The student walkout, a sign of universities in decline?

Written by: Mario du Preez

Most people, including many who have never embarked on the higher education journey, would instantly recognise the procedures of the mise-en-scène: a disconsolate professor standing at the dais staring up at the terraced lecture hall, whilst rowdy students get up from their seats with some wildly tossing examination papers in the air, some mounting desks, others dancing, and a few defiantly revealing their crib notes, previously ensconced in their brassieres. Slowly the venue drains of life as throngs of chattering students make their way to the exits. You would be forgiven if you thought these were scenes of celebrations acted out by those who have just written an examination. Not so fast. This is not a celebration but a protestation and the students are leaving before the examination has properly commenced. It appears the unthinkable has happened: students are boycotting the examination because, allegedly, the questions asked were considered too difficult.

Unfortunately, this is not a fictional account or a staged theatre performance, since third-year Education students at the University of Limpopo did in actual fact ‘perform’ an en-masse walkout from a Philosophy of Education examination. Conflicting reasons for this exodus have emerged. The scenes were captured by the omnipresent cell phone videographer and subsequently posted on social media, and in no time went viral, as they say. As with many other things in South Africa, all is not what it seems. A new dimension was added viz. claims that there were errors in the paper handed out, at least on the cover. The University has also threatened the offending students with disciplinary action and scheduled a rewrite of the examination. But maybe the student walkout and the claims of academic incompetence are two sides of the same coin. Which coin? Well, the slow but perceptible demise of South African Universities. This article aims to discover the possible reasons for this demise but also serves as an expression of my sorrow at witnessing this inevitable and unsustainable path, after all, I spent 21 years in the academe.

How did we get here, you may wonder? To answer this question, first consider this: although a university can, ironically, be viewed as a kind of central planning unit, most universities also encourage a steady amount of democratic involvement by those who are affected, namely faculty members and students. In other words, administrative decision-making does not mean that the producers (read: lecturers) and consumers (read: students) are discounted. Faculties normally exert their influence by playing a major role in deciding (1) what degrees are to be awarded, (2) what courses are to be offered, (3) what the course content will be (in many cases, in lieu of the requirements of professional bodies, if applicable, or preferably aligned with that offered by peer universities), and (4) who is to be employed and sacked. Most, if not all, universities I am aware of also have an administrative instrument which accommodates democratic participation. In addition, many universities, faculties and departments, for example, encourage student feedback through course reviews. Student critiques, albeit not normally pivotal, often impact the choices made regarding retaining lecturing staff or offering modules. It is widely acknowledged that active student input makes the student feel both more involved and motivated and has a positive impact on the quality of decisions regarding course content, specifically, and faculty, generally.

The harsh reality is, however, that since the Fees-must-fall protests (and maybe a bit before then even), students have come to dominate, rather than merely influencing the decision-making process at universities, and the faculty, as a decision-making unit, in my experience, has become higher education’s ugly stepchild, often maligned and mostly ignored by university management. In many instances, faculty meetings have descended into mere rubber-stamping rituals, required to give credence to top management’s authoritarian views and policies (which are mostly informed by Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) apparatchiks). As an academic, one is no longer allowed to presume that the student as a consumer lacks complete information. In many cases, the faculty’s information and experience advantage over that of students is simply ignored. In the worst-case scenario, it appears we are headed for a situation where the curriculum is set by a popularity ballot and the faculty managed by student proxy, instead of via the application of pedagogical principles and collegial engagement.  I think this matter deserves to be better remembered.

Far from remedying the situation, the government has aided and abetted in the rise of the deafening student voice and the silencing of the faculty voice. This is mainly due to the implementation of top-down, centrally controlled, DHET policies and a laxity in dealing with student discontent and rebellion (which, in extremis, results in staff intimidation). Maybe the ANC realises the importance of wooing the student vote (the EFF certainly does), after all, universities are places where many future politicos are shaped and moulded, or alternatively, the erstwhile liberation movement remembers the Paris student protests of 1968 spearheaded by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, aka Danny the Red, which led to irrevocable societal change and the collapse of De Gaulle’s government. Regardless of rationale, government intervention under the guise of exacting public accountability (what some would call ‘state steerage of the system’) has undermined institutional autonomy. Central planning via government fiat, as carried out by the DHET, has choked democratic participation and collegiality and has almost completely silenced the academe (very few outspoken academics remain for fear of reprisal).

Great uncertainty was also caused among academia by the popular new theme in SA universities, namely ‘decolonising education’, albeit that many supported its adoption. What does it mean? How do we implement it? Where do we find the decolonised content? And so forth. I cannot answer any of these questions with any measure of confidence. I did, however, hear a succinct definition of it recently: ‘By this is meant a supply driven change aimed at presenting knowledge of the world through an African lens for an African audience’. I have also been told that one dare not question its wisdom but yet it has produced its fair share of sceptics and agnostics. One such non-believer, whose had a long and distinguished academic career, recently expressed his scepticism as follows: ‘The 60 000-dollar questions are whether it is wisdom and if there is a demand for it’. On both counts we’ll have to wait and see.

What next you may ask? Well, it is entirely probable that faculties will soon find themselves reducing assignments, setting ‘student-friendly’ tests, and awarding all firsts – a state of affairs most observers would regard as a debasement of the educational method. Moreover, given the average South African university’s student body’s penchant for liberal doctrines, in many cases the communist canon, and the government’s ever-ready capitulation on student-driven university changes, even if deleterious, a reformation of the higher education industry, resembling that which took place as part of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (CR), is not that far-fetched. (I am sure that many young student activists are well versed on this topic and that some, maybe even many, are secretly hoping for this type of transformation).

