge surpluses in reserves. This is as a result of, but not limited to, the following factors:

Conservative, mainly white, elements within the councils and management of universities, particularly in Historically White Institutions.

Institutionalized forms of racism and sexism on many campuses.

Resource constraints in the Historically Black Institutions, exacerbated by the problematic research output-based funding model for universities.

Disbandment of university councils should be transformation driven rather than merely bureaucratic and financial.

Where clear cases of racism or any other form of discrimination are scientifically exposed in an institution, such council and or management should be disbanded and an administrator should be appointed in order to transforming such an institution.

The fact that it is only councils of black institutions that are always disbanded on the basis of financial and administrative problems is proof that the problem might be more about funding than corruption as Mr Qonde would like us to believe. One friend of mine describes this as a clear crucifixion of the wrong Jesus by the department. 

The challenges of Walter Sisulu University (WSU) that led to disbandment for instance were more about funding, the student debt and the problematic merger than they were about corruption. This is why the Administrator Laurens van Staden has proposed a quasi-demerger in the recently released Turnaround framework of WSU, 2012.

The amendments in the Act should empower government to disband some of the previously white institutions, such as the University of Free State and University of Stellenbosch for their racist, sexists’ policies and or discriminatory institutional practices. This Ndimande’s blade that Professor Pityana is speaking about must begin to cut where it is mostly needed.

Luzuko Buku is the Deputy Secretary General of the South African Student Congress (SASCO), and an Old Rhodian

Article by Luzuko Buku

Image: Avusa

Source: Times Live