Transformation needs to be transformed

2009-09-07 00:00

I TAUGHT at the University of the Western Cape for 20 years and sat on other university committees and a university council for nine years. Over the years, I saw the results of a deteriorating basic education system, releasing to the universities more and more students who were not ready for higher education. My colleagues and I simply became sick and tired of remedial teaching and the amount of time it took to make students understand the basics, let alone the substance, of the disciplines we taught. To add insult to injury, the task of remedial teaching became the burden predominantly of teaching assistants and junior lecturers whose nurturing tasks escaped those in the senior echelons of the university.

The consequences were dire for young academics, who needed to publish and do research in order to mobilise upwards. Professors hogged the research, publication and conference funds, taught third-year and post-graduate students and enjoyed relatively more freedom to publish. In my job as gender equity officer, I tracked the profile of younger women academics and discovered that it took them 10 times as long to achieve professorial status even when they had similar or better qualifications than the men, simply because the female academics were often assigned to undergraduate teaching. Their nurturing role at home became compounded by the nurturing roles they were compelled to take on at university.

The transformation agenda demands innovative interventions to create equity for women, and substantive and not only formal equality with men. Similarly, transformation requires a different agenda to improve the qualifications of students, predominantly black students, at universities.

It is not just about enrolment and admissions and academic support. Fifty percent of first-year students will continue to fail and drop out if the schooling system is not radically overhauled. It is not the job of universities to try to address a basic education system that will not come right. The government and the university management know that but they continue in their deluded self-righteous and politically correct ways to pursue remedies that have proven over and over again to fail, especially if the very thorough study of Dr Nan Yeld, the National Benchmark Tests Project, is anything to go by.

The transformation agenda at universities amounts to racial bean-counting and perpetuates this scenario, made even more complex by the social engineering thrust upon universities, especially the Ivy League ones, by government. The pressure to fill formerly white universities with black faces is the reason for this. It therefore comes as no surprise when we hear that literacy and numeracy levels at universities are below standard. Some 13 000 students from seven universities, and 300 academics participated in the National Benchmark Tests Project, which revealed that seven percent of the students who wrote the mathematics exam made it; the rest needed extension programmes in order to pass. Academic literacy fared marginally better, with 52% needing additional tuition.

No one cares about issues of diversity facing black universities. No one cares what happens there and whether or not the throughput rates are increasing, whether or not targets are being met to produce qualified and competent doctors, engineers, scientists, nurses, and the other urgent skills required by our economy. No one asks whether or not the racial balance at the black universities has been met, whether affirmative action means white, coloured and Indian appointments at these universities, or whether or not numeracy or academic levels have improved. Why is this debate not in the public realm?

Unlike black universities, formerly white universities are under constant scrutiny for racial transformation, while black universities get away with murder. Many former white universities with black vice chancellors have become no go areas, the fiefdoms of those who stifle free debate and tyrannise those academics who dare to ask questions, as Dr Nithia Chetty recently pointed out at the T. B.  Davie Memorial Lecture.

Countless disciplinary procedures have been instituted against those who “will not toe the line” at great legal costs to universities who need those monies for academic programmes. Academic freedom has become the bugbear of those who feel threatened by freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and who institute disciplinary proceedings on the grounds that they “brought the university into disrepute” — the new phrase for shutting up academics who dare to ask questions.

Appointments processes are engineered by those desperate to make politically correct appointments based on race alone, rather than looking at race in conjunction with skills, competence and merit. No wonder many black appointments end in disaster for both the institution and the candidate. Having sat on appointments committees for more than 20 years, I have witnessed many a process that predictably ended in disaster because the university in question was dead set on appointing someone of a particular race regardless of competence, experience and ability.

In one instance, I indicated that I was unhappy with the academic statement of a candidate whom the whole appointments committee wanted to appoint. After further investigation, the university discovered that the person had applied some years before, took the job, and the salary, but never rocked up to teach. So desperate were they to appoint a black candidate that they failed to do a thorough background search on the candidate.

This is one of many such disastrous appointments about which I can write a book. But universities will not learn, because like the government, those in charge fail to understand that universities are lifelong institutions, there to be preserved for generations to come.

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