SA universities: worshippers of rankings, enemies of social transformation

2015-10-16 08:38

South African universities are too obsessed with industry reputation and an ego-boosting spot in global rankings – themselves dodgy – than to locate themselves within the noble struggle for social transformation and the eradication of colonial legacies. Perhaps one may add that this is the overall character of academia – the pursuit of ratings at all (human) costs. Rather than advancing the human project, they use human life as a project.

The ongoing protest at Wits University and all other decolonisation student movements need our support if we are to remind universities of their roles in society. From existing revolutionary theory we learn that if an uprising repeats itself, it represents in all due honesty the will of the masses, who are in this case marginalised, poor, black students.

By assuming the character and behaviour of capitalism, many institutions of higher learning have asserted themselves as enemies of the transformation project. In the so-called Afrikaans universities, alumni groups inject capital into the coffers of these institutions with a clear and loud expectation: reproduce the patterns of ownership, frustrate any progressive thought and put the natives (including their black professors and vice-chancellors) in their birthplace as scattered black spots in the white fabric.

Education thus becomes a commodity priced painfully out of reach of many black students. In an event that black students manage to smuggle themselves into the system through government loans and middle-class ‘privilege’, sophisticated tactics of racism are employed to remind them that they are immigrants in the land that once belonged to their forefathers. Wits University has chosen financial exclusion as its weapon of mass black destruction. Others use cultural dominion, unjustly expressed through language policies, residence traditions and cultural events, to sentence black students to the periphery or leave the salvation doors open for those who want to receive a new identity of white righteousness and assimilate the spirits of the dominant culture. As beginners who have just learned a new cultural language, these black students let go of their mother tongue (culture) to master the newly-acquired benefits of the dominant economic and cultural class.

This deeply entrenched and funded cultural hegemony also permeates scholarly work and policy making. The capitalist class that runs these universities would stop at nothing to further the wishes and aspirations of their colonial forefathers who never saw black people as anything but unworthy citizens of peripheriality.

There are crying class contradictions in universities. While many white students (and a few blacks) complain about inadequate parking spaces, majority of black children of the working class fight not only for access to higher education but such basic necessities as food, shelter and security. Majority of these students are migrants who traversed kilometres in search of a better life; they are victims of the sustained racist spatial designs – apartheid – which condemned black people to remote areas, far from economic activity, resources and opportunities.

Taking into consideration the spatial injustices of our past which were informed by an ill-conceived and brutally implemented policy of apartheid, it is only logical to expect universities to be neutral spaces that embrace all cultures and backgrounds. Given the alarming socio-economic disparities in the country, universities as knowledge hubs should be accessible to all and deliberate steps must be taken by to accommodate these migrant, mainly poor, students.

Language policies that legitimise cultural supremacy and militate against social cohesion must be shredded and discarded in the dustbins of our past.

Curriculum designs that serve to please their Western counterparts at the expense of the African agenda should be reviewed and contextualised.

There is everything wrong with global benchmarking that disregards the local realities. After all, knowledge is produced in order to better the human condition, not to solicit invitations to speak internationally.

Essentially, all I am saying is that most of the problems facing the post-apartheid university would hardly persist if less attention was paid to publicity and rather diverted to solving issues. These days, even the most untransformed and cruel universities are rewarded with a place in the rankings, despite the number of poor students’ dreams such universities have ruined.

Universities must preoccupy themselves primarily with solving pressing social challenges and producing graduates who are equipped with scientific tools of analysis to interpret their immediate surroundings and invent solutions to the identified problematic phenomena. From the bellies of our universities must flow rivers of African intellectualism.

Indeed this is not just a struggle about access to higher education, but the experiences of students in universities – welcoming spaces, shared lecture halls, a commonly understood language of instruction and a united student community, a culture of activism. It is about equality and affordability.

And any kind of elitism, exclusion and violence against poor students must fall.

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