Dream of authentic SA universities yet to be realised

Understanding Higher Education: Alternative perspectives by Chrissie Boughey and Sioux McKenna.
Understanding Higher Education: Alternative perspectives by Chrissie Boughey and Sioux McKenna.

By Mark Paterson  


South Africa has failed to produce a higher education system that meets its fundamental social and developmental needs in the democratic era, according to a new book, Understanding Higher Education: Alternative perspectives by two academics at Rhodes University, Chrissie Boughey and Sioux McKenna.

In the process, institutional inequalities among universities have been entrenched, curriculum and pedagogic reform have been neglected and the educational needs of many black students, to whom the post-apartheid universities were supposed to cater, remain unaddressed.

“We have universities in South Africa, but we don’t have authentically South African universities,” said Boughey, dean of teaching and learning. “There has been a dream of this among a number of rurally located universities that have prioritised serving their local communities, but this vision has not been actualised.”

The dashed hope stems from a broader failure to consider universities as ‘social structures’ at both the national and global levels, as neoliberalist perspectives and a drive to globalisation have increasingly turned universities into machines for producing private benefits, such as employable graduates and profitable research.

Economic development and privatisation

In South Africa, the shift is traced back to the introduction of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) programme under the late president Nelson Mandela in 1998, when the slogan promoted by the ruling African National Congress changed from ‘growth through redistribution’ to ‘growth for redistribution’.

“When the government focused on economic development at the cost of pro-poor policies, this discourse took hold in all social spaces, including universities,” said McKenna, director of postgraduate studies.

The trend is a global one, Fikret Adaman, professor of economics at Bogazici University in Istanbul, said at a recent online launch of the new volume. He argued that higher education globally has been increasingly subject to privatisation in the belief that efficiency and productivity can be increased through competition (although the nature of capitalist competition is fundamentally imperfect).

“Under a system that seeks to govern through economic incentives, the individual is prioritised and the social is desocialised, which leads to the commodification of knowledge,” he said. Meanwhile, he noted, student access to universities continues to be distorted by disparities in wealth at household level.

The South African government also adopted approaches and policies which have emphasised the instrumental value of higher education while failing to adequately address the character of universities as social institutions, according to the new book.

One result has been a failure to promote authentic equity among students as the cohort has diversified under massification.

A key challenge in this regard, according to the authors of Understanding Higher Education, is what they term the discourse of the ‘decontextualised learner’ – in other words, the notion that student performance may be attributed solely to inherent individual characteristics, which fits in with the idea of universities as meritocracies operating in a kind of sociocultural vacuum.

Under this view which, according to the authors, is a dominant one in the South African and many other national higher education systems, “the university, the society in which the university exists, the history of the country, the development of the curriculum – these are all hidden from view as the explanations for success and failure hone in on the individual”.

The model absolves universities of any bias towards specific groups of students.

Student as social being

In the context of high dropout rates among students, the authors note: “The problem with this position is that … it will not allow us to make sense of, for example, South African performance data without going into very horrible places, since black students bear the burden of failure in universities much more heavily than their white peers.”

Accordingly, the authors propose that the country’s universities and government acknowledge the drawbacks of shaping policy and practice according to the idea of the ‘decontextualised learner’ and instead adopt ‘the model of the student as social being’ as the focus of their efforts.

Under this view, “there are many ways of knowing and, thus, many ways of learning”, the authors say.

As social beings, “people have personal properties and powers on which they draw to make their own way, but these are unrecognised,” Boughey said. “We don’t see the students, what they bring – and then constrain them from using their power.”

In this vein, Boughey views the nationwide student uprising which erupted in 2015 under the hashtags #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall as a wake-up call, responding to the increasingly neo-liberal, globalised trajectory taken by the higher education system since the advent of democracy in 1994.

“The student protests were about saying: ‘Whoa!’,” she said.

Introducing the book, Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Sizwe Mabizela affirmed the point. “The students wanted to be seen, they wanted to be recognised – ‘I am the daughter of a domestic worker, I am the son of a gardener. How can I afford the fees that are being set?’”

Against this background, Boughey and McKenna focus on how the nature of curricula and the agency of academics, as teachers, researchers and managers, have valorised specific kinds of and approaches to knowing and knowledge-making over others.

Critiquing the volume at its recent virtual launch, Jo-Anne Vorster, head of the Centre for Higher Education, Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL) at Rhodes University, affirmed the authors’ analysis that there has been little change in the cultural domain at many universities in South Africa, including particularly at the so-called ‘traditional’ ones. This has inhibited efforts to produce new understandings of the purpose of universities and the role of the curriculum in this, she said.

Curriculum design, pedagogy important

Noting the crucial role played by foundational knowledge – that is, in the words of Basil Bernstein, knowledge that can help students to think the ‘not-yet-thought’ and imagine (and create) a new, better future – Vorster stressed the importance to curriculum design and pedagogy of making explicit the ways in which knowledge in particular fields is forged and understood.

In this regard, she noted the “dissonance between a changing student population and the institutional culture of the ‘colonial’ university”.

At the same time, as McKenna noted at the meeting, the idea that new ways of teaching need to be found and new forms of knowledge need to be accessed “is hardly whispered” in HE policymaking circles.

Rather, new qualification frameworks and forms of managerialism have placed a premium on how efficient universities can be in producing appropriately skilled graduates and particular forms of ‘useful’ knowledge, often at the expense higher education’s historically crucial role in serving the broader public good.

In this new, globalised world of measurable and achievable educational outputs and outcomes, students are identified as ‘clients’ or ‘customers’, said Lillian Omondi, who lectures at the department of sociology and anthropology, Maseno University, Kenya.

Presenting a dystopian vision of the present, she noted that as numbers have risen under massification, the churn has affected the quality on offer; and as university funding has become increasingly privatised and austerity has bitten, lecturers have become increasingly unwilling to cross the students who, as the customers, are ‘always right’. Meanwhile, she said, “students are mainly interested in passing exams”.

Addressing the challenges facing higher education in South Africa and elsewhere across the continent, McKenna noted that there is “no easy answer”, but called on academics to “push back” against the neo-liberal, globalised agenda for the sector in a quest for epistemic justice.

In particular, she called for opposition to the metrification of outputs and the disproportionate influence of international rankings which do not measure the contributions made by universities to the public good, including in the form of community engagement.

“We must take a strong stance that we are here for the good of people and the planet,” she said.

For Boughey, who expressed a “sense of sadness” that the high hopes for the country from the 1990s had not been realised, the “answer is not to socialise students into dominant forms of knowledge, but to look at the knowledge that we need to generate – that is, knowledge that can explain the world around us in powerful, yet-to-be-produced ways”.

For Adaman, “The alternative is to promote a knowledge commons – that is, a space of negotiation among all stakeholders on a democratic basis.”


Original article: https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=2021090608163716