South African universities: common problems but no common solutions

SOUTH AFRICA
Universities are in the grip of a torrid period of change and disquiet. Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Students at South Africa’s universities are starting the 2017 academic year with unfinished business: demands dating back to the middle of 2015 that include scrapping tuition fees and decolonising higher education.

These demands are far reaching. Essentially students want universities to change the way they perform their three key functions: teaching, generating new knowledge and contributing to solving social problems. They also want government to support this process of transformation.

So far, the government has treated each demand as distinct from the other. It has focused largely on the fees issue. Its current strategy assumes that this issue can be dealt with most efficiently through centralisation. It’s proposing to create an entity that draws on the expertise of the financial industry and can achieve economies of scale by centralising the application process. This body also streamlines the disbursement of funding and collection processes. It takes these functions away from individual universities.

Such an approach has two consequences. It limits each university’s ability to make its own decisions about how to allocate bursaries, grants and scholarships among the students it admits. This, in turn, may affect curricula and teaching decisions.

It also allows government to leave the other more complicated aspects of transformation to other stakeholders – confident in the knowledge that if things take an unsatisfactory turn, it can pull the purse strings to bring students and university management back into line.

This is a short sighted, unsustainable approach. In reality the financial, institutional and pedagogical aspects of transformation are interlinked and interdependent.

Complex, interlinked issues

Transformation is a complex issue that can only be dealt with holistically. It also costs money. Universities’ teaching and management practices cannot be transformed without taking their financial situations into account.

For example, decolonised education will require revised curricula, new teaching materials and possibly new teaching methods. University managers will have to think through how implementing these new approaches will affect their management, hiring and budgetary decisions. Will their research agendas have to change – and if so, how? What about their management practices?

The way in which students are selected and bursaries, scholarships and loans allocated is another factor to consider in designing and implementing this transformation process. It will influence hiring decisions, teaching assignments and pedagogical choices.

A shared goal

Amid this complexity, two things are clear.

First, all stakeholders have an underlying, shared goal: building a national university system that satisfies two requirements. All qualifying students should have equal access to affordable university education. The system must provide the high quality educational and research services needed to build a more equitable society.

Second, although universities face common problems and should be working towards a common goal, they cannot be expected to conform to a common solution. There is not one correct way to the shared goal. Each university, based on its own circumstances, will have to design and implement its own path to this destination. Its approach to transformation will be influenced by its history under apartheid; its student body’s and staff complement’s racial, class and gender composition; its institutional culture; its existing areas of teaching and research excellence. Other factors are at play too. Each university differs in its relationship with its alumni; its financial capacity; its past efforts at transformation and its strategic vision of its role and responsibilities as a South African university.

An institution’s approach will also be shaped by the manner in which and the extent to which management incorporates all members of the university community – students, academic and support staff, parents and alumni – into planning and implementing its transformation process.

Universities’ engagement with their external actors also matters. For example, universities can share information with each other and learn from each other’s successes and failures. They can also use their existing international networks to learn from universities in other countries that have addressed similar issues. Where appropriate, resources can be pooled and joint efforts launched to raise tuition funds, develop new teaching materials and promote research.

These processes will look different at each of South Africa’s 25 public universities. It is the end goal that’s universal.

Autonomy is crucial

It is in all South Africans’ interests to encourage the government and other external stakeholders to support the construction of an equitable, productive and sustainable national tertiary education system.

However, it is also crucial to ensure that, within this framework, university communities are given – and utilise – the autonomy to design and implement their own customised approaches to transformation. The country’s future success, and that of its young people, may depend on it.

The Conversation

Danny Bradlow's SARCHI chair is funded by the NRF.