Modidima Mannya | Little to celebrate this Youth Day, higher education is still in crisis

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Students are the biggest casualty of the failings of institutions and agencies of higher education.
Students are the biggest casualty of the failings of institutions and agencies of higher education.
Leon Sadiki

The release of a damning report into the affairs of Unisa serves as another reminder of the state of higher education in South Africa.

Alongside the problems highlighted by the independent assessor at Unisa, the reported problems at the University of Fort Hare, at Walter Sisulu University, at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and at Stellenbosch University, there are serious troubles in the many agencies falling under the department of higher education, science and innovation.

The National Skills Fund (NSF) is at the centre of trouble involving billions which cannot be accounted for, while the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) and many sector education and training authorities (Setas) are moving from one crisis to the other. Meanwhile, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges continue to provide programmes which leave young people with skills and qualifications that are irrelevant to the needs of the country.

We are approaching the month of June, during which we remember and celebrate the heroic efforts of the class of 1976, which revolted against an evil system that sought to frustrate the efforts of many young people to access education.

The system was designed to black South Africans the “hewers of wood and the drawers of carts”.

READ: You're failing to act - Unisa council member says after resigning

In 2015, another cohort of young people led the Fees Must Fall campaign, whose primary aim was to facilitate what the Freedom Charter terms “opening the doors of learning for all”.

These two protests took place four decades apart, under totally different contexts. The latter happened many years after the demise of apartheid and under a Constitution with a Bill of Rights that provides for the right to education.

In between the two events, and in the name of transformation, many policy and other changes have taken place in the higher education system – and still many hopefuls stand no chance of being gainfully employed.

READ: Businessman 'tortured' by cops trying to link him to murder of Fort Hare VC's bodyguard

In the many years since the dawn of democracy, institutions such as teacher and nursing colleges were closed, technikons converted into what is today called universities of technology (whatever that means) and technical colleges turned into what is today called TVET colleges.

There were also human resource changes intended to make higher education institutions more representative, in line with one of our constitutional imperatives.

As one colleague put it: “When we fought for this 40% gender representation, little did we know that opportunists would use it to their benefit and not the intended objective.”

True to form, just as the struggle against apartheid was hijacked and adulterated by opportunists to advance their self-interests, there was always the risk [that educational transformation would also be hijacked]. Those who masqueraded as liberators later institutionalised looting and the corruption of public resources.

But the fact that opportunists exist cannot replace noble policy objectives.

Not wholly unexpected, someone has used the race card on the issue of whether the independent assessor’s recommendation that Unisa be put under administration should be implemented.

He argues that administrators are only appointed to traditionally black universities.

This tired argument, like the one used to invoke gender to avoid accountability, ignores some very important issues.

The detractor also forgets that Professor Themba Mosia, who assessed Unisa, is black.

READ: Unisa investigation findings 'tip of the iceberg' - says Advocate Modidima Mannya

The important issue here is the plight of the intended beneficiaries of institutions of higher learning. The NSF, Nsfas, Setas and learning institutions have target beneficiaries.

When Youth Day comes on June 16, we should be parading millions of young people who benefitted in real terms from these institutions.

We should be talking about their contribution to significantly reducing youth unemployment and poverty in society. We should be talking about an increase in the national skills base and how it contributes towards meeting the state’s constitutional obligation to protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights.

Instead, we are made to feel guilty that those who have abused race and gender, and have failed us, must not be told off or held accountable because they are either black or of a certain gender.

The policy objectives which must be achieved have now taken a back seat so that we can babysit patent failures in the name of race and gender.

These individuals forget that the damage they cause affects people of their same race and gender.

Unisa is the largest university in South Africa and Africa. Those who say it is too big to fail have a valid point.

In fact, we should not even be talking about the possibility of it failing but of it being the nerve centre of the national effort to address the plethora of our socioeconomic issues.

In this context, to be silent as it is being destroyed by a gang of selfish individuals who have no public interest as their primary objective borders on treason.

The attempts to defend and divert attention from the reality that Unisa and other universities, institutions and agencies in the higher education sector are failing to serve their purpose borders on aggravated loss of moral courage.

Depriving the youth of a proper future at the expense of incompetent, corrupt and shameless frauds cannot, under any circumstances, advance our constitutional imperatives.

Whether it is alleged racism at Stellenbosch, poor management and governance at UCT, or corruption at Unisa or Fort Hare, the bottom line is that self-interests and egos cannot trump the broader national interest.

The higher education sector is becoming wholly reflective of our national problem of impunity and lack of decisive action when wrongdoing is identified.

To imagine that universities and institutions of higher learning, which house the most educated individuals in our society, are experiencing these types of problems represents a real calamity.

In a sense though, this must not come as a surprise. Over the many years in the recent past, this nation has watched helplessly as political thugs and gangs have systematically taken over our country and its institutions.

Despite the many corrective instruments and good policies we have, it is clear that there are failures of governance.

Unisa represents the most aggravated form of poor governance. The fact that its council not only appointed an individual [principal and vice-chancellor Professor Puleng LenkaBula] who hardly met the requirements and failed ensure that she complied with university policies aggravates the matter.

The independent assessor’s findings on the failure of the Unisa council to meet its fiduciary duties and evidence of other malfeasance cannot be defended by invoking the race or gender card.

But the students are the biggest casualty of these failings. It is the singular duty of the government to protect them.

Similarly, if there was corruption in the matter regarding the discretionary placement of a student at Stellenbosch University by rector and vice-chancellor Wim de Villers, the fact that only one student was placed cannot be a defence.

Regrettably, the government appears wholly unable to decisively deal with corruption and unethical conduct. All we hear is that ‘we are studying the report’...

The government appears to believe that the problems will go away on their own – not when damning reports are not acted upon.

The fact that a sector which is meant to play a critical role in addressing a myriad of policy objectives is left on auto pilot suggests that the government does not internalise the long-term impact of its failure to address these issues.

Maybe this year we must postpone the June 16 celebrations and use the day for intense reflection on the future of our youth.

 *Mannya is an attorney, author and public commentator.

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