Can South Africa afford five Afrikaans universities, asks Willie Esterhuyse. Michael is a black student from a rural area in the Transkei. During the holidays he ploughs with oxen and herds his family's cows. He is a third-year commerce student. His greatest desire is to graduate and find good employment.
Financial constraints means he lives in a squatter hut in the black township of Kaya Mandi outside Stellenbosch. He cannot afford all his books. A helpful librarian from the town library procures some of the textbooks on loan. Over weekends Michael works as a gardener to supplement his funds.
He moves among three worlds: the traditional rural area, a squatter camp and a university. Stellenbosch is home to one of South Africa's most prominent universities, where more than 14,000 students are registered but Michael is not one of them. He does not understand Afrikaans and is therefore attending the University of the Western Cape.
There are a myriad of Michaels who want to come to Stellenbosch. However, the medium of instruction, its geographical location, a lack of funds and particular entrance requirements prevent them from doing so. They can, however, gain entrance to other universities.
Afrikaans universities are accused of using the medium of instruction and entrance levels to remain predominantly white. This criticism does not always hold water. But given the apartheid past it carries some political and social clout.
The crucial question is whether there will be political, social and academic space for Afrikaans universities, and particularly, how many Afrikaans universities the country can afford.
The discussion surrounding the future of Afrikaans universities is linked to the medium of instruction. This, in turn, relates to the constitution of the student corps, the profile of lecturers and administrative staff and the constitution of the university council.
These categories are overwhelmingly white and Afrikaans. In some cases they are also predominantly male.
The language issue is further complicated by the fact that, during apartheid, Afrikaans universities conveyed an image of institutionalised support for the government. Their contribution to the great debate on academic freedom and institutional autonomy was minimal. Hence, their current appeal to these values lacks credibility.
The medium of instruction is not discussed within a strict academic and cultural context. It has acquired a political colour and this will remain the case for some time to come. This may have restrictive consequences for the right and preference of Afrikaans students to be tutored in their mother tongue.
Besides the social and political reasons for according the language issue centre stage, there are a number of economic reasons. Neither the Afrikaans community nor the private sector is capable of generating enough funds to sustain all the Afrikaans universities in their current form.
State subsidies for universities have decreased by almost 20 per cent. It is questionable whether South Africa, given the composition of its population, finances, socio-economic and technological needs as well as its position in southern Africa, can afford five Afrikaans universities: Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Orange Free State, Stellenbosch and the Rand Afrikaans University.
Social, political and economic pressure is already having an effect on Afrikaans universities. However, it is much slower and on different levels than in the case of their English counterparts. This is probably one of the reasons why Afrikaans universities do not (yet) experience the problems English universities have to deal with.
While English-language universities are becoming more "black", Afrikaans universities are exhibiting a tendency towards dual-medium instruction. The University of Pretoria has already made provision for additional courses in English if warranted by student numbers. Some postgraduate courses are only presented in English.
Potchefstroom University (for Christian higher education) will most probably opt to retain its Christian character instead of its medium of instruction if it has to make a policy choice. The Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg, which attempted but failed to remove "Afrikaans" from its title, exhibits a similar tendency.
This also holds for the University of the Orange Free State, which is becoming more multi-cultural. Nevertheless, its Afrikaans university council intends to preserve a "core culture" (Afrikaans-Christian), citing the Catholic University of Leuven as a relevant precedent. However, it is unlikely that this will succeed. The analogies to Leuven and other universities cannot survive in the socio-political context of South Africa.
In the medium term, the predominant tendency is towards the gradual evolution of a dual-medium character. As the student composition, personnel and management of these traditional Afrikaans universities undergo change, one will witness a different trend: alternative mediums of instruction and a form of linguistic pluralism.
No Afrikaans university will be able to teach in Afrikaans alone. Certain traditional Afrikaans universities will become more English than others. Some may become mostly English. At least two will remain predominantly Afrikaans.
The University of Stellenbosch, located in the Western Cape with its large group of Afrikaans-speaking coloured people, occupies an interesting position in the language debate. Before Nelson Mandela's government came to power, the university had its medium of instruction legally entrenched. Political activists accused the university of taking this measure to remain exclusively white.
Against this it has to be stated that, owing to its location within the Western Cape, the University of Stellenbosch draws very few black students. White and coloured Afrikaans-speaking students form the majority, with many coloured students electing to attend Stellenbosch because of their linguistic heritage.
Although it will probably take longer, the tendencies that have emerged at other Afrikaans universities will also appear at Stellenbosch. It is unavoidable that English will feature as a medium of instruction, as is already the case at the faculty of forestry and the business school.
Besides language, issues that will determine the future of Afrikaans universities include their relevance to the broad South African community, the democratisation of the universities and their relationship with the government. These are important to both the rhetoric they use and the image they project.
Their relevance will depend on which courses they run and their content, involvement with the broader development problems of the country and the continent, and research priorities.
Afrikaans universities will not survive while clinging to a parochial and exclusive culture. Even less so with a one-sided emphasis on excellence. This emphasis does not carry much political punch in South Africa as, unfortunately, it is interpreted as a measure to maintain the status quo.
Even the ideal of becoming the Oxford or Harvard of southern Africa is a piece of rhetoric that conjures up political images of white elitism and exclusivity.
Afrikaans universities have attempted to maintain their relevance on a variety of fronts.
Stellenbosch, for instance, has introduced a course in value studies in order to advance the process of democratisation, the strengthening of civil society and nation building.
The University of Pretoria reaches out to Africa via agriculture, to name but one course.
But internal democratisation and relations with the new government are problem areas. An influential segment of the white Afrikaans community places a higher premium on order than on freedom.
Universities are expected to function as examples of discipline. Democratisation that disturbs order is not regarded with favour. Hence a gradual and piecemeal approach to change is seen as preferable.
Relations with government against a background of institutional transformation and affirmative action are sensitive. Institutional autonomy for Afrikaans universities will not provide a safeguard against political pressure and state intervention and a legalistic approach will prove of even less value.
The greatest challenge remains that of giving substance to a relationship of participatory democracy and institutional co-operation between the state and universities.
The question of standards is important. A definition of standards and who decides that definition still has to be clarified. But in emphasising standards Afrikaans universities may also be protecting established interests and furthering exclusion. The standards debate raises a variety of issues: academic, political, socio-cultural issues that influence the debate about standards, financial res-ources and the quality of management.
Patterns of co-operation among English and Afrikaans universities will promote university development in South Africa.
The importance the new government attaches to universities in the reconstruction and development of the country is decisive to the future of Afrikaans universities.
Willie Esterhuyse is professor of philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch.