Report’s simplistic approach

2013-11-01 00:00

THERE is a very disturbing document about to hit universities in South Africa. It is the report of the Transformation Oversight Committee (TOC) instituted by Minister Blade Nzimande to reveal the extent of change at the 23 public universities.

The thrust of the investigation is correct. We need universities that are truly open to the widest range of academic talent in South Africa and abroad. That means, for me, that we need more black and women academics and students in all our universities; we need more people with disabilities to access higher education; and yes, we need more white students on traditionally black campuses. In other words, we need normal universities that are not defined by their tragic histories of exclusion — be those exclusions on grounds of race, ethnicity, gender, language or ability to pay.

What we do not need, however, is a report that reduces the complexities of institutional transformation to an equity index in which you count the number of black staff or students, rank the universities from best to worst, and declare some more transformed than others. This kind of simplistic thinking that reduces transformation to pigmentation is simply the flip side of apartheid reasoning, where biologically essentialised categories still matter. Ironically, this report is a setback for transformation.

The report, to begin with, is ahistorical. Black universities are not transformed because they are black. The worst kinds of tribalism may exist in historically black universities (HBU). All but one of the HBUs was set up by apartheid for separate tribal groupings, that is why they are black. Some are very conservative. Other HBUs are regularly trashed by their students, neglected during long strikes by lecturers, or placed under administration for poor management or governance or both. That is not transformation.

In addition, a university that merged with a black institution and now is labelled as “transformed” did not have to do anything to become that way.

Now, it is surely a matter of social justice that black students and academics excluded from former white universities be admitted in numbers. But transformation is something much deeper. It implies profoundly qualitative changes in human relations, where people are respected and embraced across the lines that divided us. It means that universities are humane places that reach out to those less privileged inside and outside.

It suggests a deep transformation of the curriculum that opens up knowledge beyond the narrow strictures of our lingering colonial and apartheid epistemologies. It calls for intellectual spaces on campuses where orthodoxy is questioned and critical theories and methods of doing research and teaching are advanced. It means opening up our universities, without extra charge, to students from southern African countries, if only to pay a debt to our neighbours for our destructive past.

This does not mean that historically white universities are off the hook — not at all. It is simply inexcusable that any university in our democracy can still be so overwhelmingly white in its academic and staffing; and a university with a largely dominant white campus in southern Africa is not serving those students or the country well. That must change in ways that all South Africans, black and white, teach and research, as well as live and learn, together in our universities.

Most universities (not all of them) are trying hard to be more inclusive in both student recruitment and the head-hunting of staff. It is not always easy. Try to find a black dean of law or a black head of actuarial science, or a programme director in forensics who is both a top scholar and a solid manager, and you will see rectors trying to outbid each other for the same one or two people already in an appointment at a university. Try to replace existing staff and you find it almost impossible given our labour-relations laws. Try to coax top black talent from the private sector into universities, and you will find the comrades laughing at you. Becoming more inclusive, especially with top academic talent, is very difficult, and the TOC report promises to be unhelpful in getting us there, apart from bringing out the monitoring police to blame and shame those who try.

In the long term, the only way out of this conundrum is to put thousands more black students into masters and doctoral programmes, and to nurture the best among them for academic careers — alongside their most talented white colleagues.

• Jonathan Jansen is the rector and vice-chancellor of University of the Free State.

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