The future of South African tertiary education?

The original text of this article in The Daily Maverick.

A Higher Education summit hosted by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, is taking place at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology on April 22 and 23. Much of the focus at the summit will be on “transformation”, one of the more flexible words you’ll encounter while working at a South African university. This is saying a lot, especially since many departments – at my university at least – still seem completely enamoured by the liberating brew of postmodernism, which of course allows for infinite lexical flexibility.

Perhaps this is simply another example of political correctness gone awry – we all know that transformation relates primarily to race, but to explicitly say so may be impolitic, in that colour-blindness is a virtue that we’re all meant to be aspiring to, even in cases where economic inequalities premised on race persist. Instead, transformation becomes code for various social issues, and allows us to collapse concerns around equity, throughput, policies on wheelchair ramps, and whatever else does not currently have its own committee under one handy banner.

For example, the most recent message from the Transformation Officer in my Faculty related to the “Executive Secretaries and Personal Assistants International Symposium”, which I had a difficult time relating to anything obviously to do with transformation. But then, perhaps I’m not transformed myself, or perhaps I’m simply insufficiently postmodern.

This is not to say that there’s no value in considering issues to do with transformation – in fact, I’m in full agreement that transformation, carefully defined, is one of the most important things we can discuss in a country with such obvious inequalities. But there needs to be a division of labour here, and universities already have a job to do: that of teaching, and of trying to help students to recover from their OBE lobotomies.

Where university policies and pedagogy are clearly limiting transformation, those certainly need to be redressed – but great care needs to be taken in realising the limits of what one can do in three or four years when students reach you with differing abilities, and where your job is primarily to teach, rather than to assist with social engineering.

One of the stated aims of this summit is to “identify key objectives for the higher education sector”. I’m not sure how many people realise what happens in the average university classroom, or in the offices of academic staff, where one is often made to feel like a client-service representative, where the customer is always right, and their questions always have merit, regardless of whether they have anything to do with your subject or not.

This is a discussion that I have with new students every year: whether they consider themselves to be customers or not. The distinction I’m trying to get them to grapple with is that as students, they are themselves a key determinant of how good the “product” ends up being. In other words, they cannot just place their orders and all expect to get the same result in terms of knowledge acquired.

While there are certainly some aspects of the relationship between educators and students that are analogous to suppliers and customers, it is an incredibly poor model to base one’s academic interactions on, as it encourages passivity on the part of the student, as well as a mindset which focuses on the rights of a student, rather than on their responsibilities.

And part of the problem can be traced back to outcomes-based education, where processes, systems and formulas are put in place in an effort to achieve certain defined outcomes. But one of the negative consequences of such defined structures is a lack of tolerance for ambiguity, and a lack of awareness that confusion can sometimes be productive. Education – at least in the formative years – is not about defined outcomes. It’s about developing a worldview, and a relationship to evidence/data, which allows you to separate quality content from bunk.

So before we try to turn out a worker bee, competent at various defined tasks, we need to first focus on intellectual attributes. Once those are in place, you can choose to apply your intellectual abilities to whatever field is attractive to you. The attributes in question are foundational to learning: critical thinking, close reading, composition and other similarly unfashionable skills. Without these, we are intellectually crippled; no matter how good a stockbroker, lawyer, or politician you may end up becoming. Your career prospects would most likely be capped at becoming a spokesperson for the ANC Youth League, and those jobs never seem to last long.

Part of knowledge-acquisition is an awareness of context. Perhaps part of the answer lies in the fact that students are not encouraged to ask the right questions, in that most of their questions during schooling have been in the pursuit of clarifying something they don’t understand, rather than meta-questions regarding why they should bother to understand it at all, what the purpose of that knowledge is, what it leads to, and so forth. In other words, they assume they are being offered a product, and their investigations start and end with understanding what that product is. Their investigations seldom involve whether it’s the right product, or indeed whether they should consider it a product at all.

Part of what needs to change is for the focus of universities to return to being demanding centres of excellence, rather than the place where overqualified nannies perform the remedial work required as a consequence of poor schooling. This is of course not going to happen, primarily because of political expediency. As a mostly 3rd-world country, we’re in a race with other developing nations to provide the technical labour force for global markets. We also want to fix unemployment problems, and the approach taken at the primary and secondary levels of education seems to be one of trying to quickly and massively empower people so that they can eventually participate in those markets.

Not everyone needs or wants a tertiary education, and this approach presents little obstacle to their prospects – it may well enhance them. But increasing numbers of those who do want a tertiary education arrive at university, only to find that they don’t have the basic skills they need. Numeracy is the issue most often identified here, but the problem is deeper than that, and relates to most forms of critical engagement with any type of data.

The consequence of this is the choice between three broad options: increased failure rates at universities, the lowering of their standards, or for universities to stop imagining themselves as elite institutions, and to instead focus on doing the sort of job that used to be the domain of the technicon, where people went when they wanted more than high school, but not quite as much as what university offered.

Given that State funding to universities is based primarily on throughput, increased failure rates (while maintaining traditional standards) are not really an option. The lowering of standards should not be an option, and is an idea which is routinely met with loud protestations in the academy, despite much corridor consensus that it has already happened.

Or, the universities consent to the notion that education – understood in the context of their (historical) high standards – is no longer their only purpose, and that they also have a transformation job to do. If we choose this route, it is important to realise that it has to involve some dilution of excellence in teaching and research, as resources are being diverted to tasks other than those. The notion that there is no conflict here simply doesn’t wash.

I’m not intending to make a moral judgement on these issues – at least not today. But the future this suggests is one of a future South Africa which enjoys a large and mostly competent workforce, able to fill as many technical and bureaucratic job-shaped holes as there may be available, both here and abroad. But this future doesn’t leave enough room for encouraging students to play the roles of visionaries or leaders. If education becomes mostly about pragmatism, we can hardly blame students for responding to the demands of the market they find themselves in.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.