Max du Preez

Fight against the deterioration of SA universities

2016-07-19 07:26

Max du Preez

South Africans should stop practicing identity politics at tertiary education institutions and rather fight against the deterioration of our universities.

If we don’t do that, we will soon not have any internationally reputable universities and won’t be able to deliver properly qualified students to our society and economy.

Then South Africa will become just another sad, struggling third world country. We dare not allow that.

Some things should happen quickly. Firstly, we should protect the autonomy of our universities and keep them away from the politicians’ sweaty paws.

There are enough lessons to be learnt from Africa about what happens when ruling parties mess with tertiary education institutions.

Secondly, we as civil society should insist on proper funding for tertiary education. The state’s contribution has declined over the last 15 years and most universities are in crisis.

Not only should universities have enough funds to afford sufficient infrastructure, the best academic staff available and proper research, there should not be a single student with merit excluded because his or her parents don’t earn enough money.

And there should be enough money for bridging courses for young people from weak schools or students who are not fluent in English.

Yes, the state purse is indeed rather empty, but we will have to reprioritise and squeeze money from elsewhere before our universities decline to a point of no return.

But it is equally important that South Africans of all groups and persuasions realise that universities aren’t the place where group politics are practiced or where ideological factions wage their battles.

Time to move on from angry rhetoric

With that I don’t mean that students shouldn’t have the right to agitate for “decolonisation” or “Africanisation” or fight for LGBT rights.

Surely it is legitimate to insist on an open, welcoming culture on campus and to struggle against an outdated Eurocentricity, especially regarding the social sciences.

But is time to move on from angry, racially charged rhetoric to results and progression. What exactly has been stopping departments of sociology, history, anthropology, religious studies and political science, for instance, from adjusting syllabi to reflect the country and continent where we live?

I do believe strongly that universities should now put an end to the disruptions and violations of student rights by a small group of hard-core ideologues and populists.

Improper meddling by political organisations such as AfriForum, the EFF and the ANC Youth League has caused much harm to our universities.

A step forward

All South African universities except the University of Northwest’s Potchefstroom campus now offer English as a language of instruction to all who want it.

This is a great step forward. The Afrikaner nationalists resisting this because English was the “language of imperialism” are just wrong. English is simply the language we have commandeered to communicate with each other, with our neighbouring states and the rest of the world.

The Afrikaans language has had to sacrifice some at the universities of the Free State, Stellenbosch and Pretoria. There was no other way. It was about access to all students.

The administrations of these universities, their councils and the cultural and linguistic communities that supported them simply didn’t do nearly enough over the last two decades to ensure accessibility to all students. They played identity politics.

But Afrikaans has also benefited from losing its status as primary language of instruction. At these three universities Afrikaans is no longer the focus of struggle and symbol of exclusion. Afrikaans needed that liberation.

Language and cultural activists should now make sure that indigenous languages continue to be nurtured at tertiary education level.

Radical black students should also acknowledge that this was real progress and shouldn’t shift the goal posts.

Positive inclusivity

I spent a few days on the campus of the University of the Free State recently. I attended a graduation ceremony for masters and doctoral students and witnessed that more than half these were black and about a quarter of them black women.

I spent time talking to students, academics and parents of graduates from all quarters, cultures and classes.

Rector Jonathan Jansen and his team have really achieved something remarkable. Jansen will be sorely missed, not least by his old enemies.

I have no doubt that the university still has many challenges and fault lines, but I experienced a broad sense of positive inclusivity and indeed excitement that I have never felt at any other campus.

The University of the Free State, flawed as it is, gives us a glimpse that we can actually have progressive, open, multi-cultural South African universities if we work hard enough at it.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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