As President Jacob Zuma's fee-free plan puts universities into a quandary, Jonathan Jansen ponders whether we live in a time of the end of universities. He looks at the history of government's creeping interference in SA's universities since 1994, and the consequences thereof.
Creeping state interference
South Africa's more established universities have a proud tradition of resisting government interference in the management and governance of these public institutions. In its traditional formulation by Thomas Benjamin Davie, a former UCT vice-chancellor, academic freedom means "our freedom from external interference in a) who shall teach, b) what we teach, c) how we teach and d) whom we teach".
Since then, scholars have debated the meanings of academic freedom (especially freedom of speech) and institutional autonomy (a relationship between government and university), but I want to focus here mainly on the state and higher education.
As the major funder of universities – or most of them, anyway – the government has a reasonable interest in how taxpayers' money is spent within public institutions. The government should have an interest in how many universities operate and in which regions of the country.
Through macroplanning, the government should decide on the numbers of engineering schools, medical programmes, teacher education facilities and so on that make sense in terms of national development needs. Universities accept such guidance from the government. But what happens when steering becomes interfering?
Before 1994, the distance between the apartheid government and the liberal universities was crystal clear, since the former pursued racist policies in admissions, appointments, and resource allocations. Yet it has always been a mistake to assume a benevolent state after apartheid.
Indeed, the post-apartheid government has interfered in university affairs in a number of significant ways.
For example, the government pressures universities to extend its influence within their governing bodies. Universities rightly limit the number of government appointments to their governing body to what higher education law allows: three to five members.
Invariably, those external appointments are political activists or union members allied with the [governing] party. Seldom are independent experts appointed, let alone members of the political opposition. Ministerial appointees, as they are called, are often political emissaries commissioned to particular universities for specific purposes. They are not open appointments based on expertise alone.
When some universities informed the minister of higher education that they would stick to three ministerial appointments, they were threatened and told that their positions would be rejected and revisions to their institutional statutes not approved. If these were strictly professional appointments, without political mandates, there would have been no problem.
There is, however, one particular case [in which] the minister can override a university's authority, and that is in the appointment of an administrator.
After a failed attempt to enforce an administrator on one university, the Higher Education Amendment Bill was passed in May 2016, to empower the minister to instruct a council how to act and, if it refused, to dissolve this highest decision-making authority of a university, thereby "infringing [on] the right to academic independence".
The minister's office was unbowed by these incursions into institutional autonomy and its seizure of universities, for these are merely "public institutions . . . subject to the national imperatives of a developmental state".
The government also interferes with universities on transformation. In and of itself, a government enquiry into changes in student and staff demographics is a reasonable action in relation to public institutions.
But Zuma's government went far beyond its authority by setting transformation targets and demanding that these be achieved. A pompously named Ministerial Oversight Commission on Transformation (MOCT) duly delivered an "equity index" to measure transformation at universities, a crude reductionist exercise [that] was rightly dismissed by many in the academic community. Commissions investigating racism and other forms of prejudice were enthusiastically launched.
These actions assumed that institutions themselves did not care about transformation and were not driving the process with serious intent. This was nonsense, but it boosted the political image of ministers as taking charge of recalcitrant institutions.
But the minister of higher education went even further by publishing institutional rankings on transformation achievements – a less than subtle blame-and-shame game in which, not surprisingly, the university led by the MOCT chairman topped the rankings.
A political rallying point inside universities and from the government itself is the need to address the dearth of black professors; a campaign inspired by a series of thoughtful articles in the media by UCT academic Xolela Mangcu. All over the world, creating a diverse professoriate in countries with histories of racial inequality and oppression remains a major challenge.
No matter how hard institutions try to correct this wrong, it takes time, money, strategic commitment, and a good dose of patience; and in a place like South Africa, where the pipeline from school to university is exceptionally weak, it is difficult to raise a productive generation at appreciable speed. But there are few more effective ways to rally hard-line nationalists than by asking the accusatory question: where are the black professors?
I do not know of a single vice-chancellor who would not give an arm and a leg for ten black professors in chemistry and mathematics, or in architecture and anthropology.
But they are simply not there, and they are unlikely to emerge unless the school system is fixed and professorial salaries are raised. And neither of those is likely to happen under a government that simply does not recognise the scale of dysfunction in poor schools, and does little about an institutional crisis in which nobody wants to pay the costs of the higher education that would make this possible.
So what do institutions do, especially when government holds out the funding carrot at the wrong end of the professorial pipeline? They take shortcuts to obtain the money and the prestige that come with additional funding for preparing black and women professors.
It is astounding to observe how black nationalists play the same tragic game that white nationalists played in the apartheid period. In order to boost racial self-esteem, they advance their own kind to professorial positions with the slimmest of curricula vitae and without the weight of scholarship (research publications, scholarly books, funding grants, students supervised and graduated, international esteem, and so on) that normally counts for a professorship anywhere else in the world.
The black universities play this game as if they are merely following a predetermined historical script, while the white universities, under huge pressure from the government, have begun to make those same compromises of principle, especially when black lecturers took to the press during the 2015–2016 crisis period. There is nothing that damages the reputation and credibility of a university more than fake professors. All the postcolonial conditions are in place to ensure that South Africa plays the game like everybody else.
This assumption that "government could do it better" feeds into the current student politics with a vengeance. The ruling party's young student cadres play this card at every university management meeting. Their argument is simple: government needs to intervene in this situation, because universities are "using autonomy" as a smokescreen to remain white. Universities should be whipped into shape and their whingeing ignored when it comes to hiring and promoting black professors.
A student leader at UFS, generally a reasonable fellow, told me he had a solution for the black professor problem. I was alert, eager to learn how we could accelerate the process beyond the successful Prestige Scholars Programme that I had inaugurated to prepare new PhDs for the future professoriate. "I was in the Senate the other day," the student said, "and I saw all these white professors. Why don't we simply replace them?"
I sank back into my chair. "Well," I said, "even if South Africa's labour laws allowed us to do that, who is going to teach medicine, the sciences, and humanities at the levels required?"
Nevertheless, Blade Nzimande, higher education minister and general secretary of the Communist Party, certainly had no qualms in coming up with his own interventions in this regard. First was his relatively innocuous decision to set funds aside for preparing black and women academics for senior positions.
But then he also decided to set up his own National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences for this purpose, despite the work being done in this area by the independent Academy of Science of South Africa and in the universities themselves.
This straightforward interference caused a stir among academics; they saw the breach of autonomy behind the smiling face of authority. One academic raised the question of "whether the humanities and social sciences community intended to hand over the future of [these fields] to regulation by a government ministry".
And then there were the frightening phrases in the minister's rationale for his own academy: to break the authority of "hegemonic ideas" and to rally "progressive academics" behind the cause.
Since when does a university single out ideas, let alone academics, on the basis of a preferred ideology?
There are many other ways in which government has breached the autonomy of universities, from the setting of enrolment targets to taking away the authority of individual universities to manage their student applications, to the illegal pronouncement of the president on fee increases (the zero percent decision).
It is not only that interference in the operations of universities has become routine. It is that in the mind of government, public universities are more and more seen as no different from public entities such as the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Eskom, and South African Airways, whose corrupt and mismanaged operations have caused massive losses to the public purse.
* This is an extract from "As By Fire: The End Of The South African University" by Professor Jonathan Jansen. It is published by Tafelberg.