Peter Vale writes an open letter to focus the new incumbent’s priorities and tasks
Dear Mduduzi Manana,
With luck this letter will find you well. Although we have never met, I am taking the liberty of writing to you because of your recent appointment as deputy minister of higher education and training. Many in the national university community have been baffled by the appointment.
It is not surprising: after all, at 28 years old you are the same age as most postgraduate students. Your getting the position at this tender age has led to suspicion.
As you will know, the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) did not receive the news kindly. Its statement in the week of the president’s Cabinet reshuffle said it had “no reasons to believe that [you are] up to the task of being a deputy minister of such a complex and strategic department”.
This letter will not dwell on why it is that many believe higher education would have been better served had the president instead appointed a technocrat with a better appreciation of the complexities of the sector worldwide, as well as a better understanding of the particular difficulties higher education faces in South Africa.
No, this letter is written in the spirit of reaching out to you, a person of the next generation, in the hope that you will want what is best for your own age group.
The gesture should come as no surprise to you. As you will know from your undergraduate studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, university professionals passionately believe that the successor generation can correct the mistakes both of the past and of the present. They try to do this by training all students, especially postgraduates, to search for evidence and apply careful logic and clear-headed argument to solve difficult problems.
It is in this spirit of hope, not criticism, that I write this letter. As a graduate in the humanities, you will know why it is important to begin with history. Universities are South Africa’s oldest lay institutions. The institution of the university in the country predates the founding of the state in 1910. From humble beginnings, universities faithfully sought, through teaching and writing, to provide the human skills and intellectual ideas that have built the very idea of South Africa.
It has been neither a smooth path nor, of course, is it an especially heroic story. Interpretations of South Africa’s reality — indeed, understanding of what it is (or was) to be a South African — have differed since the founding of the University of Cape Town, South Africa’s first university, in 1829.
But although it is true that many of South Africa’s universities, from the 1950s on, taught their students to think that apartheid was the only acceptable way of calling oneself a South African, it was also the universities that, from the 1970s onwards, taught the country’s future professionals to think what was then unthinkable and illegal — that apartheid was wrong and only in freedom could we all fully call ourselves South Africans. Without acknowledging this — a history that has sent graduates from South Africa’s universities to the highest places in the world of letters, business, industry and society across the globe — there can be no understanding of the frustration felt now in many of the country’s universities.
I have spent some time on this because the history I have briefly sketched — a history of the importance of institutions of learning in fostering change and transformation — is so rarely heard these days, especially in government circles. Instead, we still hear threatening echoes of the unhappy past relationship between state and scholarship: universities should be punished, disciplined and controlled.
Why is this important? New work in the field of political science, the discipline you and I nominally share, suggests that the most important factor in promoting both development and democracy is the creation and sustainability of strong and independent institutions. Without them, our colleagues argue, countries fail.
So, if we are to succeed as country and as a people, we need to value the capacity of our universities to teach the best of our young and fearlessly to research, and write about, our ever-complex world.
Unfortunately, there is an immediate and much darker side to this — one you will need to understand. Without good universities South Africa will lose the very best of its young to institutions abroad. And if this happens the understanding of what it is to be a South African will be better outside the country than within it.
Such an outcome would be a failure of both imagination and policymaking, which is why one of your challenges, deputy minister, will be to understand that universities are highly complex institutions.
They aspire to present and represent the highest ideals of humankind while, in their daily routine life, it is indispensable that they are well administered. This last word is crucial: a university cannot and should not be “managed” in the way a business should be.
The university is not in any way like a business, despite the powerful discourses driving government policy in this direction.
Of course, money and budgeting in a university are crucial, but the central mission of the university is not to make a profit, as a business must do to survive. The university’s task is to deliver quality graduates who, if they so wish, can compete in business, or in any of the many fields for which they are trained.
However, delivering quality graduates in South Africa is not easy. There is a simple explanation for it — one that, unlike most matters in higher education, is not clouded by meaningless jargon. It is that, across the board, South African universities cannot produce quality graduates because the public school system, when not wretched, is simply totally wrecked.
To argue, as many do these days, that these are the “only students we have” is both a cop-out and insincere. It is simply a cover to place an increased burden on the universities to teach what should have been taught at school.
How to write, read, count: they are the tasks of “lower” education. But because they have become the tasks of “higher” education, they have not improved the quality of South Africa’s universities; instead, they have burdened them with a cottage industry loosely called “academic support”.
The global aspirations of serious scholarship that, ironically, are caught in empty phrases such as “innovation”, “cutting edge”, “excellence”, are not in the field of academic support. And in this country such support has become an encumbrance: it is now another layer of management that has fetishised its role as essential to scholarship.
The kind of scholarship that counts, however, is deeply embedded in the intellectual complexities of each individual academic discipline.
In terms of this situation, which is the most crucial issue facing South Africa’s universities, you will have to do something that politicians unfortunately find very difficult: you must speak truthfully, because the
very transformation of higher education to build a stronger economy hangs on the iron-clad assurance that the quality of South Africa’s public schools will be guaranteed — not from tomorrow or next week or next year, but from today.
The question you must ask your counterparts in both the department of basic education and the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union is: Why is it that our poorer neighbours — Swaziland and Lesotho, as well as Zimbabwe, which many think of as a “failed state” — produce a better quality of first-year university students than South Africa?
Finally, you will discover that policy priorities in higher education are impulsive rather than consistent. Several years ago the entire system was caught up in the hype of institutional audits. Today, this expensive and time-consuming process has entirely disappeared from the map. And these days we hear much talk of the “differentiation” of higher education: a decade and more ago, we heard only talk of its “homogenisation”.
As you will gather, there is much work to do in this sector and mastering all of it — and much, much more — will be difficult.
But here is an everyday guide to your reasoning: South African higher education needs consistency, not confusion; it needs to be nurtured, not intruded upon; it needs quality, not quantity; it needs a wide-screen vision of a better future, not a narrow version of its past.
Be assured, deputy minister, that the sceptics such as Sasco and those, like me, who believe that the young are our future, will be closely watching you.
Peter Vale is professor of humanities at the University of Johannesburg and visiting professor in the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning at Rhodes University