A wealth in common

August 8, 1997

The university of the future

There is something daring, even absurd, about a South African response to Dearing, a major educational report from a country that has been a founder member of higher education since the Middle Ages.

Two things make me bold. The first is that South Africa has recently published its own quite visionary report on higher education. The second is that I take seriously the idea of our common wealth in education. The Commonwealth's educational development has been shaped and misshapen by colonial metropolitan influences. Thus the imprint of the universities of the United Kingdom is everywhere evident in South African higher education.

Further, I would say that the challenges to universities in the face of globalisation, despite vast differences of wealth, are surprisingly universal. Thus it is a matter of degree rather than difference that leads countries to place more or less emphasis on diversity and access, on the proportion of government subsidy, the importance of research or the development of teaching.

Perhaps most important, all of us in higher education are constantly challenged to prove that we are an individual, social or industrial good. Any South African who knows anything about higher education would think the Dearing report a gift from heaven. Most of the matters which our own National Commission on Higher Education reported last year are very much the same as those addressed by Dearing. The context, however, is quite different and it may be healthy to consider why people in South Africa would be so happy.

Let us start with the students, since they seem to be bringing the most political heat to the debate. In South Africa students have been paying fees for as long as I can remember, and they pay a lot more than Dearing is recommending. Where I work, at the University of Natal, about 30 per cent of the institution's revenue comes from fees. The fees vary hugely from institution to institution and every year each institution's management finds itself in heated debate with student representatives about what increases are reasonable or whether any increase is reasonable in an inflationary environment.

A vast majority of students cannot afford to pay fees and their parents are financially constrained by the simple exigencies of survival in a country where unemployment runs at approximately 35 per cent. The government does have the beginnings of a national student loan fund but it can only afford a limited allocation to such a fund, so thousands of students are assessed and only the most needy and academically successful get a loan. Some institutions have allocated money to financial aid to students and have, because the amounts cannot cope with the need, not only provoked further campus disturbances but also undermined their own viability. "Financial exclusion" is probably the most politically hot issue and it causes the most unpleasantness - and sadness - in the system.

South African students do know, however, that a higher education experience, even though it saddles them with a very large debt, is better than no opportunity at all, and they lobby actively to increase the number of students able to access loans. Students in the United Kingdom do not know how lucky they are.

UK students are not only lucky by virtue of the fact that they have easier access to funding, but also by virtue of the fact that there are so many places available in the sector. While our country wasted millions on propping up a stupid and cruel apartheid system, countries like the UK were able to spend money on building up an excellent system, a system where "a third of young people now go into higher education from school and college" and Dearing can happily recommend that the proportion be increased to 45 per cent.

The "massification" of higher education that one hears about all over the worldis still one of South Africa's dreams. Indeed there are few countries in the world where it is not a dream, and a good many of those countries are members of the Commonwealth.

Academic staff should be pleased that good teaching is to be more valued and that every assistance will be given to acknowledge and improve it. No particular effort of this sort is being made in South Africa. An institute of teaching and learning, where innovations in teaching practice can be funded and individuals' merits assessed, is a step forward. There is a danger of some kind of uniformity creeping in, but I have great faith in academics and do not see this as a very real possibility.

What I do consider possible is that the report's suggestion that there needs to be a "radical change in attitudes to teaching" will fall on deaf ears. Academics seem enormously resistant to change in this respect. All the wonders of information technology, all the research about the efficacy of talking at large numbers of students gathered together in large venues, all the changes in the composition and diversity of the student body - none of these has persuaded the average academic to change to a more flexible and mixed mode of delivery. It may be that Dearing's suggestions about performance management will help, but it may well reward only those who are already committed teachers.

Academics should also be pleased that there is such a strong endorsement for an investment in research equipment and other research infrastructure. UK researchers have proved their worth and attract research students and funders from all over the world. The least that can be done is for their efforts to be acknowledged and for them to be properly equipped to continue the tradition.

Dearing recognises that academics should be paid in line with the private sector. This is long overdue. With all the recent changes, higher education is hardly the attractive ivory tower it used to be and fewer and fewer young people see it as an attractive career option. The situation is much worse in South Africa.

I am not sure that the unions in the UK that bargain for higher education staff are going to be pleased with the suggestion that central pay bargaining is to be reconsidered. It is extraordinarily difficult to make a case that all staff in all parts of the country should be paid the same. Living costs are different by region and economic circumstance, and individual institutions (often large employers in any one region) should be able to bargain with their staff.

That is what happens in South Africa, although not all the staff agree that it is satisfactory. In particular the academic staff find it unsatisfactory. They find themselves in bargaining forums with all other levels of staff and find it very difficult, especially if their local representatives are not experienced at negotiation.

This is also true of management at institutions. Many a local protest (often unpleasant and resulting in damage to property and relationships) is the result of poor negotiating skills, poor communication by management and an inadequate understanding of the financial realities of the institution on the part of union officials.

Employers should be pleased with the Dearing report. Their message about the value of work experience is heard and their requirements spelled out. They are, however, going to be asked to put their money where their mouths are. Work experience cannot be provided without their assistance in devising schemes for making this operable. There are many excellent examples in the country and they can be made to work elsewhere.

In South Africa the proportion of unemployed, and often unemployable, people in the market is so large that it is a problem worthy of attention on its own. To expect employers to take on students as well would not be possible on a large scale. We are working, at the University of Natal at least and at a few others, to require some community service of students. Given the size of the non-government organisation sector, this may be achievable. NGOs are also employers and it is important that degree offerings take into account that there may well be more graduates ending up in this sector than the business sector.

People in higher education management should be pleased that there has not been a drastic change to institutional governing structures. In South Africa, a new democracy, every role player wants a part in the decision-making structures of the institutions and indeed in the system. Many institutions already had student and staff representatives on their main decision-making committees, but the National Commission and subsequent proposed legislation takes the idea of "cooperative governance" much further in their recommendations for institutional governance. So-called "institutional forums" are required in terms of the legislation and these forums must consist of representatives of all constituencies.

At the University of Natal we already have in place a broad transformation forum and there is a deal between senate and council that any recommendation coming from this forum will either be approved or sent back with cogent reasons if not approved. The terms of reference of the forum are very wide and virtually any matter may be put on the agenda if members consider it worthy in the transformatory sense.

Many of the members of such forums are not very familiar with university procedures and structures, and it is very time consuming, but important, for management to engage with this exercise so that people learn how a democratic society functions.

However, in the context of a university, some people, students in particular, resist the idea that senate members have the last word on matters of academic importance and that council members (who have joint and well as individual fiduciary responsibilities) have the final say in financial matters. Endless hours are spent on procedural matters rather than more important process matters and substantive items. It is a learning experience for all and accepted as important, but it is difficult.

Dearing does not suggest there is any reason for change in the way that higher education institutions govern themselves. Is this an issue being swept under the carpet, or a silent tribute to the sterling qualities of higher education management in the UK?

Dearing did see higher education as having to play "a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society", and since my experience of universities is that they are dominated by male, white professors who have a profound disdain for the opinions of any but their own (all the while asserting the collegiality of universities) I am somewhat puzzled by this.

Dearing's proposal that governing bodies should achieve greater "clarity and effectiveness" and review their own performance from time to time can hardly be challenged. However, in South Africa prominent people are not queuing to be on our councils and I doubt a requirement for continuous review would encourage more of them. I do think it will make it more difficult to get "the wise and the good" (but not necessarily the amazingly noble) to participate.

Finally, I still believe that the report of South Africa's NCHEis a visionary document, almost more challenging in its questioning of fundamental issues of intellectual and cultural identity than the Dearing report. It is perhaps worth contemplating whether the diaspora can supersede the metropole in vision if not, at this stage, implementation.

Brenda Gourley is vice chancellor of the University of Natal, South Africa.

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