How South Africa's higher education leaders missed a golden opportunity

22 October 2015 | Story by Newsroom
Photo by Roger Sedras.
Photo by Roger Sedras.

There were several elephants in the room at the South African Higher Education Summit which ran just as university students were beginning a nationwide series of protests against fees.

There were several elephants in the room at the South African Higher Education Summit which ran just as university students were beginning a nationwide series of protests against fees.

One of the summit's themes was "access and success". I, like many of my colleagues in the field of academic development, have spent my career teaching, researching and leading out of a commitment to "access and success". These are issues of admissions, curriculum and ways of teaching that have a bearing on whether students successfully graduate and enter into the world of meaningful work.

But none of this featured on the summit's agenda. The student leadership at the summit was singularly focused, clear and articulate on one access issue only: financial access. They dominated the floor and took over the commission agenda. You cannot talk about issues of "access and success" without putting issues of finance on the table.

Unless you can afford to enter a university – and to stay – then no other issue really matters, does it? And the issue is not just fees, but about the rising costs of higher education, the shrinking provision from the state pot for the sector and a whole host of other related matters such as the management and mismanagement of government funding through the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

What to make of this? Have the students missed the plot? Have those in academia and government leadership missed the plot?

Systemic failure

Fees and broader issues of financial access are one piece of a bigger story. Since the release in 1997 of the government's white paper on transformation in education, every policy document about the sector has pointed to the severe challenges that our higher education system faces.

Most recently, the Council of Higher Education's 2013 proposal on curriculum restructuring went so far as to argue that South Africa has "systemic failure" that requires systemic solutions.

In good South African tradition, we all know the problems. They were outlined crisply in the council's 2013 report and repeated almost like a mantra at the summit – low participation, high drop-out and a shrinking public purse. Against this backdrop, the summit was a series of missed opportunities.

First, it was a chance to really engage with the students who are now protesting at most of South Africa's big universities. Instead of engagement there were times when the tone from the leadership – including the minister of higher education and especially the Director-General – was defensive and patronising. Students were scolded for using Twitter, with leaders saying this reduced issues to 140 characters. They were encouraged to read Karl Marx as the country's struggle heroes had.

The issues raised by the students are not the students' problems. These are our problems. At every level from the state to the ministry to the senior levels of university leadership, we are responsible. The content, format and tone of the summit would have been different if we understood this as a collective and urgent problem. The urgency and seriousness of the matters may be more evident to the minister after Wednesday's massive march by students on South Africa's parliament in Cape Town.

Second, it was a missed opportunity to move from problem analysis, which we have no shortage of, to concrete short-, medium- and long-term proposals. Instead of responding to the clear problems, one of the education department's own papers tabled at the summit argues that we have an "improving system". This is supported with cohort studies on increasing retention rates and decreasing dropout rates.

The report concedes, however, that the graduate rate of 53% after five years of study is not good enough.

Politically irresponsible

The reference to an "improving system" strikes me as disingenuous and politically irresponsible. It is disingenuous because the data is aggregated at such a high level that it is meaningless. For example, what are the retention rates of the Bachelor of Science or Engineering? What are the retention rates disaggregated by race?

It is irresponsible because of the myriad interpretations of such a message and their consequences. If we are led to believe that the system is improving then we have to find reasons for the improvement given that the schooling system is not producing better university-prepared matriculants. The reasons given in the report point to a range of "interventions" – NSFAS funding, foundation programmes and teaching development grants.

But we know that foundation programmes only account for about 15% of the student population. We also know that the development grants are a welcome but very recent insertion of resources – most cannot yet report on impact. What does the department hope to gain by such a message of an "improved system"?

Where to from here? All of us who care about higher education – management, academics, administrators, students – should join the protest marches. Not to blame, but to lament this sad state of affairs.

When we are finished marching we need to reconvene to address both the immediate issues and the underlying fundamental problems. We need to address issues of financial affordability and then broaden the agenda to other critical issues of access and success. This is the opportunity that leadership in South African higher education offers us today.

Suellen Shay, Dean and Associate Professor, University of Cape Town


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