Great expectations

February 24, 1995

Hopes are pinned on the National Commission for Higher Education says Mala Singh. The academic year is beginning with the recurring nightmare of aspirant students struggling to gain access and managements struggling to maintain institutions.

This goes hand-in-hand with the desperate search for additional sources of financing both for students and institutions as demographic realities and post-election expectations bring thousands of young black people to view higher education as the route to the promised land.

Many institutions have already accepted more students than they can handle. Many of the students are searching desperately for financing to enable them to take up their place.

South Africa has rapidly encountered a problem common in other African countries - mass demand and shrinking resources. Nevertheless, everybody lives in hope that this year (at worst, next year too) will be the last time that issues of access and financing create such volatility and uncertainty.

Their hopes are pinned on the National Commission on Higher Education coming up with an equitable, fundable and systematically coherent approach. As institutions soldier on through various crises while their role, status, function and institutional culture are on the transformation agenda, the commission is in danger of sinking under the burden of expectation.

Its terms of reference are vast. The subtext is a catalogue of all the injustices and incoherences of a system that came into being before apartheid and was grossly aggravated by apartheid. The brief is unambiguous: advising the minister of education on how to create a shiny new system that satisfies the demands of equity, the national development programme, and provides high-quality education and training, that is affordable, integrated, coordinated, accountable and efficient.

The establishment of a commission is no doubt a signal of the importance of higher education. But it is also clear that it will have to take its place within a larger, well-coordinated education system which will itself have to compete with other social needs for public and private funds.

The key issues have not changed since the National Education Policy Investigation, Union of Democratic University Staff Associations Policy Forum and Centre for Education Policy Development investigations. What is different is the urgency. The new government needs to consolidate its legitimacy through delivering its election promises.

The composition of the commission could be seen as an attempt to balance race, gender, political, expertise and stakeholder considerations. It may be that in attempting to mirror the different interests of a government of national unity, compromises may have to be made.

The terms of reference indicate that the commission must formulate a "vision for higher education" which is supported widely. Existing consultative bodies like the Committee of University Principals and the Advisory Committee on Universities and Technikons are themselves under scrutiny and new, more inclusive stakeholder forums are yet to come into existence.

Those in the most privileged part of the higher education system - universities - must be wondering whether they will retain their present "dominant" position or become more integrated in a way that may threaten their specific role in developing a critical intellectual culture. In this respect the RDP could become the foundation for a new orthodoxy by which institutions are brought in line, or the basis of an exciting and creative linkage between universities and broader development needs.

The quality and capacity of leadership within higher education to take their institutions forward and the involvement staff and student organisations will be important factors.

If it keeps its work within 18-months to two-years, the commission will hand in its report as the "honeymoon" period of the government will have given way to increasingly strident demands for the delivery of transformation.

We should not lose sight of the fact that - in a society newly confronted by the challenges of balancing redress, justice and development - people in higher education have been offered the privilege of making a contribution to future higher education policy.

This does not rule out increasing tension and contestation between the state and the sector in the future. For the present, however, we should contribute as substantially as we can.

Mala Singh is professor of philosophy at the University of Durban-Westville.

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