Transformation demands universities rethink their role

Transformation demands universities rethink their roleSupporters of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement and other students man a barricade at the University of Cape Town last month. Picture: THE TIMES

THE student protests mushrooming across SA in recent weeks reveal a profound malaise in SA’s higher education institutions.

#Feesmustfall is just the latest manifestation of a deeper discontent that has been making headlines at least since the #Rhodesmustfall movement earlier this year. The uprisings underlie a pervasive dissatisfaction with the role of universities in our society that will endure for as long as we refuse to address questions of transformation, equality and opportunity.

For many protesters, this is “a battle of ideas” that aims to “decolonise” education. The intersection of social, racial and class dimensions, epitomised by the slogans “black lives matter” and “we have had enough”, is not incidental. Students demand radical change that can be attained only if universities rethink their role in society.

In his book, The University in Ruins, scholar Bill Readings argues that universities have abandoned their mission to promote knowledge to embrace a narrow concept of “excellence”, based on a technocratic pursuit of competition, profit margins and quantifiable output. In many ways, contemporary universities are run according to the principles that govern our economies. Knowledge has been fragmented with a view to pursuing hyper-specialisation. This has produced results in some areas (with an unprecedented degree of technological advancements), but has profoundly compartmentalised research and training, to the point that many institutions are reproducing “learnt ignorance” rather than comprehensive cultural emancipation.

The infrastructure, architecture and managerial roles have suffered from the same fragmentation. Approaches inspired by new public management that postulates the need to subdivide roles according to portfolios and tasks to be assessed against predetermined parameters of “efficiency”, have further contributed to a system unable to deal with today’s complex challenges.

Students have suffered from this trend. While some may get jobs, they are unable to adapt to the needs of fast-evolving economies and societies. Indebtedness is a real concern that is hardly addressed by the shaky promise of steady employment at the end of the study cycle.

While universities continue to produce degrees, they seem unable to take into account the social dimensions and human conditions affecting students’ lives, for whom pursuing tertiary education can be strenuous. At a recent debate on transformation, students depicted universities as “fake bubbles” that pretend to function according to principles of universality and equity while refusing to see the structural inequalities that undermine the ability of many students to flourish. Like governments and corporations, the success of universities is largely measured against various types of outputs, from throughput to scientific articles and citations.

Global rankings have become a fixation for SA’s universities, forcing management to pursue productivity at all costs, leaving behind those who can’t keep up with the academic treadmill and delaying transformation for the dubious reason that it may undermine the pursuit of “excellence”.

This global competition poses fundamental moral questions when “prestige” comes at the expense of transformative social engagement. It is no coincidence that the news of Stellenbosch University climbing up the global ranks coincided with the documentary Luister, which showed the deep-seated racism still present there.

With a broken economy, skyrocketing unemployment and persistent inequalities across race, gender and class, students are opposing a system that perpetuates the status quo rather than overcoming it.

The time has come to reflect on how universities can become positive agents for change. We must reject the dominant output-driven model to focus on the intersection between social, personal, ecological and economic wellbeing. When it comes to teaching, universities should encourage the integration of curricula, requiring students to straddle disciplines, at least during the undergraduate years. Graduate modules, master’s degrees and doctorates would still be offered to those interested in academic specialisation, but with critical contributions from other streams of knowledge. In particular, the natural and human sciences and applied sciences must strive to ensure collaboration rather than competition.

Teaching and learning must be an emancipatory experience for life, not just to get jobs. The Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics at Rhodes has piloted an innovative teaching module that encourages students to explore the nexus between their moral dimension, psychological predisposition and collective social change. It is a beautiful and fulfilling experience for students, especially in the early years of their academic training, which allows them to deepen their understanding of human behaviour in a way that helps them connect with one another rather than through competitive attitudes.

While recognising the importance of outputs, universities must place more emphasis on the fair distribution of their resources, countering a belief that excellence is synonymous with “bubbles” of specialisation. We need collective leadership and open collaboration that are likely to produce much higher returns than the conventional centres of excellence that absorb much of public funding for research.

In terms of performance, universities will need to wean themselves off international rankings to develop a more multifaceted, “soft” approach to success. Performance indicators should privilege features such as community development, the self-reported satisfaction of students and employees, availability of support services to students and employees and the sustainable use of resources.

Infrastructure design needs to change. Universities have not been designed for collaboration and interaction, let alone to redress inequalities in society. We need open universities, with osmosis between the external environment and internal dynamics. Infrastructure must be welcoming to visitors and students, with many spaces to gather, reflect and interact. University management should be decentralised. A networked university is more likely to adapt to changing needs and encourage innovation than a hierarchical one. Integrated management that elicits the inputs of all stakeholders in a collective leadership approach through dialogues and consultations, would help turn our universities into laboratories of social innovation.

To paraphrase Readings, I would argue the time has come for students, lecturers and all those interested in the future of education to reimagine the future, without concession to the narrow pursuit of output-driven competition or recourse to nostalgia. We need to come out of our professional shells to build collectively a more fulfilling and relevant education experience for all.

  • Fioramonti is professor of political economy at the University of Pretoria and a member of