A reminder: the CR inflicted severe criticism on the prevailing higher education establishment. As part of this critique, it was argued, for example, that college entrance examinations discriminate against peasant children since their rural schools and home environments are incapable of preparing them to compete against urban children. (It is dead easy to replace the words ‘peasant children’, ‘countryside’ and ‘urban children’ with ‘children from previously disadvantaged households’, ‘townships’, and ‘children from privileged households’, respectively.) In response, the CR eliminated entrance examinations – it was reasoned that education’s raison d’etre was not to promote some particular individual’s career, but to school people infused with the spirit of community service. At the same time, the curriculum was changed radically, course examinations were abolished, and the importance of regular practical work as part of education was amplified. With respect to the latter point, it was felt, erroneously, that professional skills could be enhanced simply by apprenticing graduates to contemporary practitioners. The criticism of examinations mainly revealed a belief that these assessments were congruent with the individual-career alignments of capitalist society but not with socialism’s collective-cooperative ethos. The purveyors of the CR believed that examinations encouraged students to compete against one another instead of working collectively towards the achievement of common goals, and they caused a division between students and teachers as well as among one another. In addition, there was a large-scale politicisation of the average student’s life and lecturers who attempted to preserve academic standards were accused of being capitalist-roaders (i.e. counter-revolutionaries). In the final analysis, the Cultural Revolution educational system produced a poorly educated generation due to the abolition of examinations and the over-emphasis of political norms for entry to and advancement in the system.  A sign of things to come? Maybe.

Even if the voice of the faculty is restored to its rightful place, and even if students are once again consigned to the role of knowledge seekers, shrinking university subsidies (based on outputs) still confront the higher education sector – subsidy levels have fallen in real terms over the last decade. As a result, administrators have been forced into running universities like businesses, both in terms of resource allocation and human resource issues. This has done untold harm. Faculties, schools and departments are now governed by a market mechanism more than anything else and this has led to the expansion of popular courses and the neglect, at best, and elimination, at worst, of unpopular ones, inter alia. The latter courses, in some cases, form part of the qualifications South Africa’s labour market desperately needs.

Coupled with falling subsidies, student enrolment has sky rocketed without the commensurate increase in teaching facilities, like class rooms, digital equipment and staff. Student-to-staff ratios have ballooned, in fact, student enrolment has increased by 32.5 percent from 2006 to 2015 (i.e. it increased from 700 000 to about a million in 2015). Teaching staff have seen their flexible working hours all but disappear (the only ‘perk’ many felt the job still offered vis-a-vis the private sector). Furthermore, they have been subjected to private sector-type performance evaluation (which is almost meaningless in higher education due to the difficulty in measuring outputs, for a start) and research quantity and quality has suffered as evidenced by the drop in worldwide university rankings. Of our top universities, only the University of Johannesburg managed to retain its position in the 551 to 600 range, and our top-rated university, the University of Cape Town, has dropped out of the top 200.   (I suspect this free fall will continue unabated).

In fact, performance evaluation has had the undesired, paradoxical, but predictable side-effect of reducing the very thing it was intended to enhance, namely the quality of the outputs. In short, under-the-cosh lecturers have dumbed down their offerings so as to improve their throughput rates – lecturers providing comprehensive what-to-study lists (what students like to refer to as ‘a scope’) have now become the norm, with some offering dead give-aways by severely slashing the amount of examinable work. Many lecturers have also abandoned the profession – some have gone into the private sector, whilst others – mostly middle-aged academics – have gone overseas. This has resulted in both a loss of institutional memory and a vacuum in terms of mentoring young, recently qualified staff members, as many older faculty members have since retired or are close to retirement age. Unlike overseas universities, the retention of older, retired academics is not encouraged, it’s frowned upon.

Ah but, my friends and comrades, have I unearthed all the underlying reasons for the downward quality trajectory of our beloved institutions of higher learning? I remain unconvinced. Maybe there are other deep-seated issues around the altered supply of and demand for academics, for example. The answers to this question now appear very complex and maybe too formidable to be dealt with sufficiently in one sitting. But at least we’ve made a start.

What can be done? First, a more equitable balance between public accountability (where government acts as the sole trustee of the public good) and institutional autonomy (academic freedom as defended by university senates) should be re-established. Second, serious intervention is required to re-balance involvement from below (i.e. student participation) with expertise, as epitomised by faculty, in reaching organisational decisions at the South African university. Finally, government needs to commit more money to higher education, a lot more, and I don’t mean spending increases to realise ‘free’ higher education (this will happen in any case). Higher education needs more money to improve and expand teaching facilities, reduce student-to-staff ratios, fund research, and to enable the payment of competitive academic salaries so as to attract the best local and international talent. With so many competing social demands on the government purse – falling tax revenues, a rise in populism, and a solidly entrenched ideology amidst the ruling class – I doubt whether any of these prescriptions will be considered. I am not alone in this belief as evidenced by a growing number of parents sending their children to overseas universities, and the many more who threaten to do so. Fair enough, but remember it’s going to cost you. The University of Exeter, for example, charges £9 250 (about R175 750) in tuition fees per year. This excludes meals, accommodation, local transport, books, stationary and entertainment – this will add at least another £7500 (about R142 500) per year, a conservative estimate by all accounts. I suspect R320 000 per child per year is too much for most parents. Maybe its time for South Africa’s media and social activists to confront higher education’s downward trajectory. After all, they did a wonderful job exposing state capture.

* Mario du Preez and his wife, Deborah, were previously employed as a professor and senior lecturer, respectively, at the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth. Deborah now lectures at the University of Exeter in England, whilst Mario writes for the Western Morning News, a regional newspaper in Southwest England. He also occasionally provides teaching assistance at the University of Exeter.

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