No longer a gem?

2014-01-31 00:00

IT was a small detail in an article in City Press about “elite” schools, the kind that cost hundreds of thousands of rands a year to attend. According to the story, matriculants from these schools went on to “top” SA universities, or institutions overseas.

“About 85% of our boys end up at Stellenbosch or the University of Cape Town, 10% will go to Rhodes and Wits. The rest go overseas,” Michaelhouse marketing director Murray Witherspoon was quoted as saying.

When, I wondered, did it become a commonly held opinion that what was once our provincial gem and my own alma mater, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, was no longer a preferred destination? Among white parents at least, the trend is now firmly established to send one’s children to university out of the province if you can afford it. The question is why? And what does this mean for UKZN?

Canvassing a small sample of local private and “good” government schools about what universities are the preferred choices, I got the same names: UCT, Stellenbosch, University of Pretoria, Rhodes, University of Johannesburg and Wits.

A larger sample of about a dozen parents, asked where their children had gone or would preferably go after school, mostly returned the same names. Almost all of these parents had themselves graduated from UKZN.

Reasons given were varied, but there were common concerns: the university seems to be on a “downward trend”, it is “disorganised”; while academic standards in some departments are still okay, in others standards are dropping; management is “arrogant, racially embittered and incompetent”; the campus is “very different from the one we attended and res life has totally changed”; after-hours safety is not good enough.

One parent, whose son did his first year at UKZN, said he moved to Stellenbosch because there was “no social life” at UKZN. “There are no after-hours functions at UKZN, but at other universities there are all kinds of functions,” she said.

University staff member John Smith* agreed with this, saying: “As a parent, I’d say to my daughter ‘go to a university where there’s a vibe — Rhodes, UFS, etc. — even though there’s nothing wrong with what you will learn at UKZN”.

Smith said the issue of prospective students shunning UKZN is complex. “I think you’d find that among the white middle-class kids, UKZN is not a first choice and this is probably true too for private-school kids and some of the model C state schools. But not true generally. For example, many local Indian families choose UKZN because they don’t want their kids to move away, and we get very good students from all over KZN who choose to be here. So it isn’t that simple. At a post-graduate level this doesn’t hold either. Students choose to go where there are supervisors who they want to work with, or where funding is available, and if they are working it is often the closest place. So my experience is that we get students as good as anywhere else (with the exception of UCT perhaps).

“Has it been detrimental? I think there has been a loss to the diversity of the institution. The middle-class students have more time for extra-curricular activities, and there isn’t the same mix of students you see at other institutions. Academically, it’s difficult to say.

“I think the students we get now are better than they were 10 years ago. There may have been some ‘dumbing down’, but there have been changes everywhere at higher-education institutions.”

Faced with criticism, UKZN management point to the institution’s standing in international rankings. In a recent Times Higher Education survey of international universities, UKZN was ranked 45th out of 700 in the Brics and Emerging Economies category. UCT came third, Wits 15th, Stellenbosch 21st and Pretoria 78th.

And yesterday on its website it was bragging about achieving top place for research output in a recent Department of Higher Education and Training survey of SA universities.

“The thing about the ranking is that it is so focused on research output,” said Smith.

“But undergraduate students go to university for more than research. What has happened with the intense focus on research is that academics lock themselves in their offices, work from home and focus on articles. Students are left to contract staff and tutors.”

Jack Thomas,* a post-graduate student, agreed. “Since publication is linked to funding and takes away from teaching, I don’t think [the rankings] add up to a good academic environment for students or lecturers.

“As an institution, it’s dysfunctional,” he said. “The scything of contract posts is symptomatic, and the impact on academic offerings and quality will be disastrous. This is in the humanities. Reasons for the chaos are complex and multiple, but neoliberal economics that require varsities to pay their way is paramount. In short, it’s a f***-up, and their rating bears no relation to conditions on the ground.”

Unfortunately, another front-page story in The Witness yesterday about varsity retrenchments seemed to confirm this.

* Not their real names.

• shelaghm@witness.co.za

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