Valued for access or attributes?

September 19, 1997

What is the societal function of universities? Equal and better access is supposed to level the educational terrain but how does this manifest in what Carol Schneider calls the public square or what others have called the civil or public domain? She says we ought to have "significant and substantial experiences of engaging with diversity issues as preparation for civic engagement and social responsibility". In this view, access and participation are contained in the sphere of educational diversity or what one might term second-generation educational rights.

This is not to suggest that equity is not still a primary intention of access, but rather that the pursuit of diversity is now generally seen as intrinsic to achieving equity and participation. Further, that the pursuit of diversity within universities is key to the way they perceive their relation to society and is critical to their survival. This simplistic description does not take account of great differences between the contexts of institutions themselves or the economies and polities in which they are located.

In South Africa, so newly democratic, access issues stem from a fierce determination to be as democratic as possible and make our fledgling democracy work. Historian Charles van Onselen has recently suggested that South Africans might be wise to re-conceptualise the conventional wisdom that our universities reflect global patterns of massification - that is, that the massive expansion of student intake is essentially a correlative of the demands of industrial and post-industrial societies for new kinds of knowledge and labour. He suggests that the pervasive student riots and protests are not just the consequences of adjustment after apartheid but also of a protracted feudalism binding young people in a prolonged commitment to an extended family, and of an unusually large youthful population - possibly half the population being under 20.

According to Van Onselen, "when these two facts - the preponderance of young people and their social commitment to the extended family - are inserted into a context of acute rural poverty, low economic growth, an unemployment rate of 35 per cent, large-scale underemployment, and a rapidly changing education system, there are consequences which extend well beyond the mere quantitative dimensions envisaged in the proposed 'massification' of tertiary education ... For thousands of black South Africans, access to tertiary education has become the difference between having a roof over your head and being homeless, between being fed half of the year or starving, between owning some clothing and being decked out in rags, and between meeting social commitments by sending home small amounts of cash to your family, or joining the ranks of those who are fully unemployed."

Van Onselen's analysis has been challenged. Yet the arguments do point to a cluster of problems related to access that will continue to beset universities wherever there is a tightening of the pursestrings. Financial constraints mean that issues of access will overlap with ones of social welfare.

In their book on open access at the City University of New York (CUNY), Changing the Odds, Lavin and Hyllegard say: "Times of scarcity intensify debates about how resources should be distributed. Those who are more privileged often seek to derogate those who have less as undeserving of support. In this perception CUNY's effort is treated as if it were a failed welfare entitlement programme left over from the bureaucratically bloated days of the Great Society."

Most of us here would probably resist the idea that universities could or should be diluted into just one more of the many kinds of higher education institutions that exist today. Yet, unless we find and passionately defend distinguishing characteristics, we may have to look beyond the transformation of universities to the possibility of their vitiation and possible reconception.

That, it seems to me, may happen despite universities, rather than because of them. It may be that diversity both of institutions and within them, coupled with increasing trends towards individual rather than social responsibility for education, may atomise rather than unify societies. Such a scenario suggests a radical reformulation of who and what constitute societies let alone universities. It is as though the atomisation of work allowed by technology will be reflected in the individualisation of learning. Indeed the idea of a learning market in which individuals take responsibility for their own learning is beginning to hold sway over that of a learning society.

Can universities act as a countervailing, democratising force against the self-interest of the market despite the fact that they will have to be increasingly market-oriented in order to survive? Are we to become servants of our country's economies or nurturers of rounded civically-responsible citizens and sites of reflective thinking? Will we continue to worry about what makes someone educated or will we perforce lapse into higher education profiteering? What will make us viable economically? Is profitability an appropriate question for educators to ponder?

I assume that there is or should be an ethical impetus behind the increasing of diversity, access, participation or whatever we may call it. Further, I would say that it is this ethical drive, rather than market or government pressures, that universities need to be concerned with. In this view diversity is necessary because it is just and compassionate; because it challenges orthodoxies and stereotypes; because it creates new ways of relating and associating, discovers new circuitries for the mind. In this view then, ethically driven access and diversity are not national political programmes or economic multipliers. An ethical view of access is perforce a global view.

I do not really believe that the traditionalists in our midst are the enemies of promise or fortune. Nor am I too concerned if universities survive in their archaic form or as retooled enterprises fitted for productivity beyond the millennium. What I would not want to live with is to find myself defending the gateway to economic, technological or cultural advancement and productivity if it meant that those who go through the gate are not properly equipped to engage with the diversity of poverty and wealth, despair and beauty, and to live as mediators and interlocutors of difference and disparity. Our doors must be open at the entry point, but it is by the attributes of those who leave that we will be valued.

Brenda Gourley is vice chancellor of the University of Natal.

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