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The Idea Of Scrapping Universities Is Tempting, But...

'It would be hypocritical for those of us who have university qualifications to say that South Africa should forgo universities altogether.'

14/01/2018 06:52 SAST | Updated 14/01/2018 06:52 SAST
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Eish, he actually went there!

Writer and professional communicator Tafi Mhaka succinctly articulated exactly what I (and I am sure many other South Africans) have been thinking: that traditional South African universities are fast becoming a colossal waste of time, because they -- in most cases, save for a few disciplines -- continue to churn out graduates who find themselves ill-equipped for the challenges of the workplace.

The discontent of many university students has been on full display since 2015, and although they chose to voice their frustration and anger in ways that can never be approved by any self-respecting society, their voices were heard and their message has been understood.

The battle cry that rang out from campuses all over South Africa forced all South Africans to reflect on what role university education plays in our society, and whether we as a country are being served well by our academic institutions.

The current cohort of students insists that they are no longer prepared to accept the fact that universities are teaching the same-old, same-old at astronomical cost.

The destructive ways chosen to vent their grievances were alienating and frightening at the same time: alienating, because South Africans did not approve of the senseless acts of violence and vandalism, and frightening to watch some of those destined to be our country's future intellectual elite devolve into little more than poo-throwing thugs with no regard for our mothers and fathers –– the ordinary university workers who had to clean up human waste, which is a carrier of viral and bacterial diseases, often without adequate protective clothing.

To our disbelief and astonishment, their bad behaviour was "rewarded" when President Zuma morphed into Z(S)anta and rode his German-engineered "sleigh" into Nasrec filled with the gift of free university education for poor students -- an undertaking that those who know about these things have assured us South Africa cannot afford.

For a man who does not have extensive schooling and who has proven that a university degree is not a prerequisite to outmanoeuvring one's highly intellectual political opponents, President Zuma surprisingly bowed at the altar of academia and promised free academic degrees.

We must acknowledge that universities play a vital role in our society as institutions where knowledge is created and dispersed while leading the way in cutting-edge research and ground-breaking procedures.

He did this despite the fact that our basic education could use a financial boost to rid South African scholars of the indignity of having to use pit toilets, or the frustration of overfilled classrooms that hinder effective learning.

For what does it mean to have university education for free, when the country occupies the last place on a list of 50 countries in literacy? After all, reading and comprehension are crucial skills needed to succeed at university.

The temptation to suggest that South Africa forgo university education grows when people who completed their university studies use the knowledge they gained to allegedly cook the books or act less than honourably, as we have seen with Steinhoff's Markus Jooste and KPMG SA.

However, despite this temptation, it would be hypocritical for those of us who have university qualifications to say that South Africa should forgo universities altogether –– because it is like setting alight the bridge once we have reached the other side of the river, denying others the experience.

We must acknowledge that universities play a vital role in our society as institutions where knowledge is created and dispersed while leading the way in cutting-edge research and ground-breaking procedures.

Without world-class universities, South Africa cannot remain ahead of the pack, and the country will lose its appeal as an investment destination. Investment in South Africa is crucial, if we are to increase our economic growth and lower our staggering unemployment rate.

Thus it seems as if we are stuck with this elephant -- white or otherwise -- that is the institution of academic learning. However, our challenge remains: how to transform these institutions so that they can serve their students and thus our country better.

The author of the forthcoming book "Dysfunctional Schools in South Africa: Reflections and a Turnaround Plan" once posited an idea that I think has merit.

The role that universities play in South Africa cannot be downplayed.

The idea is that about a third of the present 26 universities (about eight or nine) be designated and supported to become world-class research institutions. Like the traditional universities at present, these institutions will offer undergraduate and graduate degrees that focus on integrating examples and exercises geared towards doing research.

Academic staff would be expected to do research, publish and teach. Entry into these institutions should depend on students' ability and not be solely dependent on qualifying for admission to a bachelor's degree, but on effective screening and aptitude tests that determine capacity to identify problems, come up with solutions and conduct research.

These aptitudes are very different to the "learn, recall and apply" method of testing that currently determines entry into universities. In short, to get students to do research, they would be required to ace the entrance exam in which their aptitudes are determined.

As an enquiring mind and the ability to conduct research are not colour-specific, these universities would accept and nurture the best minds, regardless of background.

One-third of the universities will become teaching universities that specialise in various areas –– such as agriculture and related fields, or education and related fields –– with the primary focus on producing high-quality graduates who, after three years of study, are able and ready to be absorbed into the workforce with the necessary skills and competencies required.

The academic staff at these institutions would not be required to do research or publish (if they did not want to), but they would integrate real-life examples and exercises into their teaching, while considering the life experiences and realities that their students bring.

The undergraduate degrees that these universities produce would have to be as prestigious as any other three-year degree. Entry into these universities would have to take into account the sociopolitical history of the country. Students who graduate from these institutions are likely to excel in any future endeavour.

South Africa can only truly succeed if we value and invest in all our country's human capital. It is only when we value and adequately compensate all work done, whether university-educated or not, that we will prosper.

The rest of the universities (roughly the other third) would be universities of technology. These universities of technology would offer national diplomas and four-year high-quality degrees that incorporate a practical component. Thus technical universities would continue their dual method of training.

The role that universities play in South Africa cannot be downplayed. They historically offered one of very few ways in which non-white South Africans under apartheid could enter the middle class –– because positions in which one could start at the bottom and work one's way up, as was possible in banks or the post office, were reserved for white South Africans.

Nevertheless, our obsession with a university education has reached outrageous proportions. Our oohing and aahing when someone has academic qualifications really must be dialled down –– for even graduates, PhDs and professors only put their trousers on one leg at a time, just like the rest of society.

We must reconsider the disparity in remuneration for work done by graduates and non-graduates, especially if university students want their education free. The reasoning that graduates need to earn more than non-graduates because of the cost of their education would then fall away.

South Africa can only truly succeed if we value and invest in all our country's human capital. It is only when we value and adequately compensate all work done, whether university-educated or not, that we will prosper; for there is dignity in all work –– and we will only become truly human when we value not only graduates, but also those who build our houses, brick by brick, or when we are proud of the plumbers who install and maintain our drainage and sewage systems, or when we appreciate the precious pearls who organise, sweep and clean the homes we leave in a rush every morning, or treasure those who lovingly tend our gardens, regardless of the weather.

Focusing solely on making life easier for those at universities at the cost of the wellbeing of the majority of our people will be detrimental to social cohesion in South Africa